The Bird's still truckin'
Catching up with Mark Fidrych
NORTHBOROUGH -- He was a phenomenon and heartthrob who captured the imagination of everyone he came in touch with. But that's just the beginning of what made Mark "The Bird" Fidrych one of baseballs biggest enigmas of the 70s.
In 1976, The Northborough native took the league by storm while pitching for the Detroit Tigers. "The Bird" went 19-9 with a league-leading 2.34 ERA over 250.3 innings of work. He recorded an incredible 24 complete games, four of which were shutouts.
The performance earned Fidrych American League Rookie of the Year honors.
"It was incredible to have a start like that and it was a great year," said Fidrych. "I was young and it was weird how everyone knew me. I enjoyed the excitement and the competition."
Off the field, Fidrych was a heartthrob. There were reports of fans naming their babies after him. Women flocked to where he got his haircuts in hopes they would find locks of his famous curly hair.
"I never really thought much about all that," said Fidrych. "I just thought about the game."
These days, "The Bird" still lives in Northborough with his wife, Ann, and their daughter, Jessica, 16. Fydrich drives a 10-wheeler and loves it.
"I have been doing it now for 17 years," he said. "It changes everyday. You go here and you go there. Sometimes you might be on the same job for two weeks or you might be on a job for one day."
When he's not working, Fydrich spends his time as he describes it, "just putting around." He enjoys playing baseball with kids and helping them learn the game.
For Fidrych, the game was fun and when he was playing baseball he was as entertaining as they come. Along with talking to the baseball, he also refused to use any ball that he had just given up a hit with.
"There were hits in the ball," said Fidrych. "They just got a hit off that one, get it back in there, and give me another ball. It was just being in the game."
Over the course of his short career, Fidrych became known for many other on-field antics. He chased groundskeepers from the pitching mound and got down on his hands and knees to fill in holes and wipe away cleat marks. He also raced around the field shaking infielders' hands after good plays.
Fidrych's entertaining on-field behavior was complemented by his quirky nickname, "The Bird". Lakeland coach Jeff Hogan is credited with giving Fidrych the nickname because he reminded him of the Sesame Street character Big Bird.
In 1977, both Fidrych and Big Bird graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. That, however, was the beginning of the end for Fidrych.
During spring training that year, he hurt his knee shagging fly balls during batting practice and did not return until late May. Early in 1978, he was placed on the disabled list for the entire season with arm trouble.
Fidrych tried to fight through the injuries, but the arm troubles would not go away. He was out of baseball by 1980.
He did attempt a comeback three years later with the Red Sox, who he had loved growing up.
"I used to watch them with my father," said Fidrych. "If I was going to try and play ball again I wanted to try it with them. I had a chance to play and went down to Pawtucket. Pawtucket is 45 minutes from where I live and I said this is dynamite."
Unfortunately, the comeback was not meant to be, and Fidrych officially retired from baseball in 1983.
"It was just part of life," he said. "I took a look at it and it was over. There was nothing I could do about it and I moved on."
It was not until 1985 that doctors finally discovered the source of Fidych's arm troubles was a torn rotator cuff.
"I tore my rotator cuff in the front and ripped out the back," said Fidrych. "I just look at what happened and you can't say hey I could have been in there for 15 years. I had my time and I was lucky."
Injuries may have cut Fidrych's career short, but no one can argue that "The Bird" is one of baseball's greatest stories.