Mark Fidrych tore through the American League like a comet, drawing fans to ballparks with a combination of talent and charisma that has not been seen since the summer of 1976. Opposing general managers regularly called the Tigers asking if “The Bird,” as he was dubbed by a minor league coach for his resemblance to Sesame Street’s Big Bird, was scheduled to pitch in their park. Everyone wanted a piece of him, and given his accommodating personality, nearly everyone got one.
Merely by showing up, Fidrych upstaged the rest of baseball’s royalty at the All-Star Game in Philadelphia, where 63,974 fans packed into Veterans Stadium to see what the fuss was all about. The future seemed limitless for the fun-loving kid from small-town Northboro, Mass., whose zany antics, such as talking to the baseball and manicuring the mound with his hands, often obscured the fact that he was a damn good pitcher. He completed 24 of his 29 starts en route to a 19-9 record and league-best 2.34 ERA, good enough to capture AL Rookie of the Year honors and finish second in the Cy Young race.
His encore season got off to a scary start when he injured his knee shagging a fly ball late in spring training. Disregarding the advice of teammate Rusty Staub, who only moments earlier had counseled him to “slow down,” Fidrych lunged after the ball, landing stiff-legged and tweaking his knee badly enough to require surgery to repair the cartilage. The Tigers—and the rest of baseball—anxiously awaited his late-May return, breathing a sigh of relief when he tossed a complete game in his first start of 1977.
But Fidrych’s luck wouldn’t hold out long. In a start against the Orioles on July 4, he endured a nightmarish sixth inning, surrendering six consecutive hits and an intentional walk with two outs before being pulled from the game. By late July he was back on the DL, this time with a diagnosis of shoulder tendinitis. Though he would battle for another six seasons, the Bird would never soar again.
His entire career, all the highs and lows, are recounted by Doug Wilson in “The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych.” Wilson draws from interviews with dozens of former teammates, coaches, friends and family. The recurring themes: Fidrych wasn’t really the flake he was painted as, but none of what he did was an act. The mannerisms were just his way of channeling his energy and focusing on getting hitters out. He wasn’t talking to the ball so much as he was talking to himself.
Having grown up with what would most likely be classified now as attention deficit disorder (on top of dyslexia), Fidrych had a hard time concentrating on many tasks, particularly those required in school. He repeated both the first and second grades and was never much of a student. But on the mound, he was wise beyond his years and blessed with outstanding control and incredible movement. He was constantly in attack mode, keeping his pitch counts down and allowing him to finish what he started almost every time out.
He did so in front of packed houses that stuck around long after the final out, cheering and calling for the Bird to return and tip his cap. Afterward he would return to his spartanly appointed apartment, where he slept on a mattress on the floor, more like a struggling college student than the most famous baseball player in America. A People magazine story introduced the world to Fidrych’s simple abode, which had no television, no phone, and sheets tacked up over the windows instead of curtains.
Though the apartment might not have been much to look at, it drew fans by the hundreds. They would stop by and ring the doorbell at all hours, looking to party. Local teens hung out in the parking lot waiting by his car. He would stop and talk with them before heading to the ballpark, always seemingly appreciative of their interest and attention.
Right away Fidrych became a huge draw, particularly at Tiger Stadium. On nights he didn’t pitch, the team averaged around 10,000 fans; on nights he did, they occasionally had to turn fans away. Time and again, when asked if he’d like a cut of the gate, Fidrych insisted he was happy making the major league minimum. He eventually got paid, however, signing a multiyear extension before his sophomore season. Never one to spend lavishly, he socked it away, saving for a post-baseball life that came sooner than anyone could have imagined when he was setting the AL on its head in 1976.
Wilson stays with Fidrych through the end of his career and his extended retirement back in Northboro, where he was always Fid, never the Bird. After struggling in Triple-A for several seasons, he finally succumbed to the obvious and returned home to his farm and a part-time job installing swimming pools with a friend. In 1985 he visited Dr. James Andrews, who detected two severe tears in his rotator cuff, finally giving him an explanation for why his arm had suddenly gone south eight years earlier.
Following the birth of his daughter in 1987, Fidrych bought a Mack truck and set up as an independent trucker, hauling gravel and asphalt for local construction projects. He was working on his truck when he was found dead by a friend in April 2009. Apparently his clothing had become entangled in the truck’s power takeoff shaft and he was suffocated. Wilson spends literally just two sentences on his death, which is somehow fitting for a man who was so full of life.
Anyone who remembers the magical summer when the Bird spun gold every time he took the mound will love reliving the stories here. Those who are too young to have experienced Birdmania may have a hard time believing this man really existed. This is a fun book about a regular guy who never changed, even after exploding into a national sensation. The next time the business side of the modern game gets you down, “The Bird” should prove the perfect antidote.
James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.