RIP Mark "The Bird" Fidrych: Now He Belongs to the Ages

Mark Fidrych at Tiger Stadium (Detroit Free Press)

When I heard that Harry Kalas, the longtime announcer of the Philadelphia Phillies and NFL Films had died shortly before the start of today’s Phillies-Nationals game, I knew that we were bound to hear of a third baseball-related death (in addition to Nick Adenhart of course).  That it was Mark “the Bird” Fidrych under a pick up truck in Massachusetts that he was working on, is just heartbreaking.

I’m not superstitious but I’m really sorry it seems to have come in threes this time, combining a salty old broadcaster (Kalas), a young pitcher in full bloom (Adenhart), and finally, one of the greatest stories in the history of the game, who happened to have come to prominence as a great young pitcher in the summer of 1976, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych.

"The Bird" on the cover of SI, June 1977

The Bird was perhaps the most idiosyncratic player we have seen in any sport, for all time.  As a rookie on the Detroit Tigers in 1976, he would often prepare the mound by hand, talk to the ball, and use various tricks and great movement to perplex batters and take the league by storm.  The name Bird came from his resemblance to Big Bird from Sesame Street! Yet he played well enough and with enough flamboyance to have been named starter in the All Star Game, and was named American League Rookie of the Year for 1976 at the end of the season after going 19-9 and leading the league in ERA.

In an early Sports Illustrated feature, Fidrych told some classic tales. In a later article, the writer traveled with him to his beloved Northboro, MA, where he gets into detail about his hometown and the beginning of his departure from baseball. Fidrych only won 10 more games after his spectacular 19-win rookie season, but he won the hearts of America, and that’s as big as any championship.

While he was slowed by overuse and his career was cut short by injury, the Bird was one of the most exciting and enjoyable players of all time to watch.  I remember him against the Yankees on Monday Night Baseball, in the All Star Game.  As was once said about another son of the midwest who died too young, “now he belongs to the ages.

Mark Fidrych talking about his early years in baseball:

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