Mark Fidrych

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Mark Fidrych

Mark "The Bird" Fidrych (1954-2009) was a baseball pitcher for the Detroit Tigers during the mid-1970s, gaining fame in his first year as a starter by having a 19-9 win/loss record, leading the league in ERA (2.34) and complete games (24), voted as American League Rookie of the Year for 1976, and packing stadiums to full capacity as everyone wanted to see his antics on the field.

Early life

Mark Fidrych was born August 14, 1954 in Northboro, Massachusetts, the son of a high school assistant principal. He played his baseball at the schools he attended, and in 1974 was selected in the tenth round of the amateur draft by the Detroit Tigers, in which he stayed for two years in the minors; one of his pitching coaches gave him his nickname "the Bird" after he saw similarities between his lanky pitcher and the "Big Bird" character on the television show Sesame Street.

Major leagues

On May 15, 1976, Fidrych got his first start against the Cleveland Indians, pitching six scoreless innings, giving up a single in the seventh...and talking to himself or the baseball, arranging the mound every innning with his hands, and strutting about the infield after every strikeout. The Tigers won that game, 2-1, but the growing talk of Detroit was Fidrych and his personality. Between May 25 and June 5, Fidriych played - and won - against the Boston Red Sox, Milwaukee Brewers, and Texas Rangers. of which the last two were complete games pitched 11 innings.

From June 11 to 24, the Tigers started Fidrych against the Rangers - where he bested opposing pitcher Nolan Ryan - the Kansas City Royals, the Minnesota Twins, and the Red Sox, where the Bird posted another complete game. Already, "Bird-mania" had taken hold, with fans filling the stadiums to see the guy who "manicured the mound" and talked to the baseball; he would also curse the baseball - as if the baseball itself made a wrong decision - every time a batter got a base hit or a home run. He would aim the baseball like a dart. He would stop a game and have the fans laugh as he went after the bubble gum wrapper that blew across the diamond. And he sometimes interrupted the umpire to toss an errant baseball to him, with the excuse "That ball had a hit in it, so I want to get it back in the ball bag and goof around with the other balls there. Maybe it'll learn some sense and come out as a popup next time." [2] But his own professional start was phenominal; the Tigers manager at the time was Ralph Houk, who couldn't believe what he was seeing. "In all my years in baseball, I've never seen anything like it. I don't think even Walter Johnson started this fast." [3]

Fidrych "manicuring the mound"
Fidrych, here signing autographs in Anaheim, had legions of fans everywhere he went. "There's an electricity he brings out in everybody. Everyone can see the enthusiasm in Mark. He brings out the exuberance and youth in everybody," said fellow Tiger Rusty Staub [1]
Fidrych and Randy Jones of the San Diego Padres, the starting pitchers for the 1976 All Star Game; Fidrych's wide grin reflects the fun he had all season long.

On national television, June 28, 1976 the Yankees were at Tiger Stadium before a crowd of 47,855, and the Bird didn't disappoint. "That's not a member of the Detroit ground crew," shouted Warner Wolf of ABC's Monday Night Baseball as the country saw for the first time the gangly mop-topped kid arranging the mound. [4] The Tigers won 5-1 in a game barely lasting two hours as the country watched the antics of the Bird, with fans in the stadium refusing to leave after the game was over unless and until the Bird popped out and tipped his cap, doing so after his teammates pushed him out. Teammate Rusty Staub said of Fidrych "There's an electricity that he brings out in everyone, the players and the fans. He's different. He's a 21-year-old kid with a great enthusiasm that everyone loves. He has an inner youth, an exuberance." [5]

The day before the nation's Bicentennial, the Bird shut out the Baltimore Orioles 4-0, giving up just four hits in front of over 51,000 fans at a sold-out Tiger Stadium, which was also sold out in a 1-0 loss to the Royals on July 9, Fidrych going for nine innings while giving up one run. On July 13, he was selected as the first rookie in major league history to start the All Star Game, despite losing to the National League stars 7-1. [6]

Players, reporters, critics referred to him as a "flake". "He's not as flaky as they say," said manager Ralph Houk. "When he's on the mound, he doesn't know there's anyone else around. He talks to himself to help his concentration. And as a rule, we play good in the field behind him. Players like to play behind a guy who throws strikes." And during 1976, it was other teams that called the Tigers' front desk, asking the organization to rearrange the schedule so that the Bird would play before their fans whenever the Tigers came to their towns. [7]

And his antics never stopped with the end of the game. His teammates would gat a laugh or two as they watched him looking for the forgotten dime in the catchboxes of every pay phone they walked by. If he was rejected by the bouncer at the bar for no I.D., he would grab the others' I.D.s and use them - it didn't matter a bit whether or not he looked like them. Or he would spit tobacco juice on his shirt; "I wanted the guys to know I chewed," he said [8]. He wore jeans instead of suits, wore-out sneakers and T-shirts; he didn't worry about the dishes in his kitchen piling up, as he had only four of them.

During the remainder of July, the Tigers won four of five games in which Fidrych started, including a memorable one in Minneapolis on the 20th in which the Twins released 13 pigeons in "honor" of the Bird's 13th start, in which Fidrych and the Tigers thought was meant to blow his concentration. The Tigers won that game anyway, 8-3.

The remainder of the 1976 season had the Bird getting six more wins against the Indians, Rangers, White Sox, Yankees, and the Brewers, to sell-out crowds. "Bird-Mania" was limited to the presence of the Bird playing; without him fan attendance was below average. On September 22, only 3,616 fans showed up at Tiger Stadium to watch the Indian beat the Tigers, 3-0...without the Bird on the mound.

After '76

Detoit fans expected another season with the Bird, and Fidrych seemingly wasn't going to disappoint them, but acting like his usual self during spring training in 1977 resulted in torn cartilage in one knee [9]. After his injury had healed some weeks later, he felt something more ominous in a game against the Orioles: a shoulder injury which curtailed his pitching and limiting him to ten games during the season, and managing to win six. His shoulder injury kept him from playing at all during the remainder of his time with the Tigers, and he was released as a free agent in 1981. He attempted a comeback of sorts while on a minor-league team for the Boston Red Sox, but the injury - diagnosed only in 1985 as a torn rotator cuff [10] - forced his retirement for good in 1983.

Despite this, Fidrych was a cheerful as ever. Jim Palmer, a pitcher for the Orioles who was selected in 1976 for the Cy Young Award over the Bird, remarked later on a small event they had together on a golf course. “He did embrace life. I remember him trying to play golf when he couldn’t play golf and enjoying every minute of it.” [11]

Retirement and death

The Bird retired to his hometown of Foxboro, Massachusetts, working on a farm and business he owned, happily married to his wife Ann, and raising his daughter Jessica. In a 1985 interview [12] he explained what he did on the ballfield and why: his adjusting the mound had more to do with maintaining his own stance and position while pitching; he didn't like stepping in some other pitcher's hole, he explained. His "talking to the ball" was, in reality, a verbal set of instructions to himself, helping him maintain focus just before he sent fastballs across the plate.

Mark Fidrych died April 13, 2009, apparently the victim of an accident while working under a dump truck on his farm.