RIP the Bird

photo by Samara Pearlstein

Mark ‘the Bird’ Fidrych was one of the most awesome personalities to ever wear the Olde English D. His tenure with the team was short– he pitched in 20+ games only once, in his rookie year– but intense, with an All Star trip and Rookie of the Year honors coming together in that 1976 season. He was second in Cy Young voting that year with a 2.34 ERA and a 19-9 record. People flocked to the ballpark specifically to see him.

Injuries cut his career short after that, but he remained in the collective Detroit Tigers consciousness, in part because his sudden rise to prominence was such a captivating story, and in part because he was awesomely crazy. He was famous for getting down on all fours and grooming the pitcher’s mound with his hands. He would talk to the ball during his starts. He also had glorious hair (a look that you will note is coming back into baseball fashion today).

The Bird was originally from Northborough, Massachusetts, and returned there after his baseball career had ended. He had a farm and a truck– in fact, he so loved the truck that that was how Massachusetts people who lived in his area described him. “Hey, didja know, Mahk Fidrych lives ’round heah, he has a truck, yanno.” Precisely what he did with the truck (towing? hauling?) was never made clear to me, but people were very emphatic about the truck itself. He would occasionally show up at Fenway when the Tigers were playing, which is where I saw him.

It is no stretch to say that it is unlikely we will see someone like the Bird in Detroit again anytime soon. He may not have been with the Tigers for very long, but the mark he made on the imagination of Tigers fans even long after his career had ended is indelible.

Today the Bird was found dead at his home in Northborough. Early reports indicate that he died while working on his truck. He was 54.

ETA: I suggest a memorial to one of the best things about him– his ability to bring fun to a sometimes deeply (some would say ‘overly’) serious sport. Baseball is, after all, a game, and it’s SUPPOSED to be fun; Fidrych understood that.

So, tomorrow, go out and do a little something ‘willfully eccentric’ (thanks for the phrase, commenter Matt). Talk to your car. Groom the seat of your office chair with your hands. Change pens because the old one doesn’t have enough great ideas in it. Smile at yourself a little, and think of the Bird.

17 responses to “RIP the Bird

  1. First place I can after I heard the news was here. Glad you’re on top of this story, sam.
    Thanks for everything, Mr. Fidrych. Even though I was born the year you got ROY, your memory has been emblazoned in Tigers’ immortality. Requiescat In Pace.

  2. No.
    George Kell passing wasn’t a huge surprise… But the Bird… Aww. Now I’m depressed. :(

  3. This made me sad. RIP.

  4. The Bird and Harry the K on the same day. Terrible. RIP.

  5. I always tried to catch the Bird’s game against the Yankees (lest we forget, the AL’s World Series representative in 1976) on ESPN Classic whenever it aired. It’s such a fun game to watch; not only for Fidrych’s antics, but for the fact that that dude could pitch. It’s still one of my favorite old games.
    RIP, Bird. If only you’d had a chance at a full career. I think you’d have been one of the greats.

  6. I came over to MVN to see about Harry Kalas and saw this right off the bat. The bad news just keeps on coming.
    What a crappy day.
    Just the other day I had the new MLB network on when they replayed the entire ABC broadcast of a Mark Fidrych complete game victory against the Yankees on June 28, 1976. I now see why he was called The Bird, he was quite the one-man show.
    On a humorous note, as they had each of the Yankees players introduce themselves on TV before the game, when they got to Billy Martin he said, “Billy Martin, manager, born in Berkeley, California…died in New York” which made TV play-by-play man Bob Uecker crack up. A nice blast from the past.
    RIP Mark.

  7. In 76 the Tigers were an awful team, one year removed from the team that finished last and lost 19 in a row. But when The Bird pitched they were contenders, and to this day I have never seen anything like the excitement at Tiger Stadium when he pitched.
    Rest in peace.

  8. Wow. Yeah. I’m sad. I only just found out about this–on frakkin’ Facebook, of course.
    I’m just a tiny bit too young to have Been There, but by the time I was aware of things, the Bird Legend had been firmly written into the Detroit canon. I loved it, of course. At the time, it was a revelation for a little kid who’d read lots of Deadly Serious sports bios to find that you could play this game and still be completely Ape Crazy Bananas. That was the kind of ballplayer I wanted to be. Of course, it turned I couldn’t actually play baseball worth a damn, but I never gave up trying to be willfully eccentric! RIP.

  9. Samara Pearlstein

    Oh, Matt, you’ve given me an idea for an ETA. Thanks.

  10. I do remember Bird pitching in the 70’s. When his turn in the rotation came up, seemingly all of Detroit got excited. He was our superstar AND he posed for pictures with Big Bird (from Sesame Street). He showed that you can have fun with what you do and be good at it. One summer day I waited 3 hrs at a little vacuum cleaner store just to get him to sign my mitt. I kept that kid’s mitt for many years. Bird was one of a kind.

  11. A rough day for the Tigers… it was cold and over cast in Michigan. Mark would come to Michigan every now and then and it sure seemed he had a lot of life and passion for baseball left in him.
    Here’s to Mark and all the characters in baseball, I hope we come into another gimmick like “gum time” this year to keep things interesting.

  12. This was my Father’s response to your blog post:
    With all the negativity happening with the economy and such, maybe a ‘memorial’ should be done in the State of Michigan by having a Bird Moment.
    The guy was a character that helped the people of Michigan (for a short time anyway) forget the bad things that were happening back during the recession of the late 70’s.

  13. Speaking of Gum Time, why did we let that die, anyway? Other places had Rally Caps and Rally Monkeys, but Gum Time was a 100 percent Detroit thing.
    I never really understood why the minute the 2006 season ended, Rod and Mario kept trying to foist Rally Caps on us – and I’m glad it never really caught on here. I guess I’m a bit cranky, but it seems like Detroit should have its own thing.
    Perhaps Nate Robertson’s dentist got upset with him? I don’t know.
    Anyway, sorry to completely hijack this thread. I always wished I could have seen The Bird pitch. I always remember hearing my parents talk about what fun he was to see.

  14. I saw The Bird pitch at my first-ever major league game. He wasn’t quite “The Bird” (this was August of 1980, in the last of his many comeback attempts that resulted in him pitching in an actual major league game), but the fans still loved him. They packed the place with over 52,000 in attendance. I was lucky and my Dad had seats 2 rows behind the Tiger dugout. Sonny Elliot offered me a hamburger from the Lindell A.C. and no less than Jimmy Butsicaris himself got Jack Morris to toss him a ball from the dugout, then he handed it to me. I was also interviewed for Channel 4 news by Roger Weaver (damn, the name of the reporter is escaping me… I’m only 75% sure that Roger Weaver is right). The best was when they would bring him back for interviews — how, despite his advancing age, he was still just the same goofy kid in a grown-up body with a little less hair. I swear to you, I just brought him up on Saturday in conversation. He will be missed. And, I have to say, change pens because the first one doesn’t have enough ideas in it — that’s BRILLIANT!

  15. We stood up to give Harry the K a moment of silence, only for Howie Rose to add, “And for Mark “The Bird” Fidrych”. There were more “ooohhhhs” for The Bird, don’t know if that was surprise (since the news probably came out when most of us were on our way tot he game) or what, but I thought it was nice.

  16. ivantopumpyouup

    :'(
    This week has been a total s**tshow.

  17. So sad. But Sam, a terrific post. Thanks.

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