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Nearly 40 years have passed since Mark “The Bird” Fidrych became a national sensation during his magical rookie season in 1976. Yet he remains one of the most popular and iconic figures in the history of baseball, a sport which has had its share of memorable characters.
The lanky kid from Northboro, Mass. with long, curly blond hair resonated with people for reasons beyond his goofy antics, such as getting on his knees and grooming the pitcher's mound by hand and talking to the baseball as he eyed home plate (though, as author Doug Wilson points out in this very fine biography, The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych, it's questionable how much Fidrych really talked to the ball as opposed to just talking to himself).
The beauty of Wilson's biography is its tone.
It hits the sweet spot for such a luminary figure, serving up an appreciation to satisfy baseball romantics without being overly sentimental. Through Wilson's writing, the reader learns the difference between The Bird — Fidrych's media-generated alter ego, named after Sesame Street's Big Bird — and just plain Fid, the unpretentious guy in blue jeans who epitomized small town life.
Fidrych's boyhood passion for the game never waned, even after his career was cut short, and he wasn't nearly the flake some writers portrayed him to be.
Wilson shows Fidrych's genuine affection for kids. The pitcher visited hospitals without seeking publicity and paid to have thousands of coloring books based on his 1976 season made at his own expense so he could pass them out for free and get more smiles.
Fidrych came on the scene during America's bicentennial, not long after the war in Vietnam ended and scars of '60s social movements were still felt. During 1976 and a short time thereafter, The Bird was a bigger draw than any player, past or present. He was the first athlete on the cover of Rolling Stone.
“Babe Ruth didn't cause that much excitement in his brightest day,” former Chicago White Sox manager Paul Richards said during Fidrych's rookie season. Richards, the oldest manager in the majors at the time, began his career in 1932 and was one of the few active men in baseball back then who’d actually seen Ruth play.
The Bird’s 19-9 record, league-leading 2.34 ERA, and AL Rookie of the Year honors in 1976 don't do justice to his impact.
People loved his enthusiasm, his eagerness to shake hands and congratulate players — even umpires, groundskeepers, and cops. They loved that this guy, during the era in which salaries began to escalate, didn't have an agent, that he was happy with a paltry $16,000 salary, and that he slept in a nondescript apartment with no curtains, no television, no phone, and only a mattress on the floor. He joked about how his dishes never really stacked up because he had only four.
He often threw balls back to umpires after an opposing hitter had successfully reached base with a hit.
“That ball has a hit in it,” he'd explain. “I want that ball to get back in the ball bag and goof around with the other balls. I want him to talk to the other balls. I want the other balls to beat him up. Maybe that'll smarten him up so when he comes out the next time, he'll pop up.”
He quipped that the only time the ball ever talked back to him was when it was going over the fence and it “yells back to me that I shouldn't have thrown that pitch.”
Baseball mourned the loss of Fidrych as he tore his knee and began having serious arm troubles early in his second season. He never was the same despite repeated comeback attempts.
It mourned the loss of him as a person when he was found dead beneath his truck in 2009, his shirt accidentally caught in one of the truck's moving parts as he was working on the vehicle. He was only 54.
Fidrych’s life was a blessing and a tragedy. He later learned he had a type of arm injury — a rotator cuff torn in two places — that could have been repaired and kept him on the mound if sports medicine was as advanced then as it is now. He harbored no bitterness, happy that baseball provided him the money he wanted to buy a farm and truck. Current Tigers manager Jim Leyland grew close to Fidrych when he was a manager in the Tiger farm system, trying to help The Bird return to the majors.
One of the most heartwarming moments at old Tiger Stadium was a reunion on the field of former players moments after the final game there ended in 1999. The team chose Fidrych as the first to emerge from center field and get the fans on their feet. The Bird sprinted to the mound, groomed it, and put some of its dirt in his pocket.
Contact Tom Henry at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6079.
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