August 14, 1954|
|Died: April 13, 2009
|April 20, 1976, for the Detroit Tigers|
|Last MLB appearance|
|October 1, 1980, for the Detroit Tigers|
|Earned run average||3.10|
|Career highlights and awards|
In 1976, Fidrych led the major leagues with a 2.34 ERA, won the AL Rookie of the Year award, and finished with a 19–9 record. Shortly after, injuries piled up and his major league career ended after just five seasons.
The son of an assistant school principal, Fidrych played baseball at Algonquin Regional High School in Northborough, Massachusetts, and at Worcester Academy, a day and boarding school in central Massachusetts. In the 1974 amateur draft he was selected in the 10th round by the Detroit Tigers and later joked that when he got a call saying he had been drafted he thought he was drafted into the military not thinking there were any teams looking at him. In the minor leagues one of his coaches with the Lakeland Tigers dubbed the lanky 6-foot-3 right-handed pitcher "The Bird" because of his resemblance to the "Big Bird" character of the Sesame Street television program.
Fidrych made the Tigers as a non-roster invitee out of the 1976 spring training, not making his Major League debut until April 20, and only pitching one inning through mid-May. He made his first start in the Tigers' 24th game of the season, on May 15 against the Cleveland Indians, and only because the scheduled starting pitcher had the flu. Fidrych responded by throwing six no-hit innings, ending the game with a 2–1 complete game victory in which he gave up only two hits. The first hit he gave up was a single to Buddy Bell. Fidrych drew attention for talking to the ball during the game‚ and patting down the mound each inning. After the game, Rico Carty of the Indians said he thought Fidrych "was trying to hypnotize them."
On May 31 and June 5, in his third and fourth career starts, Fidrych earned 11-inning complete game wins. From May 31 to July 3, Fidrych won seven decisions in a row, bringing his win-loss record to 9–1.
On June 28, Fidrych appeared before a national audience for the first time, as the Tigers hosted the New York Yankees on ABC's Monday Night Baseball. Despite the Tigers being 32–35, millions of fans tuned in (except in Detroit, where the game was blacked out) to watch the quirky pitcher who came into the contest sporting a 7–1 record and 2.18 ERA. Fidrych didn't disappoint, earning a 5–1 complete game victory that took only 1 hour and 51 minutes. Fans wouldn't leave the stadium until Mark emerged from the dugout for a curtain call. After the broadcast, which was filled with plenty of "Bird" antics, Fidrych became a national celebrity.
On July 9, pitching in front of a sell-out crowd (51,041) at Tiger Stadium, Fidrych held the Royals to one run in nine innings, but Dennis Leonard shut out the Tigers 1–0.
Fidrych was named to the 1976 AL All-Star team. He started and earned the loss in the game, giving up two runs. Fidrych won his 10th game, a 1–0 victory over the A's, on July 16. Four days later in Minneapolis, before Fidrych's 13th start, the Twins released 13 homing pigeons on the mound before the game. According to Fidrych, "they tried to do that to blow my concentration." Fidrych pitched another complete game and got his 11th win, 8–3. On July 24, Fidrych lasted only 4 1⁄3 innings but John Hiller got the win in relief.
After the July 24 game, Fidrych was interviewed on live television, and a small controversy arose when Fidrych said "bullshit" on the air. Fidrych recalled: "He (NBC commentator Tony Kubek) said, it looked like you were gonna cry. I just said, No, I wasn't about to cry. I was just bullshit.... And then I said, excuse me. I said, I didn't mean to swear on the air but I just showed you my feelings." The next day, Fidrych received a telegram informing he had been fined $250 by baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, but it was a prank sent by his own teammates.
On July 29 and August 7, Fidrych threw consecutive six-hit complete games. He won one of the games and lost the other. The Tigers beat the Rangers, 4–3, on August 11 as Fidrych notched his 13th win over Gaylord Perry. Six days later, the Tigers drew a season-high 51,822 fans as Fidrych went to 14–4, beating opposing pitcher Frank Tanana 3–2. On August 25, the Tigers beat the White Sox, 3–1, in front of 40,000 fans on a Wednesday night in Detroit. Fidrych held the White Sox to five hits in a game that lasted only one hour and 48 minutes. Between August 29 and September 17, Fidrych lost three consecutive decisions, bringing his record to 16–9.
Fidrych beat the Indians two starts in a row on September 21 and 28. In his last start of the 1976 season, Fidrych got his 19th win, beating the Brewers, 4–1, giving up five hits. A month later, Fidrych was announced as the runner-up for the Cy Young Award, with Jim Palmer taking the award.
Fidrych won the AL Rookie of the Year Award and was named Tiger of the Year by the Detroit baseball writers. He led MLB in ERA (2.34), Adjusted ERA+ (158) and led the AL in complete games (24). He finished in the top five in several other statistical categories, including wins, win percentage, shutouts, walks plus hits per innings pitched (WHIP), and bases on balls per nine innings pitched. He got the 11th-highest vote total in the year's AL MVP voting.
In Fidrych's 18 home starts in 1976, he compiled a 12–6 record while the Tigers averaged 33,649 fans; the team drew an average of only 13,843 in his non-starts.
During the offseason between the 1976 and 1977 seasons, Fidrych published an autobiography with Tom Clark titled No Big Deal.
Injury and retirement
Fidrych tore the cartilage in his knee fooling around in the outfield during spring training in 1977. He picked up where he left off after his return from the injury, but about six weeks after his return, during a July 4 game against Baltimore, he felt his arm just, in his words, "go dead." It was a torn rotator cuff, but it would not be diagnosed until 1985. Fidrych managed to finish the season 6–4 with a 2.89 ERA and was again invited to the All-Star Game, but he declined the invitation due to injury. Still on the disabled list toward the end of the season, Fidrych worked as a guest color analyst on a Monday Night Baseball telecast for ABC; he was subsequently criticized for his lack of preparation, as when play-by-play partner Al Michaels tried talking with him about Philadelphia Phillies player Richie Hebner and Fidrych responded, "Who's Richie Hebner?" As an American League player, Fidrych had never had to face Hebner, who played in the National League.
He pitched only three games in 1978, winning two. On August 12, 1980, 48,361 fans showed up at Tiger Stadium to see what turned out to be his last attempt at a comeback. Fidrych pitched his last MLB game on October 1, 1980 in Toronto, going five innings and giving up four earned runs, while picking up the win in an 11–7 Tigers victory which was televised in Detroit.
At the end of the 1981 season, Detroit gave Fidrych his outright release and he signed as a free agent with the Boston Red Sox, playing for one of their minor league teams. However, his torn rotator cuff, still undiagnosed and untreated, never healed. At age 29, he was forced to retire. After seeing everyone from chiropractors to hypnotists, Fidrych went to famed sports doctor James Andrews in 1985. Dr. Andrews discovered the torn rotator cuff and operated; still, the damage already done to the shoulder effectively ended Fidrych's chance of coming back to a professional baseball career.
Fidrych remained cheerful and upbeat. In a 1998 interview, when asked who he would invite to dinner if he could invite anyone in the world, Fidrych said, "My buddy and former Tigers teammate Mickey Stanley, because he's never been to my house."
Fidrych lived with his wife Ann, whom he married in 1986, on a 107-acre (0.43 km2) farm in Northborough. They had a daughter, Jessica. Aside from fixing up his farmhouse, he worked as a contractor hauling gravel and asphalt in a ten-wheeler. On weekends, he helped out in his mother-in-law's business, Chet's Diner on route 20 in Northborough, currently operated by his daughter. He would also frequent the local baseball field to help teach and play ball with the kids.
Fidrych was not an overpowering pitcher, posting strikeout rates below the league average throughout his career. He was, however, praised for having exceptional control (compiling a walk rate of 1.77 per 9 IP over his first two seasons), and for having good late movement on his pitches while keeping the ball down and inducing many ground balls. He allowed only 23 home runs in 412 1⁄3 major league innings (0.5/9 rate) despite pitching many games in hitter-friendly Tiger Stadium.
Fidrych also captured the imagination of fans with his antics on the field. He would crouch down on the pitcher's mound and fix cleat marks, what became known as "manicuring the mound", talk to himself, talk to the ball, aim the ball like a dart, strut around the mound after every out, and throw back balls that "had hits in them", insisting they be removed from the game. Mark Fidrych also was known for shaking everyone's hands after a game.
Every time he pitched, Tiger Stadium was jam-packed with fans who became known as "Bird Watchers". Fidrych's fan appeal was also enhanced by the fact that he had his own "personal catcher". Because Tigers coaching and managerial staff were somewhat superstitious about "jinxing" Fidrych's success, Bruce Kimm, a rookie catcher, caught each of Fidrych's outings.
It became common to hear the crowd chant "we want the Bird, we want the Bird" at the end of each of his home victories. The chants would continue until he emerged from the dugout to tip his cap to the crowd. While these "curtain calls" have become more common in modern sports, they were not so in the mid-1970s baseball. In his 18 appearances at Tiger Stadium, attendance equaled almost half of the entire season's 81 home games. Teams started asking Detroit to change its pitching rotation so Fidrych could pitch in their ballparks, and he appeared on the cover of numerous magazines, such as Sports Illustrated (twice, including once with Sesame Street character Big Bird), Rolling Stone (as of 2015, the only baseball player ever to make the cover of the rock and roll magazine), and The Sporting News. In one week, Fidrych turned away five people who wanted to be his agent, saying, "Only I know my real value and can negotiate it."
Fidrych also drew attention for the simple, bachelor lifestyle he led in spite of his fame, driving a green subcompact car, living in a small Detroit apartment, wondering aloud if he could afford to answer all of his fan mail on his league-minimum $16,500 salary, and telling people that if he hadn't been a pitcher, he'd work pumping gas in Northborough. He fascinated everyone, most especially young women, with his frizzy blond curls, blue jeans, and devil-may-care manner.
At the end of his rookie season, the Tigers gave him a $25,000 bonus and signed him to a three-year contract worth $255,000. Economists estimated that the extra attendance Fidrych generated around the league in 1976 was worth more than $1 million. Fidrych also did an Aqua Velva television commercial after the 1976 season.
According to the Worcester District Attorney's office, a family friend found Fidrych dead beneath his ten-wheel dump truck at his Northborough home around 2:30 p.m, April 13, 2009. He appeared to have been working on the truck at the time of the accident. Authorities said Fidrych suffocated after his clothes had become entangled with a spinning power takeoff shaft on the truck. The state medical examiner's office ruled the death an accident, according to a release from the Worcester District Attorney's office.
Joseph Amorello, owner of a road construction company who had occasionally hired Fidrych to haul gravel or asphalt, had stopped by the farm to chat with him when he found the body underneath the dump truck. "We were just, in general, getting started for the [road-building] season this week and it seems as though his truck was going to be needed. It looked like he was doing some maintenance on it", Amorello said in a telephone interview. "I found him under the truck. There's not much more I can say. I dialed 911 and that's all I could do."
Honors and tributes
In one of Bill James' baseball books, he quoted the Yankees' Graig Nettles as telling about an at-bat against Fidrych, who, as usual, was talking to the ball before pitching to Nettles. Immediately Graig jumped out of the batter's box and started talking to his bat. He reportedly said, "Never mind what he says to the ball. You just hit it over the outfield fence!" Nettles struck out. "Damn", he said. "Japanese bat. Doesn't understand a word of English." Nettles actually hit Fidrych very well in his career, though, with a .389 average [7-for-18] and two home runs.
Fidrych was inducted June 2009 into the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. On June 19, 2009, Jessica Fidrych honored her father at Comerica Park by throwing out the ceremonial first pitch to manager Jim Leyland for the Tigers game against the Milwaukee Brewers. Prior to throwing the first pitch, Jessica "manicured the mound" just like her father. Ann Fidrych, widow of Mark Fidrych, was also present on the field for the ceremony.
- Fidrych, Mark; Tom Clark (1977). No Big Deal. Lippincott. ISBN 978-0-397-01233-6.
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