You can learn something important doing any story—and it's not always what you thought you'd learn. I was reminded of that this week after hearing that Mark "The Bird" Fidrych had died at the age of 54, apparently while making repairs to a pickup truck on his farm in Northborough, Mass.
Mr. Fidrych was the most exciting performer in baseball back in 1976. He had long, lanky limbs, a crown of frizzy blond hair, and was dubbed "The Bird" for his resemblance to Big Bird, public broadcasting's most glamorous personality. Mark also talked to the baseball—to get the home runs out of it, he said.
The summer of '76 was magical—for The Bird, and for baseball. Although he joined the Detroit Tigers a month into the season, he won 19 games (including an 11-inning complete game over the Yankees—few pitchers go eight innings these days, much less 11). He pitched in the All-Star game. He was Rookie of the Year (and his rookie salary, by the way, was $19,000). He drove a green sub-compact, drank milkshakes, and tossed baseballs to children. He was the biggest draw in baseball.
But Mark Fidrych injured his shoulder in spring training the next year, and never really recovered his form. All baseball was rooting for him. He would leave for several weeks of surgery and rehab, and when he returned, players on opposing teams would hail him, "Good to see you back." No player was better for the game.
By the time I caught up with him, in the mid-1980's, he was pitching in the farm leagues, for the Evansville (Indiana) Tigers. I went to the ballpark one night to do a story that, for the life of me, I cannot remember. But I remember the kids in the park clamoring when Mark Fidrych would doff his cap from the bullpen, revealing those huge blond curls. "Bird! Bird!" they shouted. I went into the Evansville locker room after the game, and every kid in the ballpark that night must have been lined up to meet The Bird. Mark Fidrych greeted each and every one of them with grace and humor. "Hey, buddy, how ya' doin'?" He took off his cap to let little girls play with his curls.
After the last child had left the ballpark, he sat with (truly) a milkshake on a low bench in an old, scarred locker room, and I asked, "After being Rookie of the Year and pitching in the All-Star game, is this a letdown?" Not a particularly insightful question, was it? But The Bird's eyes brightened.
"Hey pal," he said. "It was good enough for me on the way up, it's good enough for me on the way down."
Every time I've seen some over-spoiled millionaire brat of a ballplayer over the years, I thought of Mark Fidrych. In a Hall of Fame of true sportsmen, who bring joy and grace into the game, be it in Yankee Stadium or Evansville, "The Bird" deserves a special place near the front.