BY MARK W. SCHRAF
58 games. That’s it.
That’s the sum total of major league appearances for Detroit Tigers pitcher Mark Fidrych, who won 19 games in his Rookie of the Year campaign of 1976, but just 10 more over the next four injury-plagued seasons.
It’s an oft-seen arc, especially for baseball pitchers, where arms can be as fragile as celebrity itself, but in a day and age when instant fame and fortune is commonplace, what is so special about the career and life of yet another ROY winner who didn’t plan out (remember John Castino? Doug Metzger? Carl Morton? Joe Charboneau? Harry Byrd?) that warrants a full-length biography?
That’s what Doug Wilson, author of THE BIRD: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych was tasked with: convincing us that Fidrych was indeed significant, and more than just a statistical blip on the radar of baseball history, both for those who came after and those who remember.
And to really understand the meteoric phenomenon that was “Birdmania,” you had to be there.
I was, and I can tell you that, for a 13-year-old, there was nothing in the world so cool as watching “The Bird” on the mound on the Major League Game of the Week telecast. Bobbing up and down, bent over at the waist, and talking – Talking! To the ball! – then quickly winding and firing low fastballs and dipping sliders on the corners. Bouncing around the infield, shaking hands with players after they made plays – in the middle of the inning! – and especially the hand-grooming of the mound at the beginning of innings. Absolutely nothing like this had ever been seen before, all from a tall, gangly, 22-year-old with a mop of curly blond locks and a 500-Watt grin. He immediately became my favorite player, the guy I imitated (poorly) during sandlot games in my neighborhood.
And it was the same for the entire nation, as Fidrych became one of America’s first instant sports cultural icons, the first athlete ever to grace the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, and a generational bridge between the old school (24 complete games, 2.34 ERA, 19-9 for a poor Tigers team) and the young folks who had become to see baseball as boring and irrelevant. Fidrych’s flowing locks and eccentric individualism connected with kids, teenagers, and young adults, and he brought fans to stadiums across the country in droves.
Wilson deftly reminds us of the moribund state of baseball back then, the backlash palpable as the monster salaries of free agency shocking and appalling fans while the rise of football’s popularity pushed the national pastime into secondary status. Into this social milieu of young versus old, rich versus poor, tradition versus modern came the unexpected emergence of Fidrych and his innocence and joy that captured hearts and imaginations for the entire Bicentennial summer.
And then, in the space of an innocent outfield slip and single shoulder-shredding pitch, it was all but over. Fidrych tore ligaments in his knee shagging flies early in the 1977 season, then hurt his shoulder shortly after returning, and the remainder of his professional career was an agonizingly slow decline into oblivion.
Yet Wilson explains through multiple interviews with friends and teammates that Fidrych, a tireless worker who did everything he could to overcome what turned out to be an undiagnosed torn rotator cuff, remained as upbeat as anyone could possibly expect, even after his playing career ended. He slipped back into an unremarkable life in his native Massachusetts, driving a truck for a living, working his own farm, loving his wife and his daughter.
The suddenness of his passing – Fidrych died tragically in 2009 after an accident while working on his truck – was reflected in the somewhat abrupt ending of the book, and readers are perhaps left wishing that more details about the circumstances surrounding the accident were included. Perhaps none exist. And while the voice of his widow Ann and daughter Jessica are strangely and markedly absent, extensive quotes from many friends, family, and teammates paint a picture of the man that is remarkably similar to the idealized figure we all wanted him to be: a happy-go-lucky, hard-working, strong –willed competitor who loved playing baseball and loved living his life.
In the winter following his evanescent rookie year, Fidrych and counter-culture baseball author Tom Clark collaborated on a free-association pop biography entitled No Big Deal. While the opportunity for snide commentary based on the title became obvious after Fidrych’s precipitous fall from the pinnacle, the book captured the veracity of his self-effacing nature. Now, with Doug Wilson’s definitive biography, ‘Birdmania’ now takes its place as an important chapter in the continuation of baseball’s popularity – and as author Doug Wilson proves, that is a big deal.