It could be said that Mark Fidrych had the briefest, most spectacular pitching career in the history of baseball. He was 21 when he made the roster of the Detroit Tigers in 1976. He did not make his first start until May 15th that year, and then only because the starting pitcher was out with the flu. Mark threw seven innings of 2 hit ball, winning the game 2-1. The baseball world didn’t yet know it, but they were witnessing the beginning of a phenomenon; a Supernova flashing across the scene of the National Pastime.
Mark, who was given the moniker of “The Bird” due to his resemblance to the cartoon character from Sesame Street, began quickly to delight the fans with his quirky mannerisms on the mound. He would crouch down and start grounds-keeping the area, fixing, manicuring the marks left by his cleats, at the same time talking to himself, talking to the ball, aiming the ball at the plate as if he was playing a game of darts. Then, after an out, he would start prancing around the ground. In the same manner that Pete Browning would stop using bats after the magical amount of hits were used up, the Bird would throw back balls to the ump if he believed that they “had hits in them.” Of course, these eccentric activities would have been little less than irritants if he were regularly getting shelled, but the fact was “The Bird” was spectacular on the mound, and soon began attracting his own coterie of fans, who called themselves “Bird Watchers.” Mark’s unusual antics, as well as his vulnerability, started attracting women, many of whom had never before been fans of the games. For a brief moment in time, all of baseball was riveted on his extensible pitching rotation, his exuberance on the field after a nice play, the way he would dance out across the field to congratulate his teammates, the ecstatic gyrations, in fact, all those things that staid modern ball players just don’t do any more while playing the game of Rounders.
Fidrych was becoming the hottest ticket on the baseball circuit, filling seats both at home and on the road. In his 18 appearances at Tiger Stadium, the attendance was approximately equal to the total figures for the 62 remaining games. Home fans began chanting “We want the Bird” at the end of each of his home victories. These crowds would stay for hours, never wanting to leave; neither, apparently, did Mark. He would come out to take curtain calls, and then continue until the last fan had left the field in order to sign autographs, never refusing to shake anyone’s hand, never asking a nickel for his signature. After a nationally televised game against the Yankees towards the end of June, in which he blew them away 5-1 while filling the time in between batters with his “Bird” antics, Mark officially became a national celebrity. Fidrych started appearing on the covers of numerous magazines, including Sports Illustrated (with Big Bird, of course), Sporting News, and even on the cover of Rolling Stone.
The whirlwind season continued. Mark was the starting pitcher in the All Star Game. In a matchup in late July against Minnesota, the Twins released 13 homing pigeons on the mound before the start of the action. Fidrych, claiming that they were trying to blow his concentration, was able to focus well enough to pick up his 11th win, 8-3. Once, pitching against the Indians, Rico Carty was quite upset, claiming that the Bird was trying to hypnotize him. Bill James quotes Graig Nettles describing an at-bat on another occasion against Fidrych, who, as usual, was talking to the ball before pitching to Nettles. Immediately Graig jumped out of the batter’s box and started talking to the bat. He reportedly said, “Never mind what he says to the ball. You just hit it over the outfield fence!” Nettles struck out. “Damn,” he said. “Japanese bat. Doesn’t understand a word of English.”
By the time the dust had settled, Fidrych’s record was 19-9, with a 2.34 ERA and 24 complete games (both figures 1st in the American league). He won the Rookie of the Year Award, and was second in the Cy Young Voting, with Jim Palmer finishing first. He also finished 1st in Adjusted ERA, 3rd in WHIP, 4th in Wins, 4th in Win % (.679), and 5th in shutouts.
In 1977 Fidrych tore cartilage in his knee in spring training. He seemed to recover from this injury, but while pitching in a game about two months later, he felt his arm, in his own words, “go dead.” The injury was a torn rotator cuff, but it would not be diagnosed until almost a decade later, well after Mark had retired from the game. At any rate, there was no medical procedure at that time that could have fixed the injury. He tried to revive his career for several years, but was unsuccessful doing so. On July 26th of ‘77, with 50,000 fans at Tiger Stadium, all of them there because of him, all of them praying that the pitching gods would bequeath to him his form from the preceding season, Fidrych gave it his best, but the arm wasn’t working any more. He was replaced by a hot rookie prospect, Jack Morris. It was virtually over.
For several years he pitched in the minor leagues. He still had that energy, that innocence; still talking to the ball, circling the mound. The Bird always brought a smile to all that saw him pitch.
Despite the crushing blow to a promising career, Fidrych always referred to himself as being very lucky. In retrospect, we were just as lucky as Mark. The Bird came around just as us fans were beginning to deal with the cynicism that comes with free agency; with the perception that ball-players had no loyalty to their teams, that they would sell their souls to the highest bidder. We could see the purity of his love of the game in front of our eyes. The same exuberance that anomalistic players from Baseball’s genesis had shown us, such as The Diz, The Rube, Rabbit Maranville, Pete Browning; for all of these players of yore, baseball was life itself. And so it was with Mark.
On April 13, 2009, The Bird was the victim of a tragic accident; he had apparently suffocated after his clothing became entangled with a spinning shaft on his 10-wheeled dump truck. Ironically, this was the same day as Harry Kalas, the Hall of Fame Sportscaster, passed away with his boots on, suffering a heart attack while preparing to announce a Philadelphia Phillies’ game. I recall participating in Grey’s blog that day, and all of us were stunned by the loss of these icons of the game.
On June 19, 2009, Jessica Fidrych honored her father at Comerica Park by throwing out the ceremonial first pitch to manager Jim Leyland for the Tigers game against the Milwaukee Brewers. Prior to throwing the first pitch, Jessica “manicured the mound” just like her father.