On a sticky August night in 1976, my father and I gathered with 52,000 others to watch the sixth place California Angels play the fourth place Detroit Tigers in the fabled Tiger Stadium. Right-hander Mark Fidrych went into the game as debatably the most gripping phenom to ever grace baseball, a gangly kid with floppy curls tumbling out from under his cap, a guy who appeared to be talking to the ball before he delivered it. Fidrych was all gesticulations and animation.
He was a cartoon version of the staid, all-business pitcher. Mark Fidrych was the Ramones of hurlers, a real life, straight up blast of fun like no one had encountered.
On that summer evening, Fidrych battled Frank Tanana for 7½ innings, deadlocked 2-2 before catcher Bruce Kimm hit a solo shot to give the Tigers a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the eighth inning. Fidrych walked out and immediately got into trouble, one guy on, an out, another on, another out. The crowd stood to send him over the edge. Fidrych twitched and tweaked. World series loud. Terry Humphries grounded out and the game was over. But it wasn’t. I was ready to get moving, but no one else was. The crowd cheered more and more until Fidrych came out of the dugout for a cap tip, baseball’s version of an encore.
He moved a city that was reeling with traditional urban woes that hit Detroit harder than most others. While New York may have been flirting with bankruptcy the year before, Detroit was pegged as Murder City by Time Magazine in 1973, a horrific city of random violence, killing among friends, and friends killing strangers.
Fidrych was an innocent, a kid from Massachusetts who was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the 232nd round in 1974, after Dale Murphy, Rick Sutcliffe, Lance Parrish and Willie Wilson. Fidrych quit his job at the local gas station, took his $3,000 bonus and headed to minor league camp in Lakeland.
He was, despite his East Coast heritage, a Detroiter from the days of old, a regular guy with little pretense willing to take a chance and do what it takes to get the job done. Fidrcyh was the symbol of what was right in the U.S., an innocent among the coming storm of political and fiscal bullshit that would ride us for almost a decade.
Within two years, he was a starting pitcher for the lowly Tigers, who had only vestiges of its division championship team of 1972. Fidrych began his amazing 1976 season in May.
“The rest of the summer was a love affair between a city and a player,” Wilson writes simply in The Bird, a feel-good book on something that we deserve to feel good about; a good guy doing well, enjoying the ride and appreciating it. A major leaguer today could learn something on almost every page about humility and gratitude.
“Through it all, Mark Fidrych was open and available with everyone—always trying to please,” Wilson notes. “His lack of pretense was appealing compared to the serious athletes who appeared to view the game only as a business. When he told reporters he was happy with what he was making, he was sincere and the public ate it up.”
His only financial concern that summer—when he was paid $16,500.00—was how he would cover postage to answer his fan mail, which he valiantly attempted to do.
“Ten letters a day times 13 cents is a lot of money,” he said.
Fidrych started the All Star Game that summer, won 19 games and led the league with a 2.34 ERA. He was Rookie of the Year in the American League, taking 22 of 24 votes. He finished second to Jim Palmer in Cy Young voting.
His storybook ascent was lauded internationally, the little guy makes good, way too rare even in those days. Then, almost as quickly as his rise, Fidrych’s rosy future derailed. A leg injury, a sore arm and an almost Steve Blass-like freakout combined to end a remarkable story.
So he bought a dump truck, opened a gravel hauling company, worked on his livestock farm and made the rounds of post-baseball celebrity. He also worked as a beverage salesman, among other part time jobs. He got married, had a daughter.
“Sometimes I still daydream about ball, but it’s over,” Fidrych said in 1987. “Sure I cried [when not being able to pitch well anymore] and I used to get depressed. But if you’re depressed, go to Children’s Hospital in Detroit; that’ll get you out of depression.”
Author Wilson devotes the last 90 pages to the post-MLB struggles Fidrych endured, doing an admirable job of telling it straight when a dovetail into dramatic sob story would be alluring to some writers.
That’s perhaps the thing Wilson does best, avoiding drama. The Bird is a baseball book without the frills, a happy story about a happy man.
It would be easy to accuse Wilson of whitewash, as he uses only words of praise, both from himself and others, for his subject.
That’s how the book works, though, by conveying what Fidrych represented.
Fidrych died in 2009, fittingly while working on his dump truck. A piece of his clothing got caught in a rotary part, choking him. He was 54.
He left an uplifting story that we won’t see again, one in which a guy gracefully touched the sky of celebrity with honor, and just as easily slid back into real life with ease. The Bird is a kind reminder of where we came from as baseball fans and as people.
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