Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The invisible lovable Bird

Yesterday was Black Monday in the sports world. Longtime Philadelphia Phillies announcer Harry Kalas died in the broadcasting booth. Former Arizona State football coach Bruce Snyder died of cancer. And pitching one-year sensation Mark "The Bird" Fidrych was killed.

And this doesn't include former porn star Marilyn Chambers, who also died. Wow, that woman could act.

Mark Fidrych, that guy, I'll always remember. He came along in the summer of 1976, the summer after my high school graduation and before I went to college. So it was an interesting summer anyway. Fidrych pitched for the Detroit Tigers and for one year, he achieved nearly rock star status.

It was because of his mannerisms and talent. His nickname fit him perfectly. He looked like Big Bird from Sesame Street. With his wild curly hair, he was kinda gangly and goofy and had this innocence about him.

He was extremely quirky. He would manicure the mound with his hands, getting on his knees to make sure everything was just right. More than that, he would talk to the baseball, trying to convince it to do the things he wanted it to do. All said it was no act. It was just the way Fidrych was. But if he were a mediocre pitcher that summer of '76, he would have been dismissed.

Yet as a rookie, he was 19-9, had an ERA of 2.34 and started in the All-Star game in New York. He had a devastating slider. He literally captured the imagination of the country's sports fans that year -- yet few people ever saw him.

This was four years before the onset of ESPN and many years before other cable outlets. Fidrych was limited to what you'd hear about him or see on an occasional local sports highlight show. To actually see him live was a rare treat.

There was Monday Night baseball on ABC back then as well as NBC's Saturday game of the week. That was it. Those were all your regular season options. Two games, once a week. And for Fidrych to appear on one of those games, the pitching rotation had to fall just right.

Probably the fact most didn't see him only added to his legend. Can you imagine a guy like this now? With ESPN, Fox, the new MLB network, Direct TV's package of MLB games, a fan could watch his every move.

But not then. He was the invisible Bird.

And he left as quickly as he came. Arm problems curtailed his career. He threw 24 complete games out of 29 starts that year. He would win only 10 more games after that 1976 season. He was out of Major League baseball after the 1980 season.

A country kid from rural Massachusetts, he went back to a simple life after that. He was working on a construction crew when he was found under a dump truck Monday, the victim of apparent accident at age 54.


cindy said...

He, along with Bill Lee, were my favorite pitchers. I remember watching him on TV once with my dad. Great stuff.

Carol said...

Thanks for the posting, Jon Mark.

I suppose that my love of baseball and the Detroit Tigers happened during the summer of 1976.
I turned 21 and was living in Ann Arbor, going to school, unable to find a summer job in those tough years.

I spent many a night listening to baseball on WJR. When I could catch a TV broadcast, it was something special. I was able to catch a few in the basement of my boyfirend's fraternity house.

Mark Fidrych was just amazing. I hadn't thought about him in years.

He died at 54. I turn 54 this summer.