It’s difficult to think of a better way to greet the return of baseball after its long annual hibernation than by recalling and celebrating the brief but incandescent career of Mark Steven Fidrych, or, as every citizen of Baseball World knew him, the Bird. He had only one full season in the major leagues, and though it was a spectacular one by any standard baseball measure, that wasn’t the half of it. A teammate on the Detroit Tigers, Willie Horton, got it exactly right at the Bird’s funeral service four years ago: “Everyone playing in the major leagues today owes a debt of gratitude to Mark Fidrych. He brought baseball back to the people. He made it popular again. He helped save the game.”
That is no exaggeration. In the spring of 1976, as the new season got underway, baseball was headed down the tubes. In this very good biography of Fidrych, Doug Wilson gets it right, too:
“Baseball in 1976 was in dire straits. The reserve clause had been struck down and the Pandora’s Box of free agency had been opened. A large number of players were openly talking of playing out their options at the end of the season and defecting — abandoning their teams for the highest bidder. The owners had locked out the players in spring training due to squabbles over the player agreement contract. Fans, disheartened by the greed that had taken over the game, were sick of hearing about lawyers, agents, and astronomical salaries.”
Not merely was professional football “overtaking baseball as the national pastime,” but the “game’s greatest stars, such as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Al Kaline, and Harmon Killebrew, were either retired or nearing retirement, and there was a desperate need for new stars to fill the void.” This seemingly impossible task was taken on and triumphantly carried out by a 21-year-old rookie from a small town in Massachusetts who, on the stage provided one night in June by a nationally televised game against the New York Yankees, pitched his team to a 5-1 victory and, more than that, captured the country’s heart: “This one evening would ignite an unprecedented frenzy that would play out over the next three months. The nation would fall in love with The Bird’s enthusiasm, spontaneity, genuineness, celebrated goofiness, and the fact that he was happy doing it all for the major league minimum of $16,500 a year.”
That game (you can see the last few minutes of it on YouTube) was a milestone in baseball history. Talking to the baseball before he pitched it, getting down on his knees to smooth the mound to his liking, dashing around the field to congratulate teammates on good plays, even shaking hands with one of the umpires at game’s end — Fidrych displayed an utterly unaffected boyish innocence and enthusiasm that reminded us of what we had loved about baseball when we were young ourselves. Small wonder that the packed house in good old Tiger Stadium refused to leave, applauding wildly until at last Fidrych sheepishly came out of the dugout and waved at the crowd. Rusty Staub, who was in right field that night for the Tigers and had plenty of good baseball behind (and ahead) of him, talked about it to Wilson:
“It was electrifying for me to watch that happen to him. It was more electrifying than if it happened to me, because I appreciated something that was new and great in the game that I hadn’t seen in a while. I saw Koufax. When Vida Blue came up, he was pretty exciting. But nothing like this guy. There was nobody like Fidrych. I can only tell you that when he did that, the fans went crazy. . . . In that one instant, he created something I never saw in baseball and have yet to see again.”
As Wilson points out, baseball players didn’t do curtain calls in those days. For the fans of Detroit to scream as long and as loud as they did, and for Fidrych to respond as he did, changed all that and set the tone for a whole new relationship between the men on the field and the people in the stands, a relationship we saw burst to life here in Washington during the wonderful season of 2012. Baseball may never regain the primacy it lost to pro football several decades ago, but it is hugely prosperous (thanks in great measure to massive television contracts), high salaries no longer are resented by fans who have come to understand that it’s the players who make the big money possible, and a vast, peripheral industry of magazines, Websites and cable television shows feeds the fans’ seemingly insatiable appetite for news and statistics about the game.
Precisely how much of this can be traced to Mark Fidrych cannot be measured, but without him none of it might have happened. From the day in June 1974 when he showed up at the training camp of the Tigers’ low Class A Bristol (Va.) Tigers, gawky, noisy and energetic with a huge mop of curly yellow hair, he caught people’s attention. “I looked and there were arms and legs going everywhere,” a team staff member told Wilson. “The curly hair was shooting out from under his hat, he was running like crazy, flapping his arms, squawking, and I looked at him and said, ‘He looks like Big Bird.’ Then I said, ‘He’s The Bird.’ And he was called The Bird from that moment on.”
It was the perfect nickname. Fidrych really did look like Big Bird, the Sesame Street character who was then in the early years of his own huge popularity, and the love that kids and their parents felt for him was almost instantly transferred to Fidrych when he made it to the majors two years later. As Wilson says, “All baseball players have nicknames,” though mostly they’re determined by “a highly scientific process (step one: take the first syllable of the last name; step two: add ‘ie’),” a process with which Washington Nationals fans are familiar as they cheer for Desie and Espie and their other favorites, but only rarely does a nickname become so memorable that the general public takes it up. Indeed, I can’t think of another baseball nickname that caught on so rapidly and thoroughly as The Bird. Nominations are hereby solicited.
Wilson’s account of The Bird’s season with Bristol is lovely, a perfect portrait of minor-league life at the lowest levels, and so is his account of Fidrych’s boyhood in the close, happy, no-nonsense central Massachusetts town of Northboro: “It was this idyllic childhood that set the foundation for Mark Fidrych: a combination of Norman Rockwell and ‘Leave it to Beaver,’ with a dash of Huck Finn tossed in.” Fidrych was no student — Wilson, an ophthalmologist, thinks he may have had attention deficit disorder — but everyone loved him, and from very early on his baseball skills were evident, encouraged but not drummed into him by his father.
The summer of 1976 was pure magic. The Tigers went an undistinguished 74-88, but The Bird was 19-9 with an ERA of 2.34 in 250 innings that included — get this — 24 complete games (four in extra innings) and four shutouts.Doubtless today’s baseball savants would argue that this extraordinary workload was what produced the arm injury that hit him the next season — not until a decade later was he diagnosed with a severely torn rotator cuff, too late to do him any good — and surely they would be right, but that was how the game was played then, and many other pitchers ran up much higher innings counts; some of them had long careers, and some didn’t.
The sudden end to his career was hard on The Bird (and on his millions of fans), but he insisted that he had no regrets, returned to Northboro, married and had a daughter, then died in 2009, aged 54, in an accident on the farm he had worked after leaving the game. He was mourned by his friends and neighbors in Northboro, and by everyone in baseball. Jim Leyland, now the manager of the Tigers but then a lifer in the Tigers’ minor-league system who had come to know Fidrych well during his attempt at a comeback, put it succinctly: “You can talk about Ty Cobb or anyone else, but for one year, he was the biggest impact star in the history of the Tigers. For that one year he was bigger than anybody in the history of the game.”
He is paid handsome tribute by Wilson, whose prose is mostly clear and straightforward, who has talked to just about everybody (though apparently Fidrych’s widow and daughter declined to cooperate), and he has come up with one wonderful quotation after another. “The Bird” is the funniest and most touching baseball book to come my way in a long time, and it gets the 2013 season off to a splendid start.
The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych
By Doug Wilson
Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s. 306 pp. $26.99