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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
Mark Fidrych died this week in an accident on his farm in Massachusetts. He was only 54. The news threw me into a time machine and flashed me back to 1976. I had just broken the men’s record for swimming around Manhattan Island and all of a sudden I was invited into the “in crowd” of the big sports personalities of the day. I got a chance to hang out with Mohammed Ali and Smokin’ Joe Frazier when they got back from the Thrilla in Manila. Joe Namath became an acquaintance. Billie Jean King became a friend. And, even though I was definitely New York centric when it came to my sports idols, there was one and only one baseball player of the day who captivated my imagination. That was Mark Fidrych.
It was a freewheeling time, when the maverick Redskins running back John Riggins was known to crawl under a table at black-tie events and take a nap in his tuxedo. Many of the sports stars were unique individuals. That’s what we were drawn to. And I daresay Mark Fidrych was the most unique of them all.
It was Howard Cossell, as a matter of fact, who first told me I should get into the Tigers pitcher. Cossell called me Kid. “Kid”, he said, “you gotta get a load of this young man on the mound in Detroit. He’s a pistol”. So I, like millions of baseball and non-baseball followers of the mid-70’s tuned in to the Fidrych show. And, like a lot of people, I at first thought the Fidrych antics were contrived. Turns out his running at full sprint speed from the dugout to the mound, his kneeling on the mound and sweeping the dirt until it was perfectly manicured to his liking, his jogging over to infielders to shake their hands after great plays, were no calculated ploys for attention. The Bird, as he was called because his long legs, wild curly blonde locks, and goofiness bore similarities to the Muppets’ Big Bird, played the game with unadulterated joy. He actually smiled occasionally smack in the midst delivering his smoldering fastball.
Fidrych was a magnet in ’76. The Tigers averaged 18,000 more fans for his starts that year than for their other home games. They called themselves The Bird Watchers. And The Bird was so popular around the country that other clubs couldn’t wait to get him onto their fields. In June of ’76, The Cleveland Indians were averaging 12,000 fans for home games. On July 24 that June, when Fidrych came to pitch, 37,405 fans packed the stands to see him. In Minnesota, The Bird brought 30,425 out to the park. The night before, only 5,000 came out. The night after Fidrych, only 7,000 showed.
The Bird talked, out loud, to the ball. He had a dialogue going that could be heard all the way to the low seats behind the dugouts. But he was far from just a colorful novelty act. His heat from the mound the year he brought magic and boyhood to Major League Baseball earned him American League Rookie of the Year, a starter role in the All-Star game, and a second place Cy Young finish to Jim Palmer. He threw 24 complete games that rookie year which is one less that Andy Pettitte has achieved over the long course of his career.
I would venture to say that Mark Fidrych was the most popular athlete in America in 1976. It was the year free agency came into being and toward the end of his one and only stellar season, a reporter asked what had come his way, meaning big salary negotiations. The Bird responded: “Happiness”. Happiness had come his way.
Fidrych was injured shortly after that one and only stellar season, but his friends in Northborough, Massachusetts say he was the same devil-may-care, boyish delight all his life. And Fidrych was quoted often as saying he himself didn’t feel it was a tragedy that his career was so short. Fidrych owned 1976. That was enough for him. And it was plenty enough for us, too.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that’s The Score.
Banner image: Detroit Tigers interview with Fidrych