The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych
by Doug Wilson
This is a charming biography of one of major league baseball's forgotten wonders, a lanky pitcher with a mop of curly blonde hair who mesmerized America's national pasttime for a season in 1976 before returning to the obscurity from which he emerged.
During America's Bicentennial year, Mark Fidrych was a rookie phenom with the Detroit Tigers who won 19 games despite starting the season in the bullpen and not gettting his first start until May 15 because the scheduled starting pitcher had the flu. Fidrych delivered a 2–1 complete game victory in which he gave up only two hits. What really set him apart, along with a wicked fastball and boyish enthusiasm, was his behavior on the mound.
"Mark was in perpetual motion on the field. He went to a knee and groomed the mound with his left hand when he found it not to his liking. He refused to let the grounds crew get onto the mound one inning - preferring to do it himself. He actually grabbed a handful of sand from their wheelb arrow, carried it back to the mound, and patted it in place. Several times he stood on the mound facing the plate and held out the ball in his right hand with his elbow bent -- appearing like a dart player aiming for a bull's-eye. He frequently windmilled his arm to keep it loose. He fidgeted and nervously faced around the mound after each pitch that was not to his liking, motioning downward with his hand while talking to himself - telling himself to keep the ball down."
As this book documents, Firych became a national media sensation at a time when television and radio broadcasts of the game were mostly local. He was nicknamed "The Bird" after a resemblance to the tall, good-natured children's television character on Sesame Street.
At 22 years of age, Fidrych was at the top of his game in 1976. He won over fans, fellow ballplayers, and the team's owners, who awarded him a new contract. And he figured to be the ace of the Tigers' pitching staff in 1977 before everything changed...
"March 21, 1977, was a beautiful Florida day, like any other in spring training. Mark was in the outfield talking to Rusty Staub and Bob Sykes, shagging flies for batting practice before an exhibition game with the Reds. Normally, shagging flies in a low-key, relaxing activity. But Mark never did anything normally or low-key or relaxing... A fly ball was hit near them. 'You want that one?' Mark asked. 'No, you take it,' Staub replied.
"'Mark took off after it,' says Sykes. 'As he got close, instead of just catching it, he gave a goofy bird call and lunged, kind of dove for it.'"
Mark left the ground as the reining Rookie of the Year, the most popular player in the game. He had no way of knowing that when he came down, things would never be the same again."
Fidrych had torn the cartilage in his knee. He didn't start a game until May 27 of that year and seemed to have fully recovered, winning six games and getting an invite to All-Star Game before he felt his arm "go dead" during a game on July 4. A torn rotator cuff that would not be diagnosed until 1985 put an early end to Fidrych's professional baseball career.