Remembering Mark Fidrych

Last night, the MLB Network presented a one-hour program about the career of Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. Then, it showed the entirety of a game he pitched against the New York Yankees on June 26, 1976 — a complete game 5-1 win.

For those who missed the Mark Fidrych experience, here’s some background. Fidrych debuted as a 21 year old rookie for the Detroit Tigers in 1976. He made the club with only a year and a half of experience in the minor leagues.

Inserted into the starting rotation in mid-May, Fidrych won nine of his first ten starts. His only loss was to Boston, 2-0. He completed all but one of these starts.

For the season, Fidrych went 19-9 with 2.34 ERA and 24 complete games (in 31 starts) for a bad team. He didn’t win the AL Cy Young award, the great Jim Palmer did. But from the time Fidrych entered the starting rotation until the end of the season, the Bird was as good as Palmer.

It was Fidrych’s demeanor and persona, along with his accomplishments, that made him a celebrity and endeared him to the nation. He was the pitcher who “talked to the baseball,” who landscaped the mound with his hands, and who sometimes shook hands with his infielders after a good (or maybe even routine) play.

Add to that, his youthful, exuberant face and his long curly mop of reddish hair, and the Mark Fidrych craze was on.

Watching him pitch last night brought a smile to my face. At the risk of writing too technically about the guy, here are a few observations about Fidrych, the pitcher.

He had quite an arm. During the game with the Yankees, his fastball was clocked at 93 miles per hour — both in the first inning and the ninth. That’s about average now, but it was elite back then (Ken Holtzman, who pitched for the Yankees, was throwing about 87-88 mph, which was about average for the time.) I think of 93 mph in 1976 as the equivalent of maybe 97 mph today.

His fastball had great late movement, usually downward. The Yankees couldn’t deal with it. Billy Martin* loaded the New York lineup with left-handed hitters. They kept Pedro Garcia, Detroit’s second baseman, busy fielding weak grounders.

Fidrych also had a pretty good slider. Mixing it in helped keep hitter off balance.

Fidrych threw a change-up in addition to his fastball and slider, but judging from the game I saw, it needed work. That’s not surprising given how new he was to professional baseball.

Fidrych had fantastic control. In the game I saw, he almost always seemed to spot his fastball where he wanted to. He didn’t walk a single Yankee. For the 1976 season, he walked 53 batters in 250 innings, exceptional in that era. (Palmer, who had fine control, walked 84 in 315.)

Fidrych worked fast. I mean, really fast. Even with his on-mound antics, he rarely took more than 10 seconds from the time he got the ball until the time he delivered it. Sometimes, he took fewer than eight seconds. (Baseball should require pitchers to deliver within 20 seconds and should gradually reduce that amount of time).

Now, about Fidrych’s antics. I don’t think he really talked to the baseball. I think he talked to himself while holding the ball in front of him.

What did Fidrych say to himself? I gather from his interviews that he might tell himself to bear down; he might tell himself to settle down (usually accompanied by a gesture to that effect); he might tell himself what went wrong mechanically on the previous pitch that missed the desired location; he might tell himself where to locate his next pitch.

These, I assume, are the kinds of things most pitchers tell themselves — just not out loud.

As for the landscaping by hand, Fidrych was filling in the hole left by the opposing pitcher the previous inning. He wanted to create his own landing spot. Some pitchers perform the same landscaping, but with their feet. Fidrych was a hands-on guy.

Pumping up his infielders and occasionally shaking hands were just products of Fidrych’s exuberance and possibly his upbringing. The guy liked to shake hands.

After he closed out his win over the Yankees, Fidrych ran around looking for hands to shake. He looked like Jim Valvano after winning the 1983 NCAA championship. He shook hands with one of the umpires and later with some of the policemen and fans.

Speaking of umpires, it looked like the home plate umpire in the game I watched gave him most of the close calls. I think it was unusual for a rookie pitcher to get the benefit of the doubt so often back then.

Maybe it was because of the late movement on his fastball. Maybe it was because the ump was into the Fidrych experience. Maybe it was just random.

What did opposing players make of Fidrych’s behavior? I would have thought that, in that era, they would have resented it.

Some did. Thurman Munson, who missed the game I saw due to injury, wasn’t a Fidrych fan. He called the Bird “bush.” Willie Randolph was another critic.

However, Brooks Robinson, one of the game’s grand old men, said “he’s good for baseball, I hope he wins 30, but not against us.”

Players hate being shown up. However, I’m guessing most didn’t think Fidrych was trying to do that. They probably thought he was crazy or just naturally weird.

Willie Horton recalled that when Fidrych faced the Cleveland Indians in his debut as a starter, Rico Carty and others were laughing at him. Nine innings of two-hit, one-run baseball later, no one was laughing.

It probably helped Fidrych’s standing with players that he had the backing of two fine veterans on his team — Rusty Staub and Horton. Staub said of Fidrych:

There’s nothing contrived about him and that’s what makes him a beautiful person. There’s an electricity that he brings out in everyone, the players and the fans. He’s different. He’s a 21-year-old kid with a great enthusiasm that everyone loves. He has an inner youth, an exuberance.

The rest of the league knew that Staub and Horton wouldn’t vouch for a “hot dog,” to use the expression of that time.

What happened to Fidrych following his magical season. In spring training the next year, he suffered a knee injury while horsing around shagging fly balls. The Tigers rushed him back and he pitched great for a while. Then, he injured his arm trying to compensate for his distressed knee.

Fidrych had torn his rotator cuff, but it wasn’t correctly diagnosed for years.

In 1978, he managed only three starts. The first two were excellent, but he had to exit early in his third start due to arm problems. That was on April 17. He was done for the season, and as good as done for his career.

After baseball, Fidrych returned to his home in Northborough, Massachusetts? He farmed, drove a truck, and did odd jobs. Once, when someone said to him “don’t I know you from somewhere?” Fidrych replied “I used to work at the Sunoco station at the corner.”

Fidrych died in 2009, at age 54, in an accident as he worked underneath a truck.

*Martin got off the best line of the broadcast. The players and managers introduced themselves to the national television audience by stating their name and town. Martin said, “Billy Martin — born in Berkeley, California, died in New York.”

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