Reese Kaplan - The Bird Is the Word (And No, Not Marlon)

baseball - mark ridrychWhen the news of Matt Harvey’s UCL injury came out this week, I flashed on a moment of horror punctuated with a small smile remembering another phenomenal pitcher who took the world by storm in his first full season, only to succumb to the injury bug and never fully return – Mark “The Bird” Fidrych.

For those readers too young to remember the our country’s bicentennial year, a skinny 21 year old Mark Fidrych made the Tigers out of Spring Training after being a surprising non-roster invitee. He wasn’t inserted into the starting rotation until a Wally Pipp moment in Detroit’s 24th game saw Fidrych make an 11th hour start for the scheduled pitcher who was down with the flu. In his starting debut he delivered 6 innings of no-hit ball and an eventual 2-1 complete game victory.

However, as talented as he was on the mound, it was his personality that captured the hearts and minds of the Motor City and later the entire nation. He was dubbed “The Bird” for his resemblance to the Sesame Street character, Big Bird, with his lanky 6’3” frame and huge shock of blond curls while weighing a scant 175 pounds. His all “arms and legs” look, however, paled in comparison to his antics on the mound.

Before pitching, Fidrych was known to manicure the mound, sometimes squatting down to the ground to smooth out the dirt. He’d often talk to himself and to the baseball before pitching. He was known to throw a ball back to the umpire for another one after having decided upon this conversation that the ball had a hit in it and he wanted one with an out instead.

Rapidly the unique and talented Fidrych became baseball’s biggest draw, filling stadiums not only for the 5th place Tigers but all around the American League. His antics were so offbeat and his personality was so charismatic that everyone just seemed to smile watching him pitch.

Bill James tells a story about Yankees 3rd baseman Graig Nettles who was tired of Fidrych talking to the ball, so in a kind of weird homage to his behavior, he stepped out of the batter’s box and starting talking to his bat, demanding, “Never mind what he says to the ball. You just hit it over the outfield fence!” For the record, although Nettles did surprisingly well against The Bird, on that particular occasion he struck out. He then said, “Damned Japanese bat! It didn’t understand a word of English!”

By the end of the 1976 season Fidrych had posted some truly remarkable numbers, including a 19-9 record, a league leading 2.34 ERA and incredibly 24 complete games. With a 9-1 record by July and a miniscule 1.85 ERA he was a rookie starter in the All Star Game. In fact, for his first 13 major league starts he actually averaged more than 9 innings per game as a result of a handful of 11 inning appearances. Although he won Rookie of the Year in a landslide, he finished second in the voting for the Cy Young Award to Hall of Famer Jim Palmer.

A torn cartilage in the knee during Spring Training of 1977 cost him his opportunity to be Detroit’s Opening Day pitcher. He eventually began his age 22 season on May 27th with a loss and followed that game with another loss. However, he then righted himself and pitched like Fidrych of 1976 with a string of 6 straight complete game victories. He then lost two more games before his ill-fated July 12th start against Toronto when he lasted just 2/3s of an inning and declared he felt his arm “go dead”. That injury ended his season and remained undiagnosed for several years until Dr. James Andrews finally discovered a torn rotator cuff in 1985, 8 years after it cost him his career. No one knows if it was the high innings count at such a young age or altering his motion after the knee injury that caused the rotator cuff tear, but Fidrych’s career ended quite suddenly as a result.

As sad as this tale of a baseball prodigy is, it had an even more tragic ending. While working hauling gravel in his ten wheel dump truck, a family friend found Mark Fidrych dead under his truck, apparently having suffocated when his clothing got entangled with the truck’s drive shaft. He was 54.

Have a look at Mark Fidrych at his zany best. He was one of a kind.



Mack Ade said...

Great post!

We need more posts on the history or baseball, especially during this dismal season.

Thanks Reese.

Reese said...

Thanks, Mack. There are just so many things you can write about the trials of Ike Davis, Eric Young, the adjustments of Juan Lagares, the promise of Travis d'Arnaud and Wilmer Flores or the young pitching here and on the horizon. The thought to write about Fidrych happened just as I said it did -- his career flashed into my head the moment I read about Harvey's injury.

One thing I noticed during my research for the article is that Fidrych only averaged 3.5 strikeouts per 9 innnings pitched during his incredible 1976 campaign. Not being a power pitcher made what he accomplished that much more remarkable.

Mack Ade said...

I understand Reese.

I'm pretty much written out myself at this point also.

Mack's Mets © 2012