He was one of the greatest breaths of fresh air in baseball history, a bundle of joy on the mound, who featured quirks never seen before–or since–when throwing, and Mark Fidrych overnight became one of the game’s most popular players.
In a glorious summer of innocence, the Detroit Tigers pitcher from nowhere took the sport by storm, going 19-9 and winning the American League rookie of the year award in 1976. Performance was only part of the reason why fans fell in love. Fidrych endearingly seemed to be talking to the baseball before he threw it, engaged sportswriters in enjoyable banter, waved to the crowd, ran all out everywhere, and pumped the hands of his fielders when they made big plays.
Fidrych was all energy in body language, all desire in determination to win, and spontaneous and fun-loving when he wasn’t mowing down opposing batters. He became an instant sensation, with fans at home and road games streaming into ballparks to watch the young, curly-haired phenom do his stuff.
He was tall and gangly with wild blonde hair and someone nicknamed him “The Bird,” as in Big Bird on Sesame Street, and it fit. He was 6-foot-3 and 175 pounds, but could whip his fastball past more burly men with ease. In terms of the pleasure that he took from playing the game Fidrych was like a Little Leaguer transplanted. There was no guile to him, only unbridled excitement at being in the big time.
If you were not old enough to experience the Bird phenomenon first-hand, it is difficult to illustrate just how firm a grip he had on American society’s consciousness in 1976. However, Doug Wilson, an author from Indiana, captures both the essence of Fidrych, his good nature, and his impact on baseball and the country in a recently published book called, “The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych.”
The story of Mark Fidrych is ultimately not only a story of triumph, but alas, tragedy, too. A gentle soul who never lost sight of his good fortune, Fidrych was on top of the world after one season of play, but an arm injury truncated his career drastically. And then, content with life after baseball in the Central Massachusetts area where he grew up, Fidrych was killed at age 54 in 2009 while working on a truck.
In this excellently reported work, Wilson sheds much light on Fidrych the person, the man behind the popular image, and what comes through, on all fronts, from all of those who knew the former Tiger pitcher, is how unencumbered by bitterness or regret he was despite a career that only lasted four years in the majors.
Fidrych experienced one of the greatest one-year glory rides in baseball history and then had everything yanked away from him. He was retired by 1980, his arm refusing to cooperate after two All-Star game selections, and he became a farmer. Although never again approaching the level of national attention he gained as a player, Fidrych was forevermore active working for charities, and became a different type of hero to the many he helped.
This volume is very much the most detailed and revealing work on Fidrych and Wilson said he came to the topic with an overriding thought.
“I wanted to write about the good things in baseball,” he said. “The good guys. There has really been nothing like the Fidrych phenomenon.”
The closest thing to the way an entire nation abruptly embraced a rookie ball player was the arrival of Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela on the scene in 1981. However, that was also a season interrupted by a labor action, so something was lost.
Wilson lightly compares the explosion of fascination with Fidrych to the NBA’s recent lovefest with former New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin, termed “Linsanity.” “Fidrych makes Linsanity look like church bingo,” Wilson said.
Without Fidrych as a primary source because of his untimely death, Wilson relied heavily on interviews with the player’s former coaches and oldest friends. The portrait is of a young man thrust into fame who thrived on it, but never got a swelled head because of it.
“The more people I talked to…everybody within five minutes basically just said he’s the greatest guy they ever met,” Wilson said. “That’s something that people (baseball fans) needed to hear.”
Unfortunately, Wilson also concluded that it is unlikely we will ever experience a true second coming of The Bird. Fidrych pitched 11-inning complete games. Pitch counts would disqualify that. His funny gestures would not be given time to grow on people–he would be all over social media by his second inning.
Fidrych had greatness in his arm, lost his gift, but never lost his sense of perspective. It is clear in the book that The Bird was a better person than he was a pitcher.
“He was happy with what he had,” Wilson said.