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Mark Fidrych, 1954-2009

April 13, 2009

1978-tigers

This 1978 card and another team card from 1977 are the last possible traces in my incomplete collection of the all-time single season leader in joy. I believe the Bird is in the back row, second from right. I’ve talked about him before on this site, but I don’t feel as if I’ve approached the singular effect he had on my childhood. To me, he was everything good from the 1970s wrapped up into one inimitable package. He’s the Pet Rock, mood rings, Morganna the Kissing Bandit, CB radio, Sasquatch. He’s Saturday morning cartoons and spaghettios and good-natured fun-loving longhaired yahoos piling into a customized van to go to the Foghat concert. He’s the magic of Doug Henning and the bright-colored fantasies of HR Puffnstuff and the glossy neon of Dynamite magazine. He’s Alfred E. Neuman. He’s that moment when you’re a kid and you start laughing about something and you don’t think you’ll ever be able to stop. He’s the moment when you realize you’re no longer a kid. I never knew him but to smile at him on TV and in magazines and, of course, baseball cards, but when I heard he was found dead today, underneath a pickup truck he was apparently trying to fix, I couldn’t breathe. For a couple seconds I couldn’t fucking breathe.

38 comments

  1. Harry Kalas, Marilyn Chambers, and now Fidrych. If Gabe Kaplan dies, it will be like my early teens never happened.


  2. Jesus, Marilyn Chambers, too? I hadn’t heard about that. My god. RIP to her and to The Voice, too. Kalas was a force of nature.


  3. holy crap! And as I’m finding this out through you, I can’t breather either.


  4. It’s a real bummer. Mark was a lot of fun to watch in that magic summer of 1976.


  5. I just saw on the MLB Network a scrolling line about Fidrych. I first learned about him here in February. Then, a week or two later MLBN showed one of his gems. Maybe 3 weeks ago, Fidrych was in the studio of MLBN talking about his career and quirky habits. His accent was so freakin’ thick, it made me homesick for Boston. Though a bit older, he seemed to genuinely appreciate the career he had, the same way he did in the postgame interviews in the ’70s. Seems the end came way, way too soon.


  6. Amen brother, amen.

    I’d like to add one thing to your list.

    Mark Fidrych was a winner, perhaps more than any of the seventies icons you listed. Rookie of the Year. Forever.


  7. My mother died in March of 1976, just before I turned five. That summer I remember riding in my dad’s car and listening to Ernie Harwell talk about this odd youngster that had just come up from the minors. As the summer went and he became more and more of a phenomenon, I followed every game filled with excitement and joy. It is not too much to say that the Bird (and Jason Thompson) helped me be happy again. Now he is gone. So is Tiger Stadium. I think I will go have a beer.


  8. RIP Harry Kalas, too

    The Bird was the first character in the game that made baseball seem human to an untalented, easily daunted little boy like me. He made me think that being slightly unique and misunderstood was totally OK.


  9. Hey, great article.. I mean, who else could write such detailed and lengthy op-eds about nothing important?
    bty- Are you married? Does your husband know what a loser you are? or does he support your full time job as a baseball card blogger while he moonlights as a drag queen?
    Request for you: why don’t you make up a fake baseball card of yourself (or a liquor store card, which I gather is your “profession”), but in your op-ed, include only real things that have happened in your life.. And be as fair to yourself as you have been to all the other ex- pro athletes you write about.
    What do ya say there Joshy??


  10. Look out Josh, Don Stanhouse is back. Looks like Earl Weaver’s gardener has learned the hunt & peck method for this new fangled gadget here! oh BTW this is a shitty week, at least 2 quality baseball icons passed away.


  11. Joe Posnanski and Rob Neyer have good articles on the death and life of Fidrych. Also, Tom Clark, who coauthored a book with Fidrych, offers an enjoyable excerpt of the book (featuring the Bird’s encounters with Frank Sinatra and Monte Hall). (I assume it’s the same Tom Clark who wrote a renowned poem about Bill Lee.)


  12. Fidrych was a gift from God to all of us. What a rookie year! 19-9 and a 2.34 earned run average, 24 shutouts. I have always remembered these numbers, and I will remember them forever. I recall watching him pitch a game against the Yankees on national television when every player on the Yankees seemed to hit a slow dribbler to the second baseman. The most boring game I ever watched, which also made it one of the best pitching performances I have ever seen.


  13. fidrych was one of those characters who leaves an impression on you for the rest of your life, in so many different ways you don’t even realize.

    his existence made it okay for us to let our hair down, talk to ourselves in public, and, perhaps mostly, fall in love with baseball all over again — or for the first time.

    i think stanhouse should write a foreword for your book.


  14. When I heard the news yesterday you were the first person I thought of, Josh. It makes me terribly sad.

    I was late to the game in appreciating Fidrych and I have this site to thank for knowing him at all. Because of that this hurts that much worse for me than it would have a year ago, and I’m happy for that.


  15. It’s been a rough month for my Detroit childhood memories. First George Kell and now The Bird. Sad, reflective days indeed. Ernie Harwell will always be the voice of the Tigers…but for those of us in our mid to late 30′s…Kell and Kaline will always remind you of those summer nights, watching the game with your Dad.


  16. Thanks for the memories and reflections, everybody. Hope they keep coming (about Kell and Kalas, too). It’s strange feeling sad about the passing of a stranger, but, as many are pointing out eloquently, once in a while someone from the baseball world will find a way to become a really significant part of our life. And the Bird had many more old-timer’s days to go to. Gone too goddamn soon.


  17. When I first read that Fidrych was found dead under his truck, I thought that meant he had a heart attack or stroke and just happened to be working on his truck at the time. It was sad, but it kind of felt like “We all gotta go some time.” It seemed more sad when it was reported that there was an accident.


  18. Harry Kalas’s voice was baseball. After a cold, pointless winter, I’d hear him on the car radio against the lazy crowd sounds from Clearwater and summer would be back. OK, a cliche. Here’s another: when my son & I are fooling around in the backyard with a plastic bat and mushy, oversized ball, I provide a running commentary as delivered by two announcers, “Harry” and “Rich”: “Well, that’s yet another infield hit turned into an inside-the-park home run, Rich!” “Oh, brother!” If I neglect to provide these comments for more than a couple of minutes my son demands I do more of the “TV talkers”. When he’s older I’ll tell him who they were.


  19. as far as kalas goes, he was also the voice of nfl films for many years, especially after john facenda passed away.

    whenever i watch football highlights, it just isn’t the same without kalas or facenda’s striking voices.


  20. That was a nice piece of writing. Just found out about The Bird’s death a few minutes ago and followed an ESPN blog link to this post. Your take on it is perfect. Thanks.


  21. Every time I keep thinking that I can pinpoint the moment my chilhood ended, I’m hit with a load of bricks that signify it ending all over again… R.I.P. Bird…


  22. piehead: “It seemed more sad when it was reported that there was an accident.”

    I had the same reaction.

    basilisc: Thanks for those thoughts on Kalas. I wish I’d listened to more of him when I had the chance.

    Because of his NFL films work, I would hazard to say that Kalas provided the soundtrack of more backyard fantasies than anyone who’s ever lived.

    allchuck: Thanks very much. I actually feel pretty feeble even trying to describe Fidrych. Maybe the only way he can really be described is with a lot of voices cheering.


  23. Mark Fidrych in 1976 was my first memory of baseball and started a lifelong fascination with the game. My grandparents lived in Detroit and my grandmother used to listen to games on the radio. I recall her talking about “The Bird” and how he was of Polish descent, like her mother (who didn’t speak a lick of English). I remember cheering for Mark in his attempt to rekindle his career when he was a member of the PawSox in the early 80′s and getting his autograph. What a likable guy — Detroit will never forget him.

    A great article written by SI in 2001 displays his cheerful look on life. Both touching and humorous, this piece ironically (and eerily) mentions the purchase of the dump truck that ended his life — http://vault.sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1022912/1/index.htm


  24. bradleyt16:
    Thanks for passing along that article. Another reader just emailed me the link to it, too. I’m looking forward to reading it. (I may have read it before–I like Steve Rushin’s writing a lot.)


  25. Congrats on the ESPN and BTF links. May they come with happier news next time.


  26. From the SI article:
    …a 10-wheel Mack dump truck he bought in 1986 for $88,000. “The truck has kept the fahm goin’ and kept my life goin’,” he says.


  27. I learned of his death at Citifield. They announced it right before the inaugural game.

    I’ll echo what I said in a previous Fidrych post, I wish he’d been a Met. Baseball needs more characters, too many robots out there these days.


  28. Amen, Josh. Terrific piece.


  29. I mentioned in the comments after one of Josh’s other Fidrych entries that I had seen Fidrych with his work truck in Leominster, Mass, in the mid ’90s. I wondered if this was the same truck or if he was working on a personal truck. It had a cartoon of Big Bird on it, that’s how I knew for certain it was him. It would be bitterly ironic if the truck celebrating his fame was the same truck.

    I wish I had the MLB network, I’d love to see that ’76 game at Yankee Stadium again.


  30. “All-time single season leader in joy”…In over 40 years of following baseball (to greater and lesser extents), I can’t even think of anyone who would come in a distant second to Fidrych in that category. He GAVE so much, put out so much in that brief period, burned so brightly. I’d always be pleased reading articles about how happy he was in his post-baseball life, how grateful he seemed to be for what he’d accomplished in baseball yet with a perspective and attitude that made him appreciate the pleasures of domesticity and be ok with the kind of work he had to do now to make a living. It was like he was still giving, making a point of showing that someone in his situation could be something other than bitter. However , seeing that 1985 interview above showed glimpses that maybe it was more of an effort not to feel kind of ripped off by circumstance than he usually liked to portray, but, so what? That doesn’t diminish his gift one iota.
    He gave so much beyond baseball by the way he played baseball.


  31. April 13th was a sad day for baseball fans. Fidrych is the sole reason that my father regained his interest in baseball and, in turn, passed the love of the game on to me. Growing up, there were three posters taped to my wall that I can still remember. One of Trammel, one of Whitaker, and a signed 8×10 of Fidrych and Randy Jones taken before the 1976 all-star game. A few years ago a purchased a Fidrych jersey that I wear to all of the Tigers games that I attend. I can’t count how many great memories I’ve heard at Nemo’s (an old sportsbar near Tiger Stadium) and Comerica from veteran fans about Fidrych and that summer of joy. That magical season preceded my birth by 3 years, but the stories and memories that have been passed on to me will be passed on to my children.

    R.I.P. Bird, the single season leader of joy, first athlete on the cover of “Rolling Stone”


  32. Like motherscracther, when I heard the news you were the first person I though of, Josh. I was 16 when Fidrych took the baseball world by storm. These kinds of out-of-nowhere stories don’t happen anymore with all the minor league, college and even high school coverage. He’ll be a once in a lifetime for me. Keep on keeping on, Josh!


  33. “It was like he was still giving, making a point of showing that someone in his situation could be something other than bitter.”

    Well put, sthek. I was thinking the very same thing, but it took me a lot more words to say it (see: my post today).

    champsummers:
    That’s really cool to hear that the Bird brought your dad back to baseball.

    pieman1121:
    I agree with the idea that there can’t really be an “out of nowhere” story anymore. I was thinking about that in terms of Fidrych not being on a baseball card of any kind in 1976.


  34. In this day and age, the “out of nowhere” phenomenon really is an anachronism…

    There is an interesting post at

    http://bats.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/15/fidrych-and-milledge-not-so-different/

    comparing the Bird’s guileless enthusiasm with that of the recently demoted Lastings Milledge. Although the comments soon devolve into persnickety race baiting and trivial grumblings, the foundation of the article concerns whether or not there ever can be that sort of fresh breeze of “gee whiz” enthusiasm again in MLB.


  35. Thanks for passing that “bats” piece along, ramblin. The following quote reminded me of something I saw somewhere over the last couple days (I can’t recall where, unfortunately) in which Fidrych talked about how Thurman Munson reacted to his first sighting of the Bird by calling the rookie a showboat (the two men, who would form the ’76 all-star game battery, later became friendly):

    “The home run — the first of Milledge’s career — sent the game into the 11th inning, and on his way back out to the outfield, Milledge high-fived and shook hands with fans. I thought then, and I’m sure those fans thought, too, that this was a great, human, spontaneous reaction. Instead, players denounced Milledge as being unprofessional and disrespectful to the opponent and the game.”


  36. I was 11 in ’76 and was enthralled with the “Bird” like all of us. I first heard of his death at a social gathering and I immediately started to tear up. No one else could understand my reaction even though they were all guys in their 40′s and 50′s. It was very difficult to not fully react the way I wanted to at the news. I can’t understand how baseball did not utilize all the personality of Fidrych after his retirement, ie pre-game analysis, Baseball Tonight, etc. Since Fidrych had a BoSox connection, why not NESN. I’m sure he would have been more entertaining than David McCarty, Lou Merloni, or Bob Tewksbury.


  37. I love the Bird. Everyone does. “All-time single season leader in joy”…. That is the best phrasing I can think of. I am so sad at his passing. He is everything baseball should be. Bird, you were a giant, more than any HOFER I can think of . . .


  38. Wouldn’t it be my luck…….to be caught without a ticket and be discovered beneath a truck. (Song by Bob Dylan)



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