Sunday, June 25, 2006

30 Years Later, Still None Like Fidrych

Mark Fidrych died in spring training, 1977. Funeral arrangements are still pending.

For one year he was very much alive – The Bird. From May to October, 1976, Fidrych spun the baseball world round and round on top of his self-manicured pitching mound. He was a spike on what was mostly a flatlined baseball heart monitor in Detroit between 1974-78.

Then Fidrych himself flatlined, and it basically happened in one fateful moment in Lakeland, Florida in March 1977.

Nobody since has splashed onto the baseball scene as Fidrych did in ’76. Nobody has captivated the game’s fans – young and old – with the same youthful naivety and innocence as Mark Fidrych did 30 years ago. Nobody has even come close, really.

Do not tell me about Fernando Valenzuela’s debut, or Kerry Wood’s. Do not tell me about Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire and their assault on a homerun record, which was most likely taken via a crooked path. Do not tell me about any of these, or any other, because I will spot you the goofiest stretch of gravitational pull of fans that you can muster, and it simply cannot match Fidrych’s 1976 traveling show.

The legend of Fidrych is oft-told, so there’s no need to bother with too much space for that. Suffice it to say that the tall, gangly, 21 year-old kid with the yellow mop of hair turned everyone on by talking to the baseball, grooming his pitching mound – on his hands and knees – and enthusiastically congratulating his teammates after big plays and wins. And oh, yeah – The Bird could pitch, too. He had a 19-9 record and a league-leading 2.34 ERA. He was the American League’s starting pitcher in the All-Star Game.

“I’ve seen Tom Seaver go out and mow them down,” then-teammate Rusty Staub, the former New York Met, said during that glorious summer of ’76, “but I’ve never seen a pitcher turn on the fans like The Bird.”

The numbers – the attendance figures, specifically – told the story. Ballparks across the country held an average of over 30,000 fans every time Fidrych took the mound. He certainly must have led the majors in walk-up ticket purchases. Fidrych was baseball’s pied piper.

Fidrych owned the baseball world in 1976

Then it all ended, and with a soft thud of a leg awkwardly planting itself on an outfield’s grass.

It was Staub who felt a feeling of foreboding.

“Bird was goofing around, shagging balls in the outfield,” Staub once recounted of that March day in 1977. “He was jumping up and down, and acting foolish. I told him that he’d better take it down a notch. I was afraid he was going to hurt himself.”

A few minutes later, Staub’s fears were realized.

“I saw him come down funny on his left leg, and there was a popping sound,” Staub said. “I thought, ‘Oh, no. He did it. He hurt himself.’ Bad.”

Fidrych tore up his left knee, shagging flyballs in a spring training outfield.

June 28, 1976. The night that Mark Fidrych officially became a part of the public’s consciousness.

He missed the first nine weeks of the season, and made his return at Tiger Stadium in late May, 1977. The opponents were the expansion Seattle Mariners. Fidrych, pitching again in front of a sellout crowd of shrieking fans, pitched well but lost.

He seemed on the way back, going 6-4 with another respectable ERA of under 3.00. But then more trouble: His right arm went funny.

Tendinitis, they called it. Back to the disabled list Fidrych went.

That was pretty much the end of his baseball. Fidrych tried several comebacks from the arm trouble, but each got progressively worse. He retired officially in 1981, after getting knocked around like a pinball while trying to make the Boston Red Sox.

The prevailing thought, the connect-the-dot wisdom, was that Fidrych’s knee injury caused a subtle change in his pitching mechanics, which brought on the tendinitis. It’s a logical theory, one that has been put forward by medical experts.

So using that widely-held view, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych died 29 springs ago.

But that was the flatlining. The spike occurred almost 30 years ago to the day.

June 28, 1976. The night that Mark Fidrych officially became a part of the public’s consciousness.

It was “Monday Night Baseball” on ABC, a network that found football so pleasing on Monday nights that it decided to try baseball there, too. Besides, they only had to change one word on the graphics.

This was a big deal because the New York Yankees were the opponents. And after some moribund years, the Yankees were returning to the glory that had been theirs and theirs alone for decades. Billy Martin was their manager. They came to Detroit with a healthy eight-game lead in the American League East division.

Fidrych handled them. Easily.

Pitching with the urgency and quickness that was another of his trademarks, Fidrych finished off the Yankees in one hour, 51 minutes before nearly 48,000 fans and millions watching their boob tubes. The final score was 5-1. Fidrych’s win bumped his record to 8-1, and by Tuesday morning the 29th of June, 1976, an unbelievable amount of folks knew who Mark Fidrych was, who may not have known the previous evening.

That Monday night game, for all intents and purposes, was Fidrych’s zenith. He was the All-Star starter a few weeks later, but he was knocked around in two innings by the cream of the National League crop.

Fidrych was the quintessential “one hit wonder”, but he was never bitter about his career’s brevity. Consistently he has been thankful for the time he had, and genuinely unfazed by his body’s betrayal. Always he has been willing to return to Detroit to participate in special occasions or sign autographs.

He has been at peace with his playing career, yet he never got back into the game in some other capacity. He never really tried. We are left to wonder why.


Ozz said...

I've got a DVD of that MNB game vs. NY. I'll have to watch it again on Wednesday night.

This past offseason, I ordered a package through e-Bay that included that game, the Morris no-hitter and the entire '84 postseason on DVD. All for right around $40, I think (can't remember how much I paid).

All the games had been videotaped and transferred to DVD. The quality was actually quite good.

I didn't become aware of the Tigers until '78 and became a full fledge fan in '79, so I missed out on all the fun in '76. Damn!

Greg Eno said...

Yes, you did miss out; I've never seen anything like Fidrych-mania.