As fate would have it baseball gave me many opportunities to meet and observe some boyhood heroes, and some of truly unique people I’ve ever met. This past Easter weekend puts me in mind of one of the most unique…a guy nicknamed “The Bird”.
You’re very familiar by now with my penchant for writing about anniversaries of the passing of famous people – entertainers, military personalities, and especially the sports heroes of my youth.
Well, this past Easter weekend marked the anniversary of the passing of one of the most unique people I ever met in my 50 years around baseball. It happened during the seven-plus seasons I spent umpiring in the minor leagues, and indeed it’s been years since I’d even thought about him. But April the 13th, 2009, was the day that one of baseball’s most colorful figures passed away well before anyone could have imagined.
You see, in 1976 there was no bigger name in baseball than that of Detroit Tiger rookie Mark Fidrych. He burst upon the scene that season, pitched well, but it was his personality and frank humanity that endeared him to not only the sporting public, but people who didn’t know a thing about baseball, or even cared. They just liked “The Bird”.
Fidrych won the Rookie of The Year award in the American League in 1976 and finished second in the Cy Young Award voting. He was a character – talking the ball as if to will it where he wanted it in the strike zone.
He would get on his hands and knees and manicure the pitching mound to his liking, even between at bats.
He wore funny-looking clothes compared to other major league stars. His favorite outfit was nothing more than well-worn blue jeans and a T-shirt. often one that someone had given him. He frequently came to the ballpark…in flip flops.
He bore a striking resemblance to the Sesame Street character, “Big Bird”, hence the nicknamed that was hung on him (and one to which he never objected) “The Bird”.
I first saw him in the spring of 1975, umpiring in my first minor camp with the Detroit Tigers, in Lakeland, Florida. On the back fields of what they called “Tigertown”, they would have the minor leaguers play intra-squad games each day, and that’s where the rookie signees cut their teeth on professional baseball. That spring…Fidrych was one of the rookies.
He started out camp pitching with the Bristol team, a rookie Short-A team in the Appalachian League…Bristol, Virginia.
Within a week he had been moved up to the Lakeland squad, the Tigers’ top A-Ball team in the Florida State League. He didn’t throw overly hard (maybe 90 mph), but he threw strikes and he threw the ball with movement. He could spot his breaking pitch, which amounted to a three-quarter delivery slider.
I saw him during the season in the Florida State League, pitching for Lakeland, and he had so-so success. The records online state that he won 5 and lost 9.
The following spring (1976) I was sent to the Royals camp in Sarasota, and missed seeing him altogether when visiting teams came to play. Imagine my surprise when I saw that Mark Fidrych had made the opening day roster of the Tigers big league club.
He won 19 games that summer for the Tigers and became the rage of the country, not only in baseball, but through appearances on the cover of “Rolling Stone” and with every TV commercial opportunity that beckoned. He didn’t do it for the money, he would truthfully say, he was just having fun.
The fun was short-lived for the sake of his big league career, because injuries set in and Mark Fidrych set about seeking answers, and remedies, for a sore arm. He made one brief try at a comeback with the Tigers in 1979 and ’80 before being sent down to Triple A Evansville, where I met up with him for a second time.
It was my second year in the American Association (AAA) and Fidrych was sent there to find whatever was left of his baseball career. Sitting on the bench before a game in venerable old Bosse Field one night, Fidrych walked up to me and stuck out his hand.
“Hey, I remember you from Lakeland,” he said. “Where you been?”
Odd to me…that he was more interested in me than I was in him; because it was the code of minor league umpires that you never made small talk with the players. You never hung out with the ‘rats’, as we called them then.
“Southern League in ’77 and ’78”. I answered. “Came to the Association last year.”
“Crazy business, isn’t it,” Fidrych said with a smile. “I’m still trying to figure it out. Still trying to find it again. People here are great, though. Worse places to be than Evansville. It’ll be OK.”
Not really, in fact, but I saw him several times that season from behind home plate. His fastball had nothing on it, and his slider didn’t have the bite it once had. Fidrych had to rely on pinpoint location of his pitches, and when he didn’t have it he got hammered.
Detroit was patient with him, for old time’s sake, and he knew that. He worked at his conditioning like no one I’d ever seen, but there simply were no results for his effort. At the end of season he was called up to Detroit where he had some marginal success. But for his popularity, and who he once was, even the fans turned on his ineffectiveness. Major league baseball is cruel that way.
Of course, he was never “OK” again, not like he hoped. The arm miseries continued and by 1984, then a member of the Red Sox organization, he was out of baseball and back on his farm in Massachusetts. For all of his bad luck, Fidrych took good care of his money and set himself up for a good life after baseball.
Working under a farm truck on April 13, 2009, he was found dead, the victim of an apparent accident. He was 54.
He stands out to me still because few people I ever met handled his fame like Mark Fidrych.
And better, no one I’ve ever met handled his fall from fame as well.