I was in the kitchen last night making pizza, when my wife turned the TV channel to the news. The first thing I heard was Katie Couric talking about Mark Fidrych. Uh oh. Then, the kicker: The Bird was dead at the age of 54. My mind immediately flashed back to the summer of 1976, when I was just ten years old. The Detroit Tigers were not very good that year. As a team, they won just 74 games, but the Michigan summer was electrified by the emergence of a young 21-year-old phenom by the name of Mark Fidrych. He pitched a complete game in his first start (a 2-hitter over the Indians), and believe it or not it got better and better throughout the summer. Not only did Fidrych have a great season statistically, but his quirky game day antics became a national phenomenon. On the mound, he would seemingly talk to the ball. Between innings, he would get down on his hands and knees and manicure the mound by hand until he got it just right. He was a lovable country redneck from rural Massachusetts. He was a breath of fresh air.
I have been a Tiger fan since my early childhood - as far back as my memory can take me. I remember going to Tiger stadium when I was maybe 6 or 7 years old with my dad. I remember seeing lots of different Tiger players in my formative years: Gates Brown, Joe Coleman, Willie Horton, Mickey Lolich, John Hiller, Ron LeFlore, Dick McCauliffe, Aurelio Rodriguez, Bill Freehan, Al Kaline, Mickey Stanley. But no one really captured my childhood imagination until Mark Fidrych. He was one of a kind. He had the kind of season that young pitchers dream of when they get drafted out of high school. He won 19 games versus 9 losses that season. He had 24 complete games out of 29 starts (for context, the major league leader in complete games this past season was CC Sabathia - he had ten). He had four shutouts. He started the All-Star Game for the AL. Reportedly, teams begged the Tigers to change their rotation to allow him to pitch certain games in their stadiums. Attendance at Tiger Stadium soared when Fidrych was pitching.
Unfortunately, he suffered a knee injury early in the 1977 season and was never the same again. He was on a similar pace with 7 complete games in 11 starts prior to his injury. After coming back from the knee problem, arm problems followed. He was out of the majors for good after the 1980 season.
After his baseball career was over, he owned a trucking company and just became a "regular guy." He seemingly never had any regrets about his shortened career, and he never expressed any bitterness. he was happy to have had the time he had. As Neil Young might say, "It's better to burn out than to fade away." Fidrych burned brighter than anyone in the summer of '76, and his flame was extinguished just as quickly.
"The Tale of Mark Fidrych" is probably one significant reason that teams are now so careful with pitchers. They monitor pitch counts. They monitor innings. They try to avoid extreme increases in innings pitched from year to year. If such care would have been taken with Fidrych, perhaps he would have had a more productive overall career. But it may have also robbed us of that one magical season, when a colorful character called "The Bird" let us fly with him.
"That ball has a hit in it, so I want to get back in the ball bag and goof around with the other balls in there. Maybe it'll learn some sense and come out as a pop-up next time." - Mark Fidrych (1976)