For all his oddities, Fidrych was an overgrown kid living the dream
Former All-Star pitcher Mark "The Bird" Fidrych was found dead Monday at age 54
He went from a non-roster invitee for the Tigers to a national sensation
Fidrych has been reduced to a 1970s fad but he was really much more than that
Maybe baseball just seems a touch more magical when you're 9 years old. It just so happened that I was 9 the year that Mark Fidrych came on the scene. And, even now, it seems to me that was a time for magical young pitchers. They called John Montefusco "The Count," and he would guarantee victories before he pitched. They called Randy Jones "The Junkman," and he baffled hitters with a fastball that, Pete Rose said, wouldn't be caught speeding in a school zone. If you wanted hard fastballs, well, you had J.R. Richard and Frank Tanana and Nolan Ryan. They threw so hard, you could hear their pitches buzz.
None of them, though, were as magical as Fidrych. The Bird. There have been many theories how he got the name The Bird. Some say it was because he looked so much like Big Bird on Sesame Street -- in the classic Sports Illustrated cover that featured both birds it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Some say it's because of the way Fidrych flapped his arms on the mound sometimes. The most likely story is that he got the name on his first day of professional baseball, in Bristol, Va., when a coach named Jeff Hogan caught him shrieking "Gawk! Gawk!"
"You're a bird," Hogan said. And it was just right. Fidrych was some kind of bird.
The Bird showed up as a non-roster invitee for the Detroit Tigers in 1976 and he somehow made the club. "I couldn't stand up," he would say. "You married? Like when you get married. That's a rush."
His first time out, Fidrych faced one batter. He came on in the ninth inning with the score tied and runners on first and third. The outfield and infield was in, and Don Baylor hit a fly ball over everyone's head for a single. The game was over. It was an odd way to start an odd career.
The Bird made his first start in Cleveland almost a month after his goofy debut. He threw a no-hitter for six innings. He finished off a complete game, two-hitter. He had arrived.
The love affair with Detroit began almost immediately. Fidrych was unlike anyone else. He talked to the baseball. Later, he would say that he was talking to himself ... but, no, it seemed pretty clear that he talked to the baseball. He got on his knees and smoothed out pitching mounds with his hands. He said hilarious things. He sprinted out to congratulate fielders who made nice plays. He never took any of it for granted. "It's either this," he often said, "or working at the gas station back home."
And he did not pitch like any 21-year-old anyone had ever seen. He had impeccable, almost freakish, control. He hardly ever walked anyone. He walked one batter in an 11-inning victory at Texas on the fifth of June, and followed it up by walking nobody his next time out against the California Angels. He won nine of his 10 first decisions. He allowed just one run against the New York Yankees on Monday Night Baseball. He threw an 11-inning shutout against Oakland on July 16.
By then, he was a national sensation.
It's impossible to look back at Fidrych's remarkable 1976 -- knowing what we know now about pitch counts and such things -- and not cringe at the way manager Ralph Houk abused him. Of course, nobody was counting pitches in 1976, but even so it's hard to believe a manager would allow a rookie to throw five extra-inning games. Five! Or how about this stretch: From July 29th to August 29th, The Bird threw a nine-inning game, a seven-inning game, a nine-inning game, another nine-inning game, another nine-inning game, a 10-inning game, a nine-inning game and an 11 1/3 inning game -- each one on three-days rest. Imagine that: Fidrych threw 73 1/3 innings and seven complete games in a month.
To give you a comparison, K-Rod threw 68 1/3 innings all last year.
To give you a comparison, Johan Santana has thrown nine complete games in his career.
But then, nobody was thinking about the future. To a 9-year-old kid in Cleveland, Fidrych was simply the coolest guy in the entire world.
I remember begging my father to take me to see Fidrych pitch. There was a big crowd that day in Cleveland -- well, 37,405, which passed for a big crowd in Cleveland back then -- and the only two things I really remember is that we had to park what seemed like miles away from the stadium and I got to see Fidrych get on his hands and knees and manicure the pitching mound. As it turned out, he did not pitch well that day -- the aging Boog Powell got him for three hits -- but I left the stadium feeling like I had seen a star.
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