On May 15th, 1976 Joe Coleman woke up feeling not himself. Fever. Aches and pains. He felt sluggish and told Tigers manager Ralph Houk that the flu bug had gotten a hold of him, he wouldn’t be able to take his scheduled turn in the rotation. Houk tapped 21 year old Mark Fidrych on the shoulder and said “looks like you’re my guy today, don’t make me regret it”. The curly haired, vivacious young righthander obliged, allowing only two hits in a complete game 2-1 victory, and thus began the year of the bird.
He would finish the ’76 season 19-9 with a league leading 2.34 ERA and 24 complete games out of 29 started. He tossed 250 and 1/3 innings, as a 21 year old rookie. The promise of his lanky delivery shone bright under the lights every time he took the hill that summer.
He started the All-Star game in Philadelphia, brushing off President Gerald Ford until after the game because he was in his words “too into the whole thing, too ready” to shake hands with the leader of the free world before facing the National League lineup. He met the President afterwards, signing a ball for him that Ford kept on his desk in the oval office the rest of the season.
Fidrych won the American League rookie of the year handily, receiving all but one first place vote. He finished second in the AL Cy Young Award voting behind hall of famer Jim Palmer. Not bad for a crazy haired goofball who didn’t make his first start until five weeks into the season.
Whenever I’ve thought about Mark over the years the first visual that comes to me is his hair. The wild, curly mop falling out of his cap in every direction, I imagine this is what Kurt Vonnegut would have looked like in a Tigers uniform. Like something out of a Vonnegut novel Fidrych was intriguing to say the least. He is remembered as much for his giddy ways and childlike zeal as for his phenomonal 1976 season.
I was born in April of 1975, so I was barely a year old when Mark set the baseball world on its’ ear. Through the tales my father told and the grainy footage still available I’ve had the opportunity to see him in all his glory, for which I’m grateful, for I’ve never seen anything quite like the bird.
His nickname was born from his physical resemblance to the big bird character on Sesame Street. At 6 foot 3 inches tall with the aforementioned curly yellow top it remains among the most appropriate nicknames for a ball player I’ve ever encountered. It could have come as much from his bubbling personality, his overtly friendly demeanor, his pure, unbridled enthusiasm for the game of baseball.
I had the opportunity to meet Mark several times in my youth at baseball card shows. He was everything you would expect him to be. There was no character he became when he stepped out of the dugout or in front of a TV camera, Mark was Mark, all the time, everytime. He was friendly, simple, exuberant and as happy a human being as any I’ve met. And now he’s gone, at 54 years old. His career and his life both having ended far too early.
According to published reports Fidrych was killed Monday when a 10-wheel dumptruck he was repairing slipped off a jack, crushing him at his farm in Massachusetts. He owned a trucking company, at which he was a hands on owner to say the least. After baseball he briefly owned a swimming pool company, farmed, did construction work – the kind of life many of us would live in anguish and frustration knowing that we were once a dominant starting pitcher in the major leagues, reduced to this menial labor.
If Mark did feel that pain, he never showed it. In the times I met him, spoke with him, he wore a smile so big you could have landed a plane on it. In every interview clip I’ve come across from his post-MLB days I have yet to find a shot of him looking anything but ecstatic. Some people are born with the innate ability to simply be happy, through bad luck and misfortune, even in the extreme. Mr. Fidrych seems to qualify here.
It was his jovial ways that endeared him to the city of Detroit as much as his crippling slider, if not more so. It was not only in Detroit however that his popularity blossomed. In 1976 Fidrych pitched 17 consecutive games in front of a sold-out crowd, home and away. His June 28th start against the New York Yankees on ABC’s now defunct Monday Night Baseball remains the highest rated broadcast in the thirteen year history of the series. He appeared on national TV and radio shows, was the first athlete to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, he even appeared on Sesame Street. For one summer the country was addicted to the bird.
The following spring he tore up his knee trying to hop a fence in Lakeland. He had the surgeries, he did the rehab, but it never healed right, leading to him favoring his leg and putting additional stress on his right shoulder. That lead to a myriad of arm troubles that limited him to only a handful of appearances over the next few seasons. He attempted a comeback with his hometown Red Sox in 1983, but he never got past AAA Pawtucket.
I always wonder what to say when a man returns to the earth before his time. I struggle to sum up the complicated emotions at play. So in this case I’ll take a page out of Mark’s book – I’ll just keep smiling and talking to the baseball.