Press "Enter" to skip to content

Mark Fidrych, Shooting Star

The harsh gods of baseball have rained heavy blows upon me in recent years by stripping the name and emblem from a Cleveland team I’d been part of all my life. 

Next, Oakland’s owners are shipping the A’s to a foreign land. I’d adopt Detroit as my team but fear its plane would crash mid-season.

Instead, I’m burrowing into videos half a century old; last night I found a game from 1976, Yankees at Detroit. Tiger starter: Mark Fidrych. 

Mark Fidrych

Talk about the harsh gods of baseball. He’s 23, in his first year and ninth game, and the most talked-about player in baseball. In the game’s 100-plus years there’s been no one like Mark Fidrych.

I’d never seen him play. Baseball was not on my menu in the 1970s, and by 2024 all the Fidrych rumors, legends and lies had evaporated into the mists and myths of baseball history. But in the game played 48 years ago he was so new the TV announcers called him Mark “Fyd-reek” and nine innings later no one had corrected them.

I sat transfixed, simultaneously thrilled by his presence and burdened with my decades of hindsight. I know (but in 1976 he doesn’t) that his glory will fade as sure as the setting sun, and almost as quickly. But on this night he runs a complete game chainsaw through a Yankee lineup destined for the World Series. Detroit, in last place two years in a row, will end up seventh.

Fidrych’s nickname was Big Bird, a tall, gangly, puppy-like kid with tousled hair, oversized teeth and an approach to pitching no one will ever copy. Every inning he bounced out of the dugout as if from a slingshot, sprinted to the mound, dropped to his knees and with bare hands began carefully manicuring his tiny patch of earth, a square foot of dirt at the edge of the pitching rubber. 

Peering in at the hitter, Fydrich gives spoken instructions to the baseball. He demonstrates for all the world to see, including the hitter, by stretching his right arm out and twisting it: Straight zinger, arm dipping left. A slider is on its way.

The batter, alerted to the coming pitch, freezes anyway. Strike Three! Inning over! Mark races back to the dugout and turns to shake hands with the right fielder who had moments earlier made a terrific throw.

This is his moment. By season’s end he will be 19-9, Rookie of the Year, the AL’s starting pitcher in the All Star game, runner-up in CY Young voting and maybe the happiest man on the planet.

He’s on the cover of all the magazines, but his 15 minutes of fame already are dwindling. Harsh gods of baseball, indeed. In spring training a few months later he will hurt a leg, then his arm. His career will be over. 

A DARK STAR hangs over baseball. Is there another sport in which great young players are so often cut down? The game’s history is a desolate trail of bleached bones of young heroes cut down long before their peak. Ask any fan and he’ll recite a sad list that might or might not include Herb Score, Pete Reiser, Tony Conigliaro, Joe Charboneau or Mark Fidrych. 

The same gloom hangs over baseball fiction. In Robert Coover’s ‘Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Proprietor,’ a lonely accountant invents a board game controlled by dice. A mere toss mis-aligns the stars and his beloved rookie pitcher is killed by a batted ball. J. Henry is distraught. Dare he undo what the Gods of Gambling have wrought? 

In the teen fiction ‘The Kid From Tompkinsville’ John R. Tunis’s heaven-sent young star is dealt nothing but cruel blows when he joins the Brooklyn Dodgers. Roy Tucker pitches a no-hitter in his first game, and minutes later in a postgame celebration his arm is broken.

The team manager loves Roy like a son, gets hit by a taxi and killed. Roy returns to the Dodgers as a power hitting outfielder, and on a cool gloomy night in the final game of the season, on the final page of the book the Dodgers lead 4-3, two outs, bottom of the 14th.

Long drive to right field! Tucker races back, leaps, snags the ball, crashes into the wall. Did he catch it? Drop it? Dead? Alive? He’s carried off on a stretcher. The book’s final sentence: 

“There was a clap of thunder. Rain descended on the Polo Grounds.”

Mark Fidrych was by far the most delightful, lovable ballplayer of our generation. A few years after his short career was over he was laying on his driveway working under his truck.

It collapsed, pinning him underneath. Two hours later he was found, alone, the gods of baseball having finished with him. 

One Comment

  1. Rick Danielson April 13, 2024

    Ahhh…”The Bird”…that young man was amazing that year he shined so bright. Quite the memories of him you have renewed. Thank you!
    However…his very sad and tragic demise was under his farm tractor, not his truck, I do believe…on his farm property at home in the NE US.
    Thanks for the story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *