God bless you, Mark Fidrych. The Bird will always be alive in me.

April 14, 2009 at 1:51 am 3 comments

Mark Fidrych died while working on his truck.

That’s what authorities believed happened on Monday when the 54-year-old Massachusetts legend died.
If the name means nothing to you, then go find another blog.
In 1976, there was a phenomena that swept this country called “The Bird.”
I’m 44 and was born and raised in Michigan. It’s hard for me to describe just what Mark Fidrych meant to Michigan. 
He was part Michael Phelps, part Elvis, part Britney Spears (that would be the crazy.)
I do recall this. As I got older, people in their 20s would make fun of me as I got into middle age. And one of my defense mechanisms was simple: “Yeah. I’m in my 40s. You are in your 20s. But you know what? You never know what it was to experience Mark Fidrych.”
To those under the age of 30, Mark Fidrych was a Detroit Tiger pitcher who debuted as a rookie and made the All-Star game.
He talked to the ball. Yes. He was that fucking crazy. You know what’s crazier? It listened. Fidrych was nuts. He got down on his hands and knees and groomed the pitching mound to his specifications.
And he bitch slapped just about every team in the American League that year.
He was 19-9. He led the league in ERA at 2.34. He was the AL Rookie of the Year.
Mark Fidrych was to every boy in Michigan what that first crush is to 7th grade girls – something that just blind sides you and you end up scribbling in your diary about.
My dad took me to see two Fidrych games. Actually, three games, but one we couldn’t get in. The two I attended were sold out. But you saw the green grass – an oasis of technicolor in a city of chipped paint – and that guy on the mound and you believed.
You believed in miracles. You believed in a city that had nothing to offer to an 11-year-old at the time other than abandoned buildings and desperation.
One of the games my dad took me to was sold out. It was the Yankees on Monday Night Baseball.
Wikipedia says it was June 28, 1976. I don’t know. I was 11 years old. My dad was dumbfounded. In 1975, just one year previous, the Tigers had lost 102 games and were the laughing stock in baseball. Now, you couldn’t buy a ticket?
That was The Bird.
We got home and watched the final inning on national TV. Detroit won 5-1.
The next year, my dad bought me a box of baseball cards, a real passion of my life. At 12, I was nearing the end of the packs. My older brother lied, saying he had heard that there were no Mark Fidrych cards because he was a rookie.
Then, I opened a pack and found it. The Topps card No. 265. Mark Fidrych. I cheered out loud. My brother was relieved he had been proven wrong.
It sells on eBay now for $4.95. You can pry mine from my cold dead hands. Although nearly 20 years later after I unwrapped it, I would give one away.
The two games I got to see Fidrych pitch in person, I was standing on my feet 10 minutes after the game ended. The Bird came out to tip his hat. And the crowd exploded. The electricity was unreal. Detroit was not a city I feared anymore. It was the place to be.
Fidrych earned $16,500 that rookie year. After the season, the Tigers gave him a $25,000 bonus.
Fidrych injured his knee the next spring. Had he played today, it would probably had kept him out six months. This injury ruined his career. He was never the same.
In 1995, while working at a newspaper in Pittsburgh as a sports writer, I called Fidrych. His number was listed in the phone book. God bless him.
I told him the 20 year anniversary of his one-year wonder season was approaching. I wanted to interview him.
He was very polite. Despite being 10 years older, he called me “Sir” several times in our conversation while politely declining to do an interview.
“I’m too busy,” he said.
He lived on a fucking farm. He wasn’t too busy. It was just hard to live in the past. I was 30. I understand now.
The next day, I took my 1977 Topps Mark Fidrych card – the one with All-Star written across the top – and mailed it to him along with a note expressing just how important he was to the state of Michigan. I never heard back from him.
Now, he’s gone.
Mark Fidrych, rest in peace, bud.
With you goes my youth. But that’s OK. With your passing, it’s time to let go.
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“….OK, just sit back and enjoy your flight, we’ll be at 10,000 feet momentarily and the weather at our destination is going to be warm and – AHHGHT! ….” Love stinks, but “luv” is even worse

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Rich Otterman  |  April 15, 2009 at 7:36 pm

    ROCKFORD: Unreal stuff here. It’s my pleasure to read it. As a goofy lanky white kid with an afro, I was called “Bird” until I was 10 or so. Believe me, I hear you on the lost youth piece — but I never saw the dude pitch live, and I didn’t live in Detroit. On Monday night, ESPN Classic ran the 1976 Monday Night Baseball telecast where Fidrych beat the Yankees. Unbelievable electricity in old Tiger Stadium.

    Reply
  • 2. thomasedward  |  April 15, 2009 at 8:16 pm

    The Bird? You look like Eddie Brinkman.

    Reply
  • 3. Big Brother  |  April 18, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    I was going to call you.
    I couldn’t believe it made national news when he died.
    It was on ESPN two days in a row.
    His death not only reminds me of the death of our youth but also the death ot the innocense of baseball. I was a fan back then, I did believe. Before free agency, the strike and steroids killed a true love of the game.

    Reply

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