Archive for the ‘Mark Fidrych’ Category

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Mark Fidrych

August 14, 2011

Today would be Mark Fidrych’s 57th birthday. At left is the autograph of the 1976 Rookie of the Year, a great gift sent along to me recently by Carl A., a fan of my book. Carl’s father got him the autograph one early spring at a motor inn in Lansing, Michigan, along with a few other Tigers autographs. In all but one of the other Tigers autographs, the players mentioned the father’s son by name and included a brief message:

To Carl
My Best Regards
Always
Ron LeFlore

To Carl
BEST Wishes!

Benjamin Oglivie

To Carl,
Best Always
Gates Brown

In addition to those signatures, all written on Hospitality Motor Inn stationery, Carl’s dad also got Al Kaline’s autograph (no message) on a smaller slip. But the scrawl of a Tiger all-time great could not have had more impact than the sideways scribble of Mark Fidrych. I imagine he and Kaline were unable to include personal wishes because their tables were besieged by fans, and if they were to personalize every message they would have been there all night. The presence among the signers of Ben Oglivie suggests that the signing occurred in 1977, Oglivie’s last with the Tigers, and a spring 1977 sighting of Fidrych, the reigning Rookie of the Year, must have caused quite a stir. He wouldn’t have had time to write the name of every father’s son on a slip of paper or to wish them the best, but he didn’t have to. Every father’s son from those days knew that the Bird was pitching for us and sending us his best. He was our way into the center of the action because he was exactly like us, a boy in love with the game.

This morning I roamed the Internet a bit in search of stories about meeting Mark Fidrych. There were glimpses of him long after his playing days were over, giving himself over to charity work, and glimpses of him crossing over into the world of comic books, and glimpses of him gazing backward with some hurt and confusion but also humility and gratitude.

The best glimpse of him that I found on this day, his birthday, was one taken by a photographer, Joe McNally, who—like most who ever seemed to spend even a little time with Fidrych—came to think of the big-hearted pitcher as his friend. Check out McNally’s touching tribute if you’ve got a second, and raise a glass today to the Bird.

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Mark Fidrych, 1978

April 16, 2009

1978-tigers-back

I don’t understand this life. For example, I don’t understand my baseball card collection. For example, I don’t understand why I have a Tigers team card from 1978 with the box next to Mark Fidrych’s name filled in without having a 1978 Mark Fidrych card in my collection.

There hadn’t been a Mark Fidrych card in 1976, the year he suddenly appeared at the center of the baseball world as if from thin air. I must have spent the summer of 1977 hoping for a Mark Fidrych card, but I know I never got one because my 1977 Tigers team card has a blank check box next to his name. The check box on this 1978 Tigers team card suggests that in 1978 I finally got my first Mark Fidrych card. I don’t understand why I no longer have this card.

***

I doubt I’m the only one who has spent the last couple days reading stories about Mark Fidrych, whose funeral will be held tomorrow. (According to MLB.com there will be a visitation today at a church in his hometown; please see the MLB.com story for information on the charities the family is encouraging people to give to in lieu of flowers.) One recurring element of the stories I’ve been reading is that you can’t hang on to anything. Mark Fidrych said it best himself, in a great 2001 Sports Illustrated article by Steve Rushin: “It all goes by so fast.”

When he uttered those words, he was talking not about his fame or his brilliant pitching skills, but about how he was trying to spend as much time with his wife and daughter as possible. He was talking about life. That’s the other element that keeps coming up in the stories about Mark Fidrych. Even though it’s impossible to hang onto anything forever, Mark Fidrych hung on tight as long as he could to the things that mattered. Read the rest of this entry ?

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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.

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Mark Fidrych, 1979

February 23, 2009

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“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.

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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.

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Mark Fidrych

September 10, 2006

In this picture, taken in 1980, Mark Fidrych attempts to simultaneously hide and caress a baseball in his hands as if cradling a beloved and terminally ill pet in a veterinary waiting room. He is four years and several trips to the disabled list removed from giving the world, in terms of sheer joy, the greatest single-season performance in baseball history. The marginalia on the back of this card clings desperately to that year, 1976, like a profoundly lonely middle-aged man still masturbating to the image of a beautiful woman he somehow lucked into a brief fling with the summer after college ended. Fidrych’s rookie of the year award for 1976 is mentioned, as is his 2 innings pitched in the 1976 all-star game, and the space-filling cartoon along the left-hand border features a baseball player, generic except for the curly Fid-fro billowing out from under the hat, holding a giant trophy entitled “1976 MAJOR LEAGUE MAN OF THE YEAR,” an award I’ve never heard of (and I’ve wasted much of my life poring over the baseball encyclopedia like a rabbi reading the Torah). The statistics alone are left to tell about the other years: in 1977 he pitched in only 11 games; the next year he pitched in only 3; and in 1979, the last season listed on the back of this card, Fidrych pitched his fewest innings yet, just 15, losing three games, winning none, and getting battered for 17 runs, all earned. In this picture, taken in 1980, it is over. I was 12 years old when I first looked at this card, in which the fallen god, the all-time single-season leader in joy, seems to have literally signed his name as “Mush.”

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