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It has been a dire day for baseball. On Monday afternoon, we
learned of the passing of beloved broadcaster Harry Kalas. A few hours later
came news of the death of an equally cherished figure, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych,
who became the game’s pied piper in 1976.
I first experienced the wonder of Mark Fidrych on a Monday
night in late June that summer. Prior to that game, I had seen only snippets of
Fidrych’s antics on local sportscasts and read tidbits about him in the New York newspapers. Beyond that, I didn’t know much
about Fidrych. There was no ESPN or MLB Network around to provide continuous
highlights or in-depth analysis about what this strange-looking rookie was
doing during his tour of American League cities.
Prior to Fidrych’s arrival on the major league scene in
1976, pitchers usually showed little emotion on the mound. They restrained
themselves from exhibiting much body language, instead approaching the job of
pitching in a businesslike manner.
On June 28, ABC chose to broadcast the Tigers-Yankees
matchup as its featured game on “Monday Night Baseball.” With the old Tiger
Stadium providing the backdrop, Fidrych showed the country his way of doing
things. He “manicured” the mound by combing over the dirt with his hands,
fixing cleat marks along the way. When one of his infielders made a great
defensive play behind him, Fidrych applauded loudly, congratulating his
teammate. After recording the third out of each inning, Fidrych didn’t walk off
the mound, but ran as if he were in the midst of a 40-yard dash, usually
engaging in a full sprint before coming to a sudden halt at the Tigers’ dugout.
There was also an element of superstition in his running. On the way back to
the dugout, he jumped over the chalk baselines so as to avoid stepping on the
And, oh by the way, Fidrych talked to the baseball. He felt
that by conversing with the ball he could better control the pitch and make it
move in the way that he wanted. Fidrych felt every baseball possessed a kind of
karma. Once a batter reached safely with a hit, Fidrych asked the umpire to
throw out the ball and give him another. He felt the old ball still had hits in
it and needed to mix with other baseballs so that it would “right itself.”
All of these on-field mannerisms overshadowed Fidrych’s pitching that night. Throwing a sinking fastball clocked at 93 miles per hour, Fidych scattered seven hits in putting the clamps to the Yankees, 5-1, before an appreciative Tiger Stadium crowd.
As with most colorful characters, Fidrych came equipped with
a nickname. Fidrych’s on-field antics, assisted by his physical appearance,
earned him the nickname “The Bird.” Thin and gangly with a head full of curly
hair, Fidrych looked a little like the Sesame Street character, “Big Bird.”
Fidrych’s unusual look fully accentuated his on-the-field histrionics, giving
him a loveable goofiness that fans adored.
Fidrych became so popular during the 1976 season that one of
opponents held a special promotion marketed around the Tigers’ right-hander.
The California Angels hosted “Mark Fidrych Day” at Anaheim Stadium, giving
thousands of fans a chance to obtain the gawky right-hander’s autograph at no
In addition to adoring his on-field antics, fans appreciated
Fidrych for his down-home qualities. At a time when major league players began
to draw criticism for escalating salaries, Fidrych showed little interest in
material reward. He drove a green subcompact car to the ballpark, usually wore
old blue jeans, and told fans that if he didn’t have the ability to pitch, he’d
spend his time pumping gas at a filling station in Northborough, Massachusetts.
Unfortunately, Fidrych would be forced to return to a more
routine lifestyle sooner than he would have expected. During spring training in
1977, Fidrych hurt his arm while shagging fly balls in the outfield. The
injury, which turned out to be a rotator cuff tear, sidelined him for most of
the next three seasons, never allowing him to return to his previous form. By the
end of the 1980 season, he was out of a major league job. To the surprise of no
one who knew him, Fidrych became a commercial trucker after his playing days
and settled down to live on a 107-acre farm in Northborough.
It was on that farm that Fidrych was doing some work on
Monday. A family friend came by his house, discovering his body under a dump
truck, which Fidrych was trying to repair. The truck had apparently collapsed
on Fidrych, claiming his life at the age of 54.
Mark Fidrych should have lived longer, just like he should
have pitched longer. That’s the sad part of the story. But he managed to create
more memories than any player who lasted a mere five seasons in the majors. And
he lived more vibrantly than most of us could do given twice the time he had.
That’s a lesson we should all remember whenever we think of