- The Bird
- August 14, 1954
- 6' 3"
- 175 lbs
- Major League Debut:
- 4-20-1976 with DET
- Allstar Selections:
- 1976 ROOK
"I don't talk to the ball. Sure, I say things like 'flow' and 'snap it off,' but I'm talking to myself, not the ball." — Mark Fidrych, explaining his antics on the mound
As a virtually unknown rookie in 1976, Mark Fidrych posted a league leading 2.34 ERA and won 19 games despite spending the first month of the season in the minor leagues. "The Bird" became a media darling because of his crazy antics, such as talking to himself and aiming the ball, insisting that balls that had "hits in them" be taken out of the game, and smoothing cleat marks on the mound. He began the 1977 season where he left off, but injured his arm when he continued to pitch with a knee problem. For seven years he tried to make a comeback but he never could regain his old form. In 1985, it was revealed that he had torn his rotator cuff nearly all the way through.
On June 28, 1976, Mark Fidrych came to the attention of baseball fans worldwide. For the first three months of the '76 season, Fidrych was pretty much a local phenomenon, even though he was 8-1 with eight complete games. But Fidrych's performance against the New York Yankees on June 28 changed all that.
For the first time, a national television audience got to see Fidrych fidget around the mound, chatter to himself, congratulate teammates after outstanding plays — and pitch superbly. He took only an hour and 51 minutes in defeating the Yankees, 5-1, before 47,855 fans in Detroit. He allowed seven hits, with New York's lone run coming on Elrod Hendrick's home run. In stopping the Yankees' five-game winning streak, Fidrych struck out two and walked none in outdueling Ken Holtzman. The festivities didn't end with the final out. The fans wouldn't leave. They kept clamoring for Fidrych, who insisted the rest of the team join him in a curtain call. Teammate Rusty Staub coaxed Fidrych out onto the field — in his stocking feet — to thunderous applause. "The Bird" had arrived.
As Fidrych racked up wins, his low salary ($16,500) caught the attention of appreciative fans. Many sent him money, which he returned. A Michigan state legislator submitted a resolution recommending that the Tigers give Fidrych a raise. Tigers GM Jim Campbell eventually increased Fidrych's salary, thanking him for the packed crowds he produced each time he pitched. Opposing teams requested that the Tigers juggle their rotation so Fidrych could pitch in front of their fans in their stadium. Campbell was so worried about the carefree pitcher's attitude that he gave Fidrych an allowance, fearful that the young flake would waste the money or give it away.
Fidrych threw a blazing fastball and a wicked slider and kept the ball low, but probably his greatest asset was his concentration. Centerfielder Mickey Stanley compared him favorably with Denny McLain, one of the game's most intense pitchers. In Fidrych's 1976 All-Star Game start, Pete Rose's single, Steve Garvey's triple, and George Foster's groundout produced two runs in the first inning, enough to make "The Bird" the loser in the National League's 7-1 victory in 1976.
Commissioner Bowie Kuhn fined Fidrych $250 for using an obscenity on television after being asked if he was about to cry in a losing performance. To break his phenomenal run, the Minnesota Twins released 13 pigeons on the field on Fidrych's 13th start, on July 20. It didn't deter him, as he won 8-3 to boost his record to 11-2.
Though he was behind the plate for only 61 games in 1976, Bruce Kimm, like Fidrych a rookie, caught all 29 of The Bird's starts that season. Kimm hit one home run in his four-year major league career, and, of course, it won a game for Fidrych, 3-2 over the California Angels on August 17, 1976. Fidrych finished with a 19-9 record and a league-leading 2.34 ERA in 29 starts. He completed 24 of his starts (most in the AL) and threw four shutouts.
Prior to the 1977 season, Fidrych appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the second time, this time joined by Sesame Street's Big Bird. The 1977 season held big promise for the young pitcher, but everything changed in spring training. Shagging flies in the outfield in Lakeland, teammate Staub warned Fidrych to stop risking his safety by fooling and jumping around. On the next ball hit, Fidrych leaped and tore the cartilage in his knee when he landed.
Fidrych returned in late May and started 11 games, completing seven starts and going 6-4 with a 2.89 ERA. His abbreviated performance was enough to earn him an All-Star nod, but he did not go to the game as he was recuperating from knee surgery. In 1978, he announced in spring training that he felt fine and started three games and won two in dominating fashion (2.45 ERA). But in his April 17th start, his arm bothered him again, and he spent the rest of the season on the disabled list and rehabbing.
In 1979, still just 24 years old, Fidrych suffered his worst season at the major league level. After missing the first month on the DL recovering from surgery, Fidrych pitched less than 15 innings in May and was bombed to the tune of a 10.43 ERA and an 0-3 record, before being shelved for the rest of the season. He tried to fix his arm again, consulting specialists and having yet more surgery that caused him to miss the first four months of the 1980 season, but that season proved to be his swan song. In The Bird's last hurrah, he went 2-3 with a 5.68 ERA in nine starts for the Tigers in '80. He was released after the season and caught on with the Red Sox, for whom he struggled in the minor leagues for several years.
During one of his Red Sox attempts at a comeback, Fidrych faced Dave Righetti on July 1, 1982, in AAA action. The game set a record attendance of 9,389 at McCoy Field in Pawtucket. Fidrych finally gave up on a comeback in 1983, ending his career at the age of 29, when he should have been in his prime.
It wasn't until 1985 — after he had seen chiropractors, psychologists, and hypnotists, as well as numerous doctors — that Dr. James Andrews discovered that Fidrych had torn his rotator cuff. Andrews operated and cleaned out his shoulder, but it was too late for another comeback. Fidrych retired to New England and turned to farming and trucking, except for the occasional old-timers game.
According to the Worcester District Attorney's office, a family friend found Mark Fidrych, dead, beneath his 10-wheeled dump truck at his Northborough home around 2:30 p.m, April 13, 2009. He appeared to have been working on the truck at the time of the accident. Authorities said Fidrych suffocated after his clothes became entangled with a spinning power take-off shaft on the truck he was working on. The state medical examiner's office ruled the death an accident, according to a release from the Worcester District Attorney's office. "He appeared to have been working on the truck when his clothes became tangled in the truck's power takeoff shaft," District Attorney Joseph Early, Jr. said in a statement.
Joseph Amorello, owner of a road construction company, occasionally hired Fidrych to haul gravel or asphalt. He had stopped by the farm to chat with Fidrych when he found the body underneath the dump truck. "We were just, in general, getting started for the [road building] season this week and it seems as though his truck was going to be needed. It looked like he was doing some maintenance on it," Amorello said in a telephone interview. "I found him under the truck. There's not much more I can say. I dialed 911 and that's all I could do."
Current Tigers manager Jim Leyland had fond memories of "The Bird" dating to the times he managed the pitcher in 1978, 1980 and 1981, when Fidrych was trying to come back from the knee and shoulder injuries. "We drove to spring training in my van one year," Leyland said. "I drove up to Detroit from Toledo, picked him up, then drove him back to my house for the night. I remember how much he ate at breakfast the next morning. My mom kept fixing him eggs and the Bird kept eating them." Fidrych made 27 starts for Leyland’s Triple-A teams in 1980 and 1981. He made it back to the Tigers in 1980 and pitched his last complete game in the majors on September 2, with Leyland and his mother in the stands. "After the final out, he came over and handed the game ball not to me, but to my mother," Leyland said. "I couldn’t believe it. She couldn’t believe it. I’ve never forgotten it."
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