April 13, 2009


Former Tiger, Rookie of the Year Fidrych found dead at 54 (CBSSports.com, 4/13/09)

Former All-Star pitcher Mark "The Bird" Fidrych has been found dead in an apparent accident at his farm in Northborough, Mass. He was 54.

Worcester County district attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. says a family friend found Fidrych about 2:30 p.m. Monday beneath a pickup truck. He appeared to be working on the truck, Early said.

-Cuckoo Over A Rara Avis: Rookie righthander Mark (The Bird) Fidrych has sent the spirits of Tiger fans winging with his youthful eccentricities and a 9-1 record
Jerry Green, 7/12/76, Sports Illustrated)

A strange Bird with flamingo legs, a sparrow's countenance and Harpo Marx plumage stood on the mound and talked to the baseball:

"Flow, gotta flow now, gotta flow.

"C'mon, gotta keep down. Let it fly."

The soliloquy was accompanied by wing-flapping gyrations. When it concluded, the Bird did a double knee bend. He pitched. The batter swung at the fastball and missed.

"Great pitch, way to flow, in the groove," the Bird said to the ball when he got it back.

So it went far into the night, and when the game was over, 47,855 human beings stood and shrieked in unison, "We want the Bird! We want the Bird! We want the Bird!"

So the Bird came mincing out of the dugout in his stocking feet. He took off his cap and waved it. He waved it again. He blew kisses to the multitudes, and he bowed and nodded. Then he bird-stepped back to the clubhouse.

This all actually happened. There is no fiction about the Bird, the Tigers' rookie righthander whose real name is Mark Fidrych. This scene occurred early last week after he defeated the first-place Yankees 5-1, but there was as much excitement five days later when 51,032 showed up to see Fidrych shut out Baltimore for his ninth win in 10 big-league starts. Detroit, a city of sports deprivation, vibrated the way it had not since the days of Denny McLain. Donald Shoemaker of nearby Warren even named his newborn son Mark Fidrych Shoemaker.

-'he's Not A Bird, He's A Human' (Ron Fimrite, 4/11/77, Sports Illustrated)
While shagging flies at the Tigers' Florida training camp on March 21, Mark Fidrych, baseball's most refreshing performer last year, tore cartilage in his left knee. Ten days later he underwent corrective surgery and is expected to be out of action until June. But Bird watchers need not despair. Fidrych was a late bloomer in 1976, too, and ended up winning 19 games. [...]

Mark Fidrych is lying carelessly on a couch in his one-bedroom apartment in the Detroit suburb of Belleville. He is a lanky 6'3". 175 pounds and so eternally restless that he looks as uncomfortable in repose as someone bound and gagged. He is wearing his uniform—blue jeans, a T shirt with FLEETWOOD DINER written across the front and no shoes. Above his quizzical young face, curly blond hair rises in a coiffure accurately likened to Harpo Marx's. Fidrych always looks as if he is about to ask, "How come?"

A rerun of I Love Lucy is on television, an episode filmed about the time Fidrych was born. He is eating strawberry yogurt in great unhappy gulps, glancing nervously out a window at a view of unrelieved snow-white nothingness. The lake where he keeps his boat is frozen solid, a marble corridor into the void. Fidrych rises to switch off the antic figures on television and replace their considerable noise with the even more clamorous sounds of Led Zeppelin on his stereo. A huge stuffed owl perches menacingly atop one of the speakers, a gift from some misguided fan. Everybody sends the Bird birds. They peer out at him from every cranny of the small apartment, monsters his celebrity has created. Nevermore. Nevermore.

"I don't like being in the city," he says, explaining his flight to suburban Belleville. "Action? Naw, all I'm lookin' for mainly is to play pool and the pinball machines and, maybe, dance. I don't care what kind of people I'm around as long as I'm havin' a good time. The guy that owns me [ Detroit Tigers owner John Fetzer] took me to L.A. in December for the baseball meetings. He wanted to educate me. So all I see there is guys, and all they're doin' is talkin' about baseball. Baseball, baseball, baseball. Night and day. That ain't for me. Those guys live and die baseball. My dad would probably enjoy that. He always reads sports and stuff, doesn't go to bars every night like a lot of others. Me, I just wanna goof around. But these guys are askin' me, what d'ya think of this and that? Hey, I say, I don't know. I'm just playin'.

"I've met Elton John and the Beach Boys. That was a thrill to me. Out in L.A. I got to meet Cary Grant, Monty Hall, Don Rickles and Frank Sinatra. That's more for my folks. I mean, what am I supposed to say to Frank Sinatra: 'Hi there, Old Blue Eyes'?"

The Bird Flaps Again And Doesn't Flop: In his first 1977 appearance, Detroit's Mark Fidrych drew 44,207 fans. Although he lost, he showed he's still baseball's most winsome player (Peter Gammons, 6/06/77, Sports Illustrated)
Almost unnoticed amid the hoopla was the fact that Fidrych had proved in his first appearance that the knee he had injured in spring training was sound, that he was the same emu who in four months last year had rocketed from a spring training nobody to baseball's Elton John. He had pitched nine strong innings. The two Mariner runs were the result of a dropped fly ball, a bloop double and an error. "I feel like I let the people down by losing," said Fidrych. "But, boy, I'm happy to be back. It felt fine, so fine. When I started warming up and heard all those cheers, I felt tingly and got half-tears in my eyes. Lemme tell you, I felt good."

But from March 21, when he tore cartilage in his left knee shagging flies in Lakeland, Fla., until last Friday, the Bird had not always felt good. On March 31 he was rushed back to Detroit for an operation. During the next two weeks, except for daily visits to the hospital, he could do nothing but sit around his apartment. "I was going nuts," Fidrych says. "Everything I do revolves around playing baseball." In mid-April he started jogging. "By then I'd learned to kill time better," says the Bird. "I started riding my two motorcycles. When I'm on them, I just think of happiness." By the end of April he was throwing batting practice. "He's so young and eager," says Tiger Manager Ralph Houk, "but we wanted to bring him back slowly, so that the first time he started, he'd be ready to go nine."

On May 11, in front of nine cops, 16 Minnesota Twins and 29 members of the concessions and ground crews, the Bird pitched a mock game against a batting order consisting of Tiger substitutes. On a trip two weeks ago—during which he almost gave Houk a heart attack by trying to lift a car that had gotten its bumper locked with the Tigers' bus in Dallas—Fidrych pitched an exhibition game in Cincinnati. He allowed four hits and a run in seven innings. He was, at last, pronounced ready.

By that time, the Bird had become itchy and testy. "He kept telling me he was ready," says Houk. "I sure wanted to pitch," says Fidrych, "but it's probably good the doctors didn't listen to what came out of my head." He had shouted at a reporter in Texas and had demanded in Cincinnati that no one mention his knee again. And it did not help that the Bird's return, which, it had been speculated, would occur during the middle of last week, was finally scheduled for Friday. There were two good reasons for that: first, he would not have to face California's Nolan Ryan or Frank Tanana, Detroit's opponents on Tuesday and Wednesday; and, second, Friday night crowds in Detroit are twice as big as those on mid-week evenings. The Tigers could be excused for making the shift, though some local reporters accused the club of "exploitation." Because six of Fidrych's 10 missed starts would have been at home, the Detroit front office figures his sore knee cost nearly $500,000 in gate receipts.

-The Bird Fell To Earth: For one fairy-tale year, Mark Fidrych was king of baseball, but the reign ended far too soon (Gary Smith, 4/07/86, Sports Illustrated)
At 5:50 a.m. the alarm clock rings, and the dream he has started having recently—the one in which he keeps throwing strike after strike after strike; no crowd, no cameras, no reporters, just he and his body back in that sweet sweaty rut—comes to an end. Sasha, his ancient black mutt, lifts her grizzled face from the single bed they share and blinks.

He pulls on his long Johns, tattered jeans, boots, red flannel jacket and the blue denim jacket with four rips on the right sleeve, then plops an old brown hat on his head of tangled hair. There are three puncture marks on his right shoulder, a little wariness in his brown eyes and the frailest footprints of crow around his eyes, but the face is still young and the dirty blond curls still fall around it.

Yella, the half St. Bernard, half collie evicted from the single bed because of overcrowding, shakes himself down and falls into line behind his master and Sasha. They shuffle quietly past the room of his sleeping parents. "You stay," he orders Sasha. It is too cold for the old mutt, and she doesn't fight the order.

Out the kitchen door they walk into the flat gray dawn, his boots crunching old snow, the late February chill sneaking in through each hole in his sleeve. Ten years ago, almost to this very day, on a sunny morning in Lakeland, Fla., Mark Fidrych entered the dream year. Today he enters his beat-up blue Chevy pickup with Yella, pulls up to the back door of a restaurant called The Grille and muscles two garbage cans full of pig slop onto the truck bed.

He drives the scraps back to his farm, where there are 20 pigs, 12 cows, three sheep, two goats, six chickens and six geese. One of the baby pigs is dead, smothered perhaps in the litter's crush for their mother's milk. Mark Fidrych lifts it by the back legs and stretches it out on a steel barrel. "It's no skin off my butt," he says. "I just haven't buried it yet."

Pigs and pitching arms die young. Sometimes, when a man grows weary of trying to understand why, his only alternative is indifference. Fidrych pours the slop into a feeding box, flecks of tomato sauce spattering his boots, and watches the pigs bite and shove each other to get to the food. "They're wee-uhd," he says in his New England accent.

Some mornings it almost seems to him as if that dream year never happened. Other times, taking long crunching steps across a minefield of frozen manure on a shivering morning, the question of who he is seems hopelessly clouded by who he was.

"No, I'm not a farmer," he says. "You don't make any money doing this. You do it because it's something to do. You do it because it keeps you going."

He pauses. "I'm in love with my land. I got it all from playing ball. It gives me prestige. Someone says, 'What you got?' I say, 'One hundred and twenty-one acres of nice land.' "

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Posted by Orrin Judd at April 13, 2009 5:03 PM
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