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Mark Fidrych, 1979

February 23, 2009

mark-fidrych-79

“Whenever you think you’ve got it made, that you’re irreplaceable, you’re wrong.” – Mark Fidrych

I chose the first baseball card to ever feature on this site by reaching blindly into my unsorted box of old baseball cards. Amazingly, I pulled out the card I might have chosen if I had a lifetime to think about the choice: my one and only Mark Fidrych card. I tried to write about how happy he made me when I was eight years old, in 1976, and about how his card from 1980, the year I edged unwillingly from boyhood to something else altogether, seemed to suggest the feeling that the fleeting joy he’d authored over the course of one beautiful summer had slipped from his fingers for good.

A few weeks ago my old boarding school buddy, Ben, added this 1979 card to my collection. The back of the card leans with less smothering intensity on the player’s lone spectacular season (i.e., there are no cartoons or bullet text lists about 1976), and the card also has no evidence of any loss of effectiveness in the ensuing seasons, just injury troubles: as of 1979, Fidrych, despite being riddled with arm woes that had limited him to 81 and 22 innings in 1977 and 1978, respectively, had yet to post an ERA above 3.00. His lifetime ERA of 2.47 and his age (he was still just 24), gave the back of the card, despite the shrinking yearly stats, a small but undeniable aura of hope.

But the front of the card photo pushes that hope into something closer to desperation. Here is a guy just trying to hang on, banished to the far edge of the field, the screen thrown up to guard him from foul balls seemingly as flimsy and haphazardly placed as the sparse mustache on his face. You can see Fidrych breathing, his furred lips pursed, forcing the breath out instead of letting it come and go naturally, doubts tumbling in his mind.

Imagine being forced to leave it all behind. You’ll cling to the margins. You’ll try to throw a few pitches without wincing, a few pitches that might allow you to move back across that white chalk line, back into the only world you ever loved.

***

As I understand it, Fidrych returned to his home in Massachusetts when it was all over and found a way to make a living and make a life. He always seemed like a good guy, generous of spirit and without a mean bone in his body, and he still seems to be that same good guy. The most recent reference to him I can find in the news is a small Michigan newspaper reporting that Fidrych, all these years after fading from the Tigers’ plans just as they were climbing toward glory, returns every year to Michigan to support the Special Olympics through a charity founded by Vic Wertz called The Wertz Warriors.

His essential good nature shines through in the video clip below, a 1985 interview with him that also shows Fidrych expressing some of the pain and even bitterness he felt upon being forced out of the game. But even when talking of dealing with his first dark days back home after his career had ended by going on chainsaw-weilding tree-massacres, Fidrych still has a gleam in his eyes, as if he knows not to take anything too seriously. He’s still at heart the same frizzy-haired kid shown bounding around the field during the interview in clips from the golden year of 1976.

I wanted to find video that showed more of him during that season, but the only other video clip I could find of Fidrych was from years later, a short recap of a game he pitched in the minor leagues in 1982, still trying to hang on. At first I was disappointed I couldn’t find visual evidence of Mark Fidrych at his best, but then I saw how the video ended, with a man who was no longer young still bounding around in the center of celebrating teammates, still happy, still The Bird. Everyone’s going to have to move from one world to the next eventually, but maybe there are things that can’t be taken from you at the border.

23 comments

  1. it’s interesting that Fidrych makes his appearance today. This weekend the MLB Network had a Fidrych game from the late 70′s, and included an interview with him afterwards. His responses to the questions were unbelievably honest. He actually said things like “Man, I don’t even know what to say, I don’t want to sound dumb!”

    I’m not too familar with him, but the interview was highly entertaining!


  2. random fact: Fidrych had more complete games in 1979 than the entire Red Sox pitching staff in 2004-2005-2006-2007 and 2008… *combined*.


  3. I also was watching the Fidrych game yesterday, and was very close to either e-mailing Josh or just commenting on this site about it. When I saw the card here just now, I figured Josh watched the game. But I guess not. Weird.

    It was the famous Monday Night Baseball game vs the Yanks. So much stuff to talk about from that one–Bob Uecker did a funny piece from the cramped Tigers dugout beforehand….Warner Wolf (a mainstay of my childhood in the Tri-State) was one of the announcers…they all pronounced it “Feee-drich”….one look at Billy Martin’s ’76 Yanks and you could smell the wretched filth coming from them, as they’d constantly step out of the box just as the Bird was about to throw to try to get him out of rhythm….camerawork that would often miss where the ball ended up….Billy Martin predicting his own death–no, really, during the lineups, they had every player say his name and hometown, and Martin was the only one to break character, saying, “Billy Martin, manager, born, California, died, New York,” cracking everybody up. A couple decades later, he died in New York, albeit state, not city.


  4. No, I didn’t see that game on the MLB network, but I’ve seen it in the not too distant past, on ESPN classic I guess. It made me cry a little, and I’m not even exaggerating. Especially at the end, when he’s wide-eyed and laughing at the crowd roaring down its love. The guy kills me.

    If I remember correctly, he had impeccable control throughout the game (and that year), every pitch hard and low and on the black.


  5. I felt the same as Josh about Fidrych. Anybody too young to remember his ’76 season wouldn’t understand. It was a lot like Ferandomania in ’81. I doubt anybody ever brought such pure joy to the field as Fidrych.

    In any case, I used to have a job where I drove all around Massachusetts. One time, about 1993, out in Western Mass. I was stuck in Leominster, Mass, a small little city near Fitchburg Mass, which is another little city near nothing in particular. There was construction on the road snarling up traffic on this summer day. I saw a dump truck bringing whatever material to the job site and there was a cartoon of Big Bird on the side of this truck with “The Bird!” lettered next to the cartoon.

    Sure enough, out pops Mark Fidrych! He was unmistakable, crazy frizzy blonde hair all over the place, the same bounding gait, I recognized him in an instant. I was happy to discover he had done fairly well for himself, buying a couple of trucks and owning his own business. I wanted to get out and thank for him that performance on “Monday Night Baseball” from my childhood, but couldn’t of course. He probably gets that all the time and wouldn’t want to hear it anyway.


  6. sb1902:

    Great story. I get the feeling that he’s able to take people gushing over his younger self in stride. He may even enjoy it. (After all, he did have a cartoon of Big Bird on the side of his truck.) But I probably wouldn’t have approached him either, or if I had I would have somehow regretted it.

    I just wish he could have gotten a guest spot on Magnum! (See the first of the two videos above.)


  7. While I was only, well, less than a year old for that ’76 game, I can definitely remember the hype when he played for Pawtucket, hoping “the Bird” would finally become a Red Sox.


  8. Further inspection of the back of his ’79 card shows just how foolish the Tigers were to ride Fidrych so heavily in ’76 (though you can’t blame them–every team at that time would have done the same thing). After an amateur career in which, as a New Englander, he must have pitched sparingly, he spent just two seasons in the minors building up arm strength prior to ’76. He pitched just 34 innings his first season in the minors and 171 innings the next. Then suddenly he was pitching 24 complete games in arguably the toughest division in the majors. No wonder his wing snapped.


  9. Achiever Card Blog has an excellent description of the 1976 Monday Night Baseball game that was replayed on MLB network this past weekend, a great complement to gedmaniac’s thoughts on the subject in the comments above:

    Where Have You Gone Mark Fidrych?


  10. What a great coincidence that you wrote about Fidrych again right after so many of us caught that game on the MLBN. Without your first post on him I’m not sure I wouldn’t have flipped right past it. I’m glad I saw it. What a treat.

    I like the new site. I was always unsuccessful in my attempts to sign up on the toaster. I’ve been dying to leave comments here for a long time. I’m not sure what it says about the state of the world when the idiocy from my ridiculous blog is spilling over onto Carboard Gods, but it’s pretty cool. Thanks for the link.


  11. Fidrych is on my list of players that I wish had played for the Mets.


  12. I remember toward the end of the ’76 season Tiger management raised his salary. He’d been playing for the Major League minimum most of the year; I believe it was $16,000 (can you imagine?). I’m curious what they raised it too because it seems like it was only to 25 grand or so. Another great thing about him was that he worked so fast that his games flew by. It seems like several were under 2 hours; is there a site that would give that info?


  13. You can use this list, which shows every game of the ’76 Tigers season, with winning and losing pitcher, and time of games. So you can see how long his games were, but only if he got a decision. For his no-decisions, you can just check his game log, then click on each game for the time of game.

    Of course, time of game depends on the opposing pitcher, too, and opposing lineup to a lesser extent. You could be the speediest worker of all-time, but if you go up against a team of Dice-Ks and Hargroves, your game times are still gonna be pretty long. (Also, there weren’t as many commercials back in the day….)

    It would be cool to see total time on mound for each pitcher. They should start keeping track of that. Instead of time of game, give us time of actual action minus commercials, broken down to the total time each pitcher for each team was on the mound. Or just average time between pitches for each pitcher. How ’bout it, B-R Index?


  14. Thanks for the link ! Total time on the mound for each pitcher would be a very cool thing to be able to track.


  15. I never noticed what a late start Fidrych got in 1976. He only had one inning pitched before May 15. He made his first start and got his first win that day. He pitched well in his next start, but things didn’t really take off until he got his second win in an eleven-inning complete game on the last day of May. I’d always assumed he dominated from opening day, like Fernando did in 1981.


  16. I was very disappointed a few years ago to see Rob Neyer look at Fidrych and conclude his success in ’76 was a fluke and that he was unlikely to continuing being a top pitcher had he been physically able to keep pitching. There were lots of good reasons for this conclusion, I’m quite sure, as Rob Neyer doesn’t just talk out of his ass, but I prefer to think he was going to be wrong this time. I don’t have any reason to this that way, but I’m not going to give up the bittersweet “What could have been” for rational analysis this time.


  17. As for the day of this card–I’m assuming it’s from ’78. Check out the scoreboard right to the right of his head. That’s the one that gives the teams. I’ve checked this in pics of Tiger Stadium, and, in fact, in the post-game interview from the ’76 ABC game, he’s standing right in front of it, and it gives city names. (Although I have seen pics that show it saying “visitor,” but in the ’76 game, it said “New York.” The “visitor” probably stayed up when there was no game being played.)

    So if you look at the card, you can see a space in the visiting team’s name. That tells me it’s “New York.”

    Bird only made three appearances that year, all in April, none against the Yanks. The Yankees series were in June and September that season. Articles I have found from June 22nd, 1978, say Fidrych has returned to Detroit from Florida, where he’d been rehabbing. Another article from mid-June had a trainer saying he’d be “okay in a week.” So there’s a good chance this was Bird warming up (down the third base line–that’s where the home bullpen was–during that series. (He’d never get into another game that year anyway.)

    The September series was all night games. The June series had just one day game, Sunday, June 25th. That’s my guess. Yanks won, 4-2.

    (It could also be that they took a shot from the year before, ’77. In ’76 he would’ve had a patch on his left sleeve, so if it’s not from ’78, it’s from ’77.)


  18. sb1902: I think Bill James might have had something similar to say about Fidrych in his Historical Abstract, but maybe I’m confusing it with Neyer’s piece. The low strikeout numbers on the back of this card, even when he was in the minors, back up the thought that he might have had his best possible year during his one and only full year. I think the best predictor of long-term success is a high or at least fairly high K rate as a youngster. But I’m with you: he would have been a great if only…

    gedmanic: nice sleuthing.


  19. Yeah, it’s all “what if” when thinking what could have happened after ’76. I always had this feeling at the time that something this special couldn’t last, but I don’t necessarily agree that it’s because he was overused on the mound. It was a fluke knee injury clowning around shagging flies with the outfielders that was the beginning of the injury problems; the altering of his delivery leading to arm issues, coming back maybe too soon after subsequent problems etc. It’s like his fate was at least partially a matter of personality, like I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d had a skateboarding injury or hurt himself playing basketball or something, maybe climbing a fence to get into a cockfight, something off the wall anyway. Like Zumaya injuring himself playing Guitar Hero or whatever it was.
    Which reminds me of the only time I remember Lou Whitaker missing a few games. I think it was a pulled hamstring from trying to do the splits at a wedding reception.
    I consider myself REAL lucky to even have seen Fidrych on TV.


  20. After an amateur career in which, as a New Englander, he must have pitched sparingly, he spent just two seasons in the minors building up arm strength prior to ‘76. He pitched just 34 innings his first season in the minors and 171 innings the next. Then suddenly he was pitching 24 complete games in arguably the toughest division in the majors. No wonder his wing snapped.

    Interesting theory Josh, but I wonder how true it is. Does Mike Marshall or Will Carroll lurk here?


  21. Mark Fidrych is being interviewed on the MLB Network about his magical rookie year. This is why the MLBN is fantastic!


  22. R.I.P. Mark, you were one-of-a-kind.


  23. I am stunned.



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