Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Go, Bird, Go!

I'm taking a page from the good doctor and telling you all about someone very important to Detroit who died yesterday. I'm talking about Mark "The Bird" Fidrych. He was the personification of joy and ebullience back in 1976 when he was The Rookie of Major League Baseball. If you never heard about The Bird, then you are missing out.

He was the reason I became interested in baseball. He was known for his quirkiness – talking to himself with the ball close to his mouth so it was generally accepted that he talked to the ball, grooming the mound with his bare hands between pitches, *running* to the mound, refusing to step on the white line. Stories are told that in the minors when the centerfielder would make a great catch, Mark would run out to centerfield to high five the centerfielder (or slap him on the back or in some other way thank him). Tigers management had to explain to him that that was not acceptable in the majors. Too bad, really. I would have loved to have seen him do it at Tiger Stadium.

The Tigers sucked in 1976 (they lost 103 games), but he won 19 games! He started the All-Star game. He went 7 innings on Opening Day. He pitched SIX complete games in a row (probably a good reason why his career flamed out so quickly as in 1977 he had shoulder and knee issues).

While he was an instantaneous star in Detroit from Opening Day, the nation didn't discover him until he took down the mighty Yankees during a nationally broadcast game on Monday Night Baseball in June. It didn't matter where he went that season, games sold out. Somebody told me earlier today that they remember when the team went to KC that summer, he wasn't scheduled to pitch, but they put an autograph table out there at 3rd base and he signed autographs for as long as the fans wanted…REMEMBER: this was NOT in Detroit. Unlike the high-priced ball players of today he never ever charged for appearances or autographs. And in his rookie year he made the league minimum - $16,500. However, the Tigers did give him a bonus of $25,000 at the end of his rookie season. They then signed him to a three-year contract worth $255,000 – not really an impressive sum of money when you think what players are paid now. It's sad how people like Mark Fidrych and Gordie Howe struggle to make ends meet when players in this day and age could retire after one friggin' year. (Sorry for the editorialising.)

He even had his own song here in Detroit – "The Bird is the Word" by the Trashmen. His picture was on every t-shirt in Detroit, to say nothing of the Sports Illustrated covers - with Big Bird (for whom he was nicknamed) and one from 1978 – even 30+ years ago SI sucked in knowing what was important – freaking Rookie of the Year in 1976 and they don't put him on the cover until he was already hurt in 1977.

Everybody who ever had the opportunity to meet The Bird only has good things to say about him – how friendly he was, how he would talk to anybody, especially about baseball, he'd sign anything, and how much he loved life. The quintessential story about Mark is how he said one time that if he hadn't made it in baseball at all, he would have been happy pumping gas back in Massachusetts. And after his short-lived baseball career was over, he went back to Massachusetts where he drove trucks and had a farm.

He was found yesterday dead under his dump truck, apparently, the truck slipped off its jack and crushed him. A friend found him. His career as a Detroit Tiger was over much too soon, as was his life. My prayers and thoughts to his wife and his daughter.

Here are a couple of good columns about Detroit's most beloved Tiger of all time:

From the Detroit News, about his serious side.

This story by Joe Lapointe of the NYT is one of the best. It takes registration at NYT, but it's free and it's worth it.

And while I'm mad at MLB.com right now (all their official merchandise is made in China), they have a tribute page.

Another blogger has written his own very personal tribute about what Mark meant to him.

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At Tuesday, 14 April, 2009, Blogger Evil Twin's Wife said...

I've heard the song by the Trashmen, but had no idea it was based on a person. I also had never heard of him. Thanks for a moving tribute and giving an outsider a glimpse into is life and what he meant to you all.ad

At Tuesday, 14 April, 2009, Blogger Kathleen said...

ETW - Actually, I believe the song came first by about 13 years...it was just used for The Bird. You never heard of The Bird??? Hmm, you must be too young or not a baseball fan. Thanks, it was my first real attempt at emulating Dr. Sardonicus.

At Tuesday, 14 April, 2009, Blogger Red said...

I thanked Dave for blogging about it and a thank you too. I read it and was going to write soemthing but I have just been busy!

You did a real nice job and great links too.

At Tuesday, 14 April, 2009, Blogger LL said...

Softie... ;)

I don't remember him either, but alas... didn't get a lot of baseball coverage out in these parts.

At Tuesday, 14 April, 2009, Blogger Kathleen said...

LL - Oh, I'm a wuss w/o a doubt. I was reading the paper this morning at work and crying when a supervisor came up. He was stunned that I was crying about Mark Fidrych, so I said, "I'm a wuss, Marty." He said, "I guess so."

At Wednesday, 15 April, 2009, Blogger dr sardonicus said...

I can't top this. I especially appreciate the hometown perspective you have of Fidrych's career. I saw him pitch on TV a couple times, and heard all the stories, but living in a National League city, his career didn't have quite as much of an impact.

Fidrych pitched 24 complete games in 29 starts in 1976, and that probably doomed his career. They don't do that to pitchers any more - certainly not rookies. The Tigers were pathetic in the late 70's, and manager Ralph Houk didn't have much of anybody else on the pitching staff.

Rest in peace, Bird.

At Wednesday, 15 April, 2009, Blogger Rick said...

There's a great mid-80s feature on Fidrych up on YouTube right now. I saw it on baseballprospectus.com, and they got it from Rob Neyer at ESPN. Very much worth a watch:


At Wednesday, 15 April, 2009, Blogger Kathleen said...

Dr - Thanks, I'll consider that high praise considering how well your tributes are always written.

Red - Thanks! Can't wait to watch it.

At Wednesday, 15 April, 2009, Blogger fermicat said...

I enjoyed NPR's story on him. It took me right back to the 70s and I could feel the excitement and joy.

At Wednesday, 15 April, 2009, Blogger Kathleen said...

Fermi - Oooh! I missed that one...I'll have to search for that one. The city was electrifying that summer. Considering the state of Detroit back then, it was a much more innocent time. He brought such joy to the city.


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