A tall, lanky kid with blonde curly hair took Major League Baseball by storm during the late 1970s. His odd personality and dynamic pitching ability glued people to their television screens and drew sellout crowds wherever he pitched. But as quickly as he took over, Mark Fidrych faded out and became one of the biggest what-ifs in baseball history. But just who was The Bird, and what made him so addicting to watch?
Fidrych was born on August 14, 1954, in Worcester, Massachusetts. He played baseball locally and was taken in 10th round of the 1974 draft by the Detroit Tigers. Not initially thinking scouts were looking at the six-foot-three right-hander, Fidrych joked that when he got the call he thought he’d been drafted into the military.
Fidrych was given his famous nickname, The Bird, from a coach while playing with the Lakeland Tigers, one of Detroit’s minor-league farm teams. His appearance resembled that of Big Bird from the popular television show Sesame Street, thus earning him the nickname.
Fidrych made the Tigers roster out of spring training 1976, and he made his Major League Debut on April 20, 1976. Having only thrown one career inning prior, Fidrych made a spot start on May 15 and came away with a 2-1, complete-game victory against the Indians, firing six no-hit innings to start the game off. This start introduced the world to Fidrych and all of his quirky antics. After the game, Rico Carty said he thought that “Fidrych was trying to hypnotize them” during the game.
While in today’s game we are used to player rituals with charismatic and enthusiastic players, baseball was not the same in the 1970s. Fidrych brought his own style when he pitched, making him a must watch. He became a national celebrity after defeating the New York Yankees, 5-1, in mid-June, which was nationally televised on ABC, one of the few games to be shown during that time, and showcased the very best of The Bird.
Fidrych would walk out to the mound before every inning and manicure the mound. He would crouch down and pat the dirt down to his liking, and remove all cleat marks and divots he felt shouldn’t be there. He would yell at the ball if it didn’t go where he wanted it to, and throw balls back to the umpire, which “had hits in them,” as he said, insisting they be removed from the game. He would also yell at himself before, during, and after most pitches he threw. He was so superstitious that Tiger management refused to change out his rookie catcher for fear that it would mess him up.
Baseball fans instantly fell in love with Fidrych. He gathered a group of fans known as Bird Watchers, who would flock Tiger Stadium during his starts. In fact, during his 18 home starts, attendance was nearly equal to the 63 games in which he did not pitch. He made appearances on talk shows, magazine covers, and basically every newspaper across the country.
But Fidrych was more than just an interesting personality — he was a fantastic pitcher. He tallied a 29-19 record with a 3.10 ERA, 34 complete games, and five shutouts over 56 career starts. He won the Rookie of the Year in 1976, finishing second in the Cy Young Award voting that year, and he was selected to the All-Star team in both 1976 and 1977. But his rookie year was without question his best. He went 19-9 with an American League-leading 2.34 ERA and 24 complete games in 29 starts. More of a contact pitcher, Fidrych stuck out 170 batters over his career 412.1 innings.
But just as quickly as Fidrych took over Major League Baseball, he was gone. Injuries plagued his career, starting during spring training 1977. He tore cartilage in his knee, and about six weeks later, felt his arm “just go dead.” His dead feeling was a torn rotator cuff, which he would pitch through for the rest of his career and went undiagnosed until 1985, almost eight years after the initial injury. He saw Dr. James Andrews, who diagnosed his injury but said he would never pitch again due to the severe damage that had already happened. He was released by the Tigers after the 1980 season and never pitched again, retiring at the age of 29.
After retirement, Fidrych owned a farm in Massachusetts with his wife and daughter. Fidrych would work as a contractor, hauling asphalt and gravel in a 10-wheeler. On April 13, 2009, Fidrych was found beneath a dump truck, which he had been working on at the time. His clothes had become tangled in one of the motors of the machines, and was suffocated as a result. His death was ruled an accident.
Similar to his professional baseball career, Mark Fidrych’s life ended far earlier than it should have. The dynamic, fan favorite right-hander enthralled baseball during his short career, but was cut short due to injuries. Had Fidrych not torn his rotator cuff, he could have been one of the best pitchers the game has seen. Unfortunately, Fidrych is one of the biggest what could have been stories in baseball. While most people have played longer that him, Fidrych was one of the most beloved players to ever play the game. Long live The Bird.