Late that rainy night, in a cluttered room on a high floor of Detroit's Pontchartrain hotel, they kept tapping on the door, soft, female knuckles knocking on hard wood. The young women said they only wanted the autograph of Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, the sensational rookie right-handed pitcher of the Detroit Tigers.
He signed for them but did not let them in. How could he? All the chairs, beds, and floor spaces were already filled with his mother, his father, his three sisters, two reporters (I was one of them), and a representative from Ford Motor Company, which had just given "The Bird" a brand-new Thunderbird.
This was mid-July of 1976, in the peak weeks of a singular season of baseball brilliance, a mythic moment of magic around an athlete (a rookie!) like nothing ever seen before then and not witnessed since. This was the Year of The Bird.
Regrettably, this moment also preceded the injuries that ended his career way too soon and also the freakish mechanical mishap that ended his life far too soon. All that gets recounted in due time. But, first, oh, boy, we must scroll back and rewind to that rainy night in the Bicentennial Summer of '76.
A couple of hours before, at nearby Tiger Stadium, Fidrych had pitched another complete game before another capacity crowd.
But he lost, 1-0, to Dennis Leonard of the Kansas City Royals in a duel that took only two hours and three minutes before 51,041 chanting, cheering, squealing fans. Neither the defeat nor the shower that came after the game could discourage the thousands who remained after the final out.
"We want Bird!" they chanted. "We want Bird!"
They stayed to demand a curtain call from Fidrych — a bow, a tip of the cap, a smile, a wave, anything. His record had fallen to 9-2, but he had pitched brilliantly again after being chosen for the MLB All-Star Game. No longer just a local star, Fidrych was a national celebrity.
"We want Bird!" they chanted. "We want Bird!"
By then, Fidrych had stripped off his uniform in the clubhouse and was chugging his first beer as reporters surrounded him. A security man with a walkie-talkie pleaded patiently with The Bird to return to the dugout and please the fans so the stadium could be cleared and swept.
But curtain calls were rare enough after a victory, and Fidrych didn't want one after a defeat.
"Aw, naw, man. Oh, shit, geez, wow," Fidrych said to the stadium official.
Still, the fans insisted and the man persisted. Even though most of the stadium field lights were now doused, the demands of the fans echoed through the concrete corridors.
"We want Bird!" they chanted. "We want Bird!"
Eventually, the man talked Fidrych into throwing on a pair of jeans and a warmup jacket. The Bird — a 21-year-old who seemed even younger — bounded down the clubhouse runway to the dugout to wave at the fans and to be kissed on the cheek by a pretty girl.
Under the stadium's remaining rays of electric light, his smile of even teeth gleamed and his blond curls glistened in the soft summer rain.
Even if Mark "The Bird" Fidrych had been a boring veteran journeyman and nothing special to look at, his 1976 statistics would be astonishing — in his era or in any other.
Working for the 17th-best team in the 24-team major leagues, Fidrych didn't make his first start until May 15 — more than a month into the season — but finished the year with a won-loss record of 19-9 and an earned run average of 2.34, the best in the American League.
He also compiled a league-best 24 complete games. That last statistic would be inconceivable in 21st-century baseball, with pitchers rarely finishing games they start. In addition, The Bird won the Rookie of the Year vote in the American League and finished second for the Cy Young Award.
By both the statistical standards of 1976 and more modern metrics, Fidrych's numbers are exceptional. According to the relatively new computation of "Wins Above Replacement" (WAR), Fidrych's retro-computed WAR rating for that season was 9.6, the best among major-league pitchers, well ahead of the second-place Vida Blue at 7.6.
And statistics merely hint at the brilliant charisma of The Bird in 1976. Among the stars in the sky of sports, there are bodies of varied brightness and beauty in a fixed firmament. Most are like nearby planets and distant suns: admirable and predictable.
Fidrych was different — a comet, perhaps, or an asteroid, or maybe a meteor or the kind of shooting star you might see in the summer night in the Michigan sky before asking a companion, "Did you see that?" or "What the heck was that?" or just simply, "Wow!"
They called him "The Bird" because a coach in the minors said his long, blond curls made him look like "Big Bird" from Sesame Street and that "Fidrych" (FID-rich) was too tough to pronounce. Others compared his look to Harpo Marx of the Marx Brothers and to Roger Daltry, lead singer of The Who.
At 6-foot-3 and 175 pounds, Fidrych had the ungainly gait of a youth still growing into his adult body. He rarely walked onto the field — he bounded. Rather than stand still on the mound between pitches, he shifted his torso left to right and back and forth, nervously twitching this way and that.
He bent his knees for squats. He knelt on the mound and used his hands to fill dirt into small holes left by other cleats.
Did he talk to the ball? Perhaps — it sure looked that way. He certainly talked to himself, at times, as he held the ball in his right hand in front of his face, sometimes chanting the word "Flow ... flow." In the opposing dugout, rival players would step up to the front railing to watch him more closely.
Most foes quickly perceived that Fidrych was not "hot-dogging" or taunting them. One exception, at least at first: the New York Yankees, a grouchy bunch of sore winners in that era. Their star catcher, Thurman Munson, called Fidrych "bush" and Fidrych said, without guile, "Who's Thurman Munson?"
Yankees second baseman Willie Randolph said, "Tell that guy if he pulls that stuff in New York, we'll blow his fucking ass out of town. You want to send a line drive right through his head." Rico Carty, of Cleveland, wondered aloud whether Fidrych was trying to hypnotize him.
But even the Yankees soon discovered Fidrych to be genuine. Part of his freakish dominance flowed not only from his twitches but also from his pitches. They flew from his hand at almost twice the rate of most pitchers.
Fidrych fired the ball every eight to 10 seconds. Most pitchers take at least twice that time, even back then. Between tosses, his body seemed to vibrate or tremble like that of a hyperactive adolescent, which, indeed, he had been not long before.
No game had a tempo like one pitched by Fidrych. He worked like a young man in a hurry, with so much to do in such a short span of time.
"Go, Bird, Go!" the fans chanted from the grandstands. "Go, Bird, Go!"
After a hitter entered the batter's box, Fidrych rarely stepped off the rubber, much less the mound. If the batter stepped out of the box to disrupt his rhythm, The Bird would stand there and stare him down to leverage the tension against the batter. His pitches almost always found the strike zone, forcing hitters to either swing or take a called strike.
"He could throw that thing through a keyhole," said Jeff Hogan, the coach who gave him his nickname.
Because he threw low sliders and a sinking fastball "that moved," the batters often grounded to the infield. That led to inning-ending double plays, which led to Fidrych hopping from fielder to fielder to shake their hands as they dashed to the dugout. Which led to more chanting from the fans.
"Go, Bird, Go!" they said. "Go, Bird, Go!"
One of the curious aspects of Fidrych games was that the home fans rarely left their chairs — green and wooden in the ancient furniture of the now-demolished ballpark at Michigan and Trumbull. They stayed away from the concession stands and the rest rooms when Fidrych was on the mound.
Furthermore, major-league ballpark atmosphere was different then. Baseball was not yet elongated with the tedious games of the 21st century, where kids might take a ride on the carousel or Ferris wheel behind the grandstand during the third hour of a four-hour game.
The stadium speaker systems in 1976 did not yet bombard customers with blasts of recorded musical noise, fake chants, and the synthetic rhythms of pseudo enthusiasm. The sounds of crowds for The Bird back then were authentic, and they included the screams of young suburban girls who came to the downtown area in packed cars despite one of Detroit's periodic crime waves.
This was not just baseball — this was Birdmania.
The following year, Fidrych's rock-star persona landed The Bird's face on the cover of the Rolling Stone, the magazine that then was the arbiter of what was hip, his picture snapped by the celebrated photographer Annie Leibovitz.
"Go, Bird, Go!" they chanted. "Go, Bird, Go!"
In some ways, his timing was exquisite. The year before, the Tigers were the worst team in baseball and needed to rejuvenate their roster. The other Detroit sports teams — the Lions, Pistons, and Red Wings — were also struggling in this era.
Plus, consider the demographics. When Fidrych broke in, the oldest Baby Boomers were celebrating their 30th birthdays, while the youngest were just turning 12. So he hit the big bulge in the middle of the youth market.
To some Boomers in those years, baseball seemed too fusty and dull for the "youth culture." Too square. Fidrych jolted the game with youthful energy. In a sports span that came to be defined by labor strife and soaring salaries, he acted as if he'd play for free.
As the old Warren Zevon song from that era put it, he was "just an excitable boy." At the time, I was an excitable, 24-year-old Baby Boomer at the Chicago Sun-Times, working on the copy desk a lot that summer, angling and aching for something good to write.
To some Boomers in those years, baseball seemed too fusty and dull for the “youth culture.” Too square. Fidrych jolted the game with youthful energy.
Being from Detroit, I followed Motor City teams closely and caught on to The Bird in the late spring through phone calls and letters from friends and siblings in Michigan. As he kept winning, I began to lobby my editors to send me to Detroit to write about the phenomenon.
Most of them shrugged it off, calling The Bird a "flash in the pan," nothing to get excited about. But that changed after Fidrych defeated the mighty Yankees on ABC's Monday Night Baseball on June 28 to raise his record to 8-1, with a 5-1 victory in one hour and 51 minutes before 47,855 Tiger Stadium customers and a national TV audience.
In the deeply reported biography The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych, author Doug Wilson wrote:
"The next day, Mark (The Bird) Fidrych was a national star. 'Did you see that guy last night?' was asked around water coolers, in lunchrooms, and at workplaces across the country."
This telecast amounted to his coming-out party, a lesser version of the first appearance of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show 12 years before. Baseball on TV was not widely available then in many markets — not even for local teams — and neither was cable TV. The Tigers allowed only 40 telecasts of a 162-game schedule.
And 1976 was the first year of ABC's weekly national telecast on Monday night. This national television universe had only three networks, and Fidrych was on one of them.
Convinced finally that The Bird was a worthy story, my Chicago editors decided to send me back to my hometown to cover the best sports narrative in the nation. This was one of the better assignments of my career and one of best memories of my life.
After Fidrych made his curtain call in the rain that night, I followed him back from the field and through the dugout and down the tunnel as he returned to the clubhouse. He bounced over to his locker and played Cookie Monster by passing around to reporters a plate of chocolate-chip cookies someone had sent him.
Of course, a reporter asked him about talking to the ball.
"It's a gimmick," The Bird told us that night. "I talk to cars, too." In those days, he often spoke of working on cars and pumping gas and maybe making a living by digging ditches.
He seemed disarmingly unpretentious and spoke with the heavy accent of blue-collar Massachusetts. He grew up in the semi-rural, small town of Northborough, about 35 miles west of Boston. He lived all this life there and died there, too.
Fidrych pronounced the word weird as wid, and he used that word a lot. His locker was weird, too, crowded with cartoons, flowers, bird statues, and a picture of an 81-year-old Japanese shot-putter. On that photo were scrawled attendance figures from home games The Bird had pitched: 14,000, 17,000, 36,000, 32,000, 48,000, 52,000, and 51,041.
As most of the players dressed and left, Fidrych gradually realized he would need to put on some clothing. While wearing nothing but a Muhammad Ali T-shirt, he got heckled from across the room by Ron LeFlore, the center fielder.
"Hey, Bird, would you like to do a Playgirl centerfold?" LeFlore asked The Bird, referring to a women's magazine that featured photos of naked men.
"Would you pose for a hundred bucks?"
"How 'bout 10 grand?"
"Ten-thousand?" The Bird replied. "I'd think about it."
At the time, Fidrych earned only the rookie minimum of $16,500, although a roster longevity bonus was about to bump him up to $24,000.
Outside the clubhouse door, his parents, Paul and Virginia, waited patiently. Mother Bird showed me a string of rosary beads in her hand.
"I feel I've let my Markie down," she said. "They've never failed before."
The family was visiting from Massachusetts, she said, and this had been her first time on an airplane.
Her son finished high school two years late because he had repeated both the first and second grades. Mark was the hyperactive class clown, a kid his friends called "Fid." He both annoyed and charmed his teachers with his restless energy.
His father, Paul Fidrych, also taught school and, to his credit, realized early on that his son would never be a scholar. So he coached him in baseball, the thing he did best, and wouldn't let him quit when Mark threatened to give up.
"We used to fight about that," The Bird said years later in an interview with TNT. "He'd say, `Hey, you're not the smartest kid. There's money to be made in sports.'"
Paul Fidrych also taught Mark a blue-collar work ethic, showing him how to pour concrete and how to scrap at junkyards. On the day the Tigers drafted him in the 10th round in 1974, Mark was working at a gas station.
In that he liked cars and had a mechanical knack, The Bird was a natural fit for the Motor City. And in less than two years, he'd gone from pumping gas to starting for the American League in the All-Star Game in Philadelphia, where President Gerald Ford would seek him out in the clubhouse.
Yes, the President of the United States wanted to shake the pitching (and gas-pumping) hand of The Bird. Entertainers like Frank Sinatra and Elton John wanted their photographs taken with The Bird. This was the bliss of Birdmania in July of 1976.
"I'll never get used to all this," Fidrych had said earlier in the month. "What I'm going through right now is really a trip. It's something that I'll always remember. Right now, I'm a happy person and I plan to stay that way."
He certainly seemed that way on that night in that crowded hotel room at the Pontchartrain. The family dynamic was evident. He was surrounded by love, support, and protective concern.
Paul Fidrych kept mostly quiet, sitting in a corner chair and listening closely to the hubbub buzzing about his son. He expressed concern, however, about leaflets passed out in front of Tiger Stadium that night that said "Mark Fidrych for Mayor."
Another message on the printed paper, in smaller letters, requested donations to "Breakthrough," a right-wing radical group. On the back of the leaflet, above a picture of The Bird, were the words "Recall Young," calling for the removal of Coleman A. Young, Detroit's first Black mayor.
Mark — a trusting young man who saw the best in people — dismissed the leaflets as "no big deal," one of his favorite phrases.
"Aw, Dad, they're just people," said The Bird. "That's life."
Father Bird didn't disagree, but added:
"I know, Mark, I know. You just stay the way you are. You're fine. But be careful, Mark. And don't sign anything."
I covered one more Fidrych game that season, White Sox at Detroit, on Wednesday, August 25, when Fidrych raised his record to 15-5 with a 3-1 victory over Chicago in one hour and 48 minutes before 39,884 Tiger Stadium fans who cheered and chanted and, again, demanded a curtain call.
Fidrych responded with a clenched-fist salute and came back to the clubhouse with three more bird dolls in his arms.
"Who's got kids?" he asked, passing them out to teammates.
In the other clubhouse, Paul Richards, the elderly manager of the Sox, told us: "Babe Ruth didn't cause that much excitement in his brightest day." After going 0-for-4, White Sox left fielder Ralph Garr approved of the Fidrych act as legitimate self-motivation.
"I don't think he'd be as good a pitcher if he didn't do that stuff," Garr said. "He's not jivin'. He's like Cassius Clay. He can back it up."
Asked yet again to explain his antics while on the mound, Fidrych told us: "You gotta get down and flow, flow, flow."
I didn't see The Bird in person again for two more years and, by then, our circumstances were much different. I'd changed jobs from the Chicago Sun-Times to the Detroit Free Press, and Fidrych was rehabilitating his injured pitching shoulder with the Lakeland Tigers of the Class A Florida State League, the low minors.
The Free Press sent me down there to keep an eye on him, and he was worth watching. One example came in West Palm Beach against the Montreal Expos' farm team when a Lakeland teammate got brushed back by a beanball and shouted angry words at the Expos' pitcher.
Fidrych and his bullpen mates jumped up and charged onto the field to join what looked like a brewing brawl. After tempers cooled, the young Lakeland manager took Fidrych aside and counseled him. He didn't want to have to call headquarters in Detroit the next day to report that the team's most valuable employee suffered a broken hand — or worse — in a bush-league brawl.
"You sit on the dugout bench from now on," manager Jim Leyland told Fidrych. "If something starts, you head for the clubhouse."
So instead of returning to the bullpen, Fidrych took a seat on the dugout bench, sitting with a bat in his hands and scowling at the West Palm pitcher.
He had many other reasons to frown. His injuries began in the previous season, when Fidrych damaged his left knee in spring training of 1977 while fooling around in the outfield as he shagged fly balls in batting practice.
After recovering from cartilage surgery, he made his first start on May 27 at home and compiled a 6-2 record going into a July 4 start in Baltimore. Rusty Staub, a veteran teammate, was also the union representative among the players, and he worried that Fidrych was being rushed back too soon.
On the MLB Network documentary, Staub said he expressed this concern to general manager Jim Campbell.
"I remember I went to Jim Campbell's office and I said, 'Jim, this kid doesn't know anything but 100 percent,'" Staub said. "I said, 'Why don't you take your time in bringing him back? He's so important to the game.' And so nobody listened to me."
Perhaps that was because Fidrych still sold tickets, with Tiger Stadium crowds of 44,207, 47,236, and 51,745 in 1977. He finished one of his victories in one hour and 39 minutes and another in 2:13. He pitched seven complete games.
"I'm feeling fine," Fidrych said. "I'm in heaven right now."
But fate's dark shadow again crossed his path on that Independence Day in Baltimore, when he drew 45,339 fans in old Memorial Stadium. Fidrych took a 2-0 lead and he was still The Bird — until he wasn't.
He suddenly felt pain and a deadness in his upper arm in the middle innings. They didn't discover until years later that he'd torn his rotator cuff in two places.
The scene is described in Wilson's biography through the eyes of a teammate.
"Mark threw a pitch and I thought, 'That really looked weird,'" said fellow pitcher Dave Rozema, a rookie that season. "His motion was different. And the velocity of the pitch was way off. I said, 'Wow, something happened.' The next pitches were all hit hard."
Fidrych later recalled it in a TNT interview.
"It just started getting tight," Fidrych said. "After that, it was never the same."
Fidrych didn't know it then, but that injury would end his 1977 season and serve as the beginning of the end of his career. He would appear in only 16 more Tigers games in his final three partial major-league seasons before finishing up with three more years in the minors.
In the parlance of the era, 1978 had become a bummer for The Bird. When he visited Lakeland to get better, the Florida newspapers called him "surly," a word never before heard about Fidrych.
After spending a few days around the team, I wrote in the July 30, 1978 editions of the Free Press:
"In recent days the Bird's moods have ranged from chipper to pensive through various shades of blue. At times, he has been reclusive, 'sleeping a lot,' he says. He has prepared himself for the possibility that his future may be behind him.
"'. . . Lately, I've copped an attitude that was ungodly,'" Fidrych admitted. "' . . . With a bad arm, you start thinking.' He describes himself as a 'lonely man.'"
The Tigers sent a physical therapist named Gus Crouch to work with him in Florida, and he told me then that The Bird's "tendinitis" problem came from "throwing too hard when he was 21 years old." Crouch would not predict a recovery.
"I don't want to stick my neck out," he said. He also fretted about how Fidrych jumped over short fences rather than use a gate nearby. He still had energy to burn but no way to burn it.
A fan in West Palm named Gary Wellwood told me he'd recently moved there from Michigan to open a sandwich shop. Two years before, he said, he owned a beer store in Southgate, a suburb west of Detroit. As a rookie, he said The Bird was a regular customer.
"He'd come in after the games and buy a 12-pack of our cheapest beer and a bottle of pop wine to go with it," Wellwood told me. "Then he would stand on the sidewalk in front of the store and talk with a ton of kids."
The obvious question here is: How did Fidrych injure his shoulder?
Fidrych later speculated that recovery from the knee injury caused him to alter his "landing" foot at the end of his pitch delivery, which may have altered the stress points in his arm and shoulder. This may have caused the tears in his rotator cuff.
A more skeptical theory often heard around baseball was that the Tigers had burned him out early and sold him short by overworking him in 1976 because he was a cash cow who helped surge their home attendance from 1.058 million in 1975 to 1.467 million in 1976.
Fidrych worked 250 innings in 1976, a lot for a rookie who had never thrown that many. And all but one inning and a fraction of another came after May 15. Thirteen of his 29 starts were on three days of rest. On a home stand in late August, he pitched three consecutive complete games in nine days, one of them 10 innings.
For whatever reasons, by the end of 1978, it was becoming clear that The Bird would never again be the same.
"Mark Fidrych was slowly sinking in quicksand," Wilson wrote. "The more he thrashed, the harder he tried, the farther his career slipped away. And no one knew why."
Perhaps they didn't know about the torn rotator cuff — it was too soon in medical technology to diagnose and fix it — but others had hunches that ranged from skeptical to cynical about The Bird's workload.
One person who fretted about the Tigers overworking Fidrych was his mother, Virginia, who said in a 1981 Associated Press story that she warned the general manager about it back in 1976.
"I told Campbell before and I'll tell him again: Mark was too young to be pitching that much," Virginia Fidrych said. "They shouldn't have kept pitching him. That was how he hurt his arm."
That wasn't the only Fidrych friction with the Detroit club. In 1980, after the Tigers demoted him to their Triple A farm club in Evansville, Indiana, Fidrych griped a little about losing valuable service days he needed on a major-league roster to qualify for a pension.
According to BaseballReference.com, Fidrych earned $330,000 from the Tigers from 1976 through 1979. These figures are incomplete as far as his total professional career, but they reflect his highest earning plateau.
"This thing is nothing but business with them, and it's costing me money," Fidrych said in an Associated Press story quoted in the Wilson biography. "I might be wrong, but I'm pretty sure I haven't lost any money for the Detroit Tigers."
This annoyed Sparky Anderson, the new Detroit manager, who had no background with The Bird.
"Have the Tigers paid him?" Anderson asked. "How many big crowds has he drawn in the last two and a half years?"
He drew precisely 48,361 customers on August 12 when he finally made his first major-league start of the 1980 season against Boston, a 5-4 defeat in an eight-inning outing. His last complete game in the majors was on Sept. 2, an 11-2 victory over the White Sox.
His final home game on Sept. 24 against Toronto drew only 7,129 and Fidrych left after getting only two outs and giving up five runs. His final major-league appearance came on Oct. 1 at Toronto, an 11-7 Tigers victory in which Fidrych worked five innings to finish 1980 at 2-3.
Next came three seasons of struggle in the high minors. At Triple A Evansville in 1981, he reunited with Leyland, a manager moving up. Fidrych went 6-3 with an earned run average of 5.75.
The next year, after Evansville released him, he caught on with the Boston farm team in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, a one-hour drive from his Massachusetts home. He finished 1982 at 6-8, and his ERA was 4.98.
Even in the minors, and far from his prime years, The Bird still sold tickets, even when his injuries left him a ghost of his former self.
His last moment of glory came after the Yankees temporarily demoted pitcher Dave Righetti to Triple A Columbus and "Rags" matched up against The Bird before 9,389 fans in Pawtucket's 5,800-seat McCoy Stadium on July 1, 1982.
When Fidrych hung on for a 7-5 complete-game victory, "suddenly, it was 1976 again," biographer Wilson wrote. "The crowd was delirious. ... Amid the increasing roar of the crowd, the Pawtucket players swarmed Mark just like, well, just like he was back in Detroit in that magical summer long ago. ... Mark bathed in the cheers of `Bird, Bird, Bird!'"
But a mere year later — in mid-1983, with a record of 2-5 and an ERA of 9.68 — Fidrych retired at age 28, when many big-league athletes are at their peak.
In a 1999 interview for ESPN's SportsCentury, Fidrych spoke tearfully of what it was like to report his retirement by telephone to his father.
"I said, 'Dad, I'm done,'" Fidrych said. "Didn't we have a great ride?"
"He goes, 'Yeah, son, you did have a great ride.'
"I said, 'Yeah. I'm done. Life goes on.'"
The following season, when his former Tigers teammates won the World Series, Fidrych was living on his farm in Northborough, Massachusetts, and watching the 1984 Series from a box seat at Tiger Stadium.
On the old videotape from 1985, Mark (The Bird) Fidrych has transitioned from a baseball farm club to his own farm in central Massachusetts.
Over his left shoulder in the camera frame is a red barn. In a long interview for a television special, he speaks of what it was like to adjust to life without baseball.
"To get out my frustration, I used to go in the woods and just cut trees down," Fidrych says. "You know, 'Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!!!'"
As he says this, Fidrych jerks his hands and growls his voice in imitation of a buzz saw.
"You know: Down!" Fidrych shouts, as if he's felled a tree. "Ha-ha! Heh-heh!"
Then his face — with its dimpled chin — makes an exaggerated scowl like a villain in a cartoon.
"Baseball!" he says, spitting out the word. "You know what I'm saying? You know, to get your anxiety out of you."
But it is clear in this video and others from his retirement years that Fidrych still loves baseball and does not present himself as a bitter man. In most of the interviews, he defends the Tigers for the way they used him in 1976 and 1977.
He often tells the interviewers he's lucky to have played professionally for as long as he did and to have made enough money to buy land and set up a business with his shiny dump truck.
Some of the videos — there are many on the internet — show Fidrych with his pigs, sheep, and horses. He settled down and married Ann in 1986. Jessica was born a year later. His truck is red and black and it says "Jessica" in the front and "Mark Fidrych Co. Inc." on the driver-side door.
In his SportsCentury documentary, Fidrych's wife, Ann, laughs when telling how bumpy the rides were when Fidrych learned to shift the gears. And Fidrych described learning how to maneuver his big machinery when he went on jobs to dig swimming pools or lay a foundation for a house or to fix a road.
"Now, the challenge was: 'Can I back it up into this tight spot? Can I do this? Can I do that?'" Fidrych asks, recalling his learning curve.
Among the most intriguing pieces of video are four segments of "B-roll" recorded for the show Once a Star on TNT in 1985. They can be found on what is called "MediaBurn Independent Video Archive." It shows both what was used for the show and what was left on the cutting-room floor in the editing process.
In the conversation — at the farm and on his youth-league field — Fidrych is effusive, speaking in a stream of consciousness and often free-associating his thoughts.
No game had a tempo like one pitched by Fidrych. He worked like a young man in a hurry, with so much to do in such a short span of time.
He recalls fan feedback in 1976.
"I was having fun. They were having fun. And the vibration of it bounced off each other. When you saw little kids and making them happy, it was weird. You could be a kid still, and to me it was like, `Good, I don't have to grow up, man. I don't have to get mature.'"
Did the Tigers overuse him to sell seats at home?
"Not true. It wasn't hurting me," The Bird says. "No. It really wasn't abusing you is what people used to call it. I said, 'No, it's not abusing.' What would I rather do? I'd rather pitch at home."
On what it's like to struggle in the minors:
"I was just hanging on because I said, 'You know, what do I want to do, go home and dig ditches or something? No. Let's hang on as long as you can. Hey, you had 10 beautiful years. It's got to end sometime. You've got to let go of the candy."
But a bit of wistfulness creeps into his tone and demeanor when he reflects on working with his dump truck while other former athletes do television commercials. He says he asks his agent, Bob Woolf, about it.
"If I ever got lucky and, like, did a couple commercials, maybe you wouldn't have to do that," he says, slipping into the second person, describing himself as "you" but never in the third person as "Fidrych."
"You go up to your agent, Mr. Woolf, and you say, 'How come you can't get me nothin'? I know I'm out of ball, but all these other guys are out of ball.'"
He speaks of a wish to go on a popular TV show of the time called Magnum, P.I., in which the star, Tom Selleck, wears a Detroit Tigers cap. Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell of the current Tigers made guest appearances on the show, Fidrych says. So why not The Bird?
Ironically, years later, Selleck will narrate a posthumous documentary about the life and death of The Bird for the MLB Network.
"And then you ask Mr. Woolf, 'How come you can't get me anything like this?' 'Well, Mark, you know, nothing's open.' I'm going, 'Nothing's open? Fine.' And years go by. And you're still saying, 'Nothing's open, huh?'"
So Fidrych says he tries to promote himself whenever he's on TV. Changing to a voice that is soft and humble while sitting on the bench of a baseball field, Fidrych wraps his arms around his folded knees in what appears to be a defensive and protective crouch.
"Hey, I need a job," he says in that meek voice. "Anyone want a commercial?"
He seems to be joking, in a way, but also maybe kidding on the square.
And in the SportsCentury piece in the following decade, after recounting his blessings yet again, Fidrych declares: "I get up in the morning. Hey, life is beautiful."
In an interview for a Mel Allen special in the mid-1980s, Fidrych summarizes his love affair with baseball, the fans, and life.
"I thanked them for never forgetting me," Fidrych says. "I hope they never do. It was a beautiful time ... I still love it. It's like a love. And love is different. We're still in love, I guess. To me, that's beautiful. Thank the Lord that you've got what you've got and be thankful for what you have today — not what should have been."
In September of 1999, when they played the last game at Tiger Stadium, they introduced many fan favorites in uniform. Fidrych got one of the loudest cheers. He jogged to the pitcher's mound, smoothed out some dirt, then scooped some up some soil and put it in a baggie to take home.
The coroner's report estimated that it took five minutes for Mark "The Bird" Fidrych to die of asphyxiation. That is to say he was strangled while working under his Mack truck, trying to fix it, at his farm, on April 13, 2009.
His clothing got caught in a spinning component underneath the vehicle's undercarriage. No one else was near to hear if he cried out for help. His body was discovered hours later by a business associate.
Word of The Bird's death sent waves of shock and grief out of Northborough to Detroit and across the baseball world. Of course, it hit home hardest with his family.
His daughter, Jessica, was working that day. She told the Major League Baseball network in a 2016 TV special that she had a premonition even before her supervisor called her aside to tell her the news.
"I knew something was wrong, and I didn't know what it was," Jessica Fidrych told MLB. "It's like this feeling came over my body. I knew (it was) something really bad."
On the same MLB show, Fidrych's wife, Ann, said, "For a man who loved life, for it to be taken away, that's — that was painful." The Bird was 54 years old.
A couple months later, his widow and daughter attended a game at Detroit's Comerica Park. After highlights of his career were shown on the scoreboard screen, the women went to the mound, smoothed out some dirt, and then threw the ceremonial first pitches.
His online obituary on the website of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette includes hundreds of expressions of grief and love from local people who knew him from childhood, as well as from those in distant places who knew him only through attending baseball games or watching them on television.
"Mark's death crystalizes a moment in time," one of them wrote.
Most of them signed their names, but we leave them out of this piece. The following compilation is but a sampling of what is written by the many who left messages, some of them posted years after his death.
Quite a few cited his approachability and friendliness off the field.
"Thank you for shaking my hand at Detroit Metro (airport) that day" ... "Us kids would walk to his apartment complex and wait for him to come out. He always stopped to talk to you" ... "When I sent him a get-well card after his knee surgery, he actually responded."
He seemed to bring out a special spirit in female fans.
"As a girl who played softball, it was always fun to pretend to be The Bird. I'm much older now, but those memories of The Bird haven't faded" .... "My mother, who did not like baseball, was standing on her seat yelling, 'Go, Bird!' We all were."
One Massachusetts neighbor expressed nostalgia for The Bird's vehicle, the big, red-and-black 10-wheeler.
"I will miss his truck rumbling past my house on West Street, always with a smile, always with a wave."
So many expressed emotions suggest powerful connections beyond the usual in sports.
"I did not cry when my dad died, but when I read about Mark's death, I cried for days" ... "My heart really hurts. I am writing in tears" .... "Not too many days go by when I don't think of him" ... "He brought such a vibrant spirit to the game. I loved him with all my heart."
There is plenty of yearning and wishful thinking.
"I wish I could see Mark pitch one more time" ... "If today's ballplayers had just a little of "The Bird" in each of them, our national pastime would be a better game."
They also praise his spirit, humility, and personality.
"He was a great guy with a heart of gold" .... "He was and continued to be the most sincere person I have ever met" ... "An average guy who made it to the show, and never forget how special an average guy is." .... "One of the most genuine people I have ever met in my life" ... "Fame never went to his head" .... "He seemed to grab life and live it for all that it was worth. He seemed so genuine, unjaded and joyful" ... "A true hero" ... "An American classic."
And, as is often the case in these moments, some mourners imagined the afterlife.
"Somewhere in heaven, The Bird is striking out The Babe"... "When I was a little girl, I remember watching baseball games with my dad. 'The Bird' was his favorite player. My dad passed away in 1983. Maybe they will play some catch in the clouds together" ... "God bless you every day in heaven" ... "The Bird has a new set of wings."
Fidrych's remains were cremated. In his memorial service at the First Parish Church Unitarian Universalist in Northborough, the altar displayed his Tigers jersey with the Old English "D" in front and "FIDRYCH" and "20" on the back. The mourners sang "Amazing Grace" and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."
So how do we assess the too-brief baseball career and too-short life of Mark "The Bird" Fidrych?
The word unique comes to mind because he was one of a kind, but he also filled out several classic baseball personality tropes and archetypes.
First, he played the role of the young phenomenon — a "FEE-nom," as it's pronounced in baseball.
Next, he played the honored role of "Flaky Pitcher," performed in the past by Jerome "Dizzy" Dean in the 1930s and Bill "Spaceman" Lee in the 1970s and even in the movies by Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh, played by Tim Robbins in the 1988 film Bull Durham.
Finally, Fidrych took on the sad, stereotypical role of the washed-up pitcher, old before his time, fighting against fate in the minor leagues, hoping to get called back up to what some folks call "The Show." Sort of like Ronald Reagan playing Grover Cleveland Alexander in The Winning Team in 1952.
Like much Hollywood product, the Fidrych story glittered with a bit of fairy dust, a Peter Pan quality of never growing up, an eternal boy of summer. When honoring Fidrych in Massachusetts, Governor Michael Dukakis said, "Mark Fidrych has awakened the boy lying dormant in every man's breast."
But what would The Bird have become had he endured and matured into a senior pitcher with a long career and a long life afterward to reflect and remember?
"Maybe that's why Fidrych's story endures," Michael Rosenberg wrote in the Detroit Free Press in 2016. "We never found out how good he would have been — whether he was a one-year wonder or a Hall of Famer."
The highs and lows of The Bird's life and death reminded us that all glory is fleeting and all fame is fickle and that fate isn't always fair. His fate, both professionally and personally, was tragic, and there are in it elements of both Greek and Shakespearean tragedy.
But his wasn't precisely either. There needs to be a special category for the narrative arc of Mark the Bird. When does drama become melodrama, and pathos bathos? With his sort of fortune, some might have wallowed in self-pity, but Fidrych wasn't the type. In 1980, when it was obvious his baseball days were numbered, Fidrych told The New York Times: "Feel sorry for me? Why? I've got a lot of things other people don't have. I've got some land. I've got some cows and pigs. I've got a new car."
His fate, both professionally and personally, was tragic, and there are in it elements of both Greek and Shakespearean tragedy.
Finally, about that nickname, "The Bird." It was perfect for him, and not just for the allusion to the yellow muppet on Sesame Street. Fidrych was flighty. He chirped and he soared. No athlete in sports history shares that nickname, The Bird. Not even Larry Bird.
But the jazz man Charlie Parker was called "Bird," and Fidrych played a brand of baseball that had a lot of tempo, rhythm, and motion in it. He danced — or at least he hopped around. His fans sang — or at least they chanted.
So you hear in your mind the music and song titles of his era. Fidrych was a "Working Class Hero" and he was "Salt of the Earth."
Moreover, a song recorded and performed by Fidrych fan Elton John perfectly suits The Bird. Composed with co-writer Bernie Taupin, "Candle in the Wind" is primarily about the early death of the actress Marilyn Monroe. It certainly works on that level.
But Taupin told Rolling Stone in 2014 that the song had a larger meaning.
"A metaphor for fame and dying young," Taupin said. Indeed, the song's last line — about young talent and early death — rings as true for Fidrych as it did for Monroe: "Your candle burned out long before your legend ever did."
This is another chapter in Joe Lapointe's sports reporting memoir to be titled either "The Fire-Balling Flame-Thrower Threw Bullets to Slam the Door" or "Local Team Hopes To Win Next Game."