Retroactive Review: The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych

Mark Fidrych played the game his own way … a way that would play today.

Stop almost any Detroit Tigers fan on the street and they’ll likely be able to tell you exactly who Mark “The Bird” Fidrych was. Baby boomers might be able to recall watching the quirky, “flaky” Fidrych pitch on TV, while older millennials can probably recall seeing The Bird grooming the pitcher’s mound during the closing ceremonies for Tiger Stadium (a 40-something Fidrych can be seen manicuring the mound for the final time here).

Fidrych, who died in a tragic accident a little over 10 years ago, burst onto the scene during the summer of 1976 and disappeared almost as quickly, though—as Doug Wilson’s meticulously researched biography The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych shows—Fidrych’s life was more than just that one magical summer.

Fidrych, born into a middle-class family in Northborough, Massachusetts, grew up humbly. He was not a good student and likely had undiagnosed ADHD. The hyperactive Fidrych was a distraction during his classes, but he was so likeable and goofy that teachers couldn’t bring themselves to discipline him. The only time Fidrych ever was able to calm himself down was on the pitcher’s mound. There, Fidrych’s quirks—his constant movement and chattering—were more a help than a hindrance.

Though Fidrych was certainly no scholar, it soon became evident he had immense athletic talent, as he dominated on the mound for his high school teams. Despite putting up impressive numbers, the local Red Sox did not scout him that intensively and seemed uninterested; Fidrych assumed his playing career would be over once he graduated high school. Unbeknownst to him, he’d caught the eye of Detroit Tigers scouts; the right-hander didn’t own a TV, nor did he really follow baseball outside his hometown nine. When he was drafted, a childhood friend ran to the gas station where he worked to give him the good news.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Wilson’s work is clearly the result of extensive research and interviews, if the notes section is anything to go by. While the book clocks in at 294 pages, about 45 of those pages are reserved for notes and a bibliography. The research is reflected in the work, as Wilson reproduces interviews with everyone from Fidrych’s boyhood friends to former Detroit Tigers teammates to rival players. The deep well of background information on Fidrych and his upbringing helps color our understand of the man he would become but does bog down the early chapters a little bit. Many pages are dedicated to Fidrych’s youth and minor league exploits before we get to more interesting, engaging material.

Some of the more fascinating tidbits in the book revolve around Fidrych’s rapid ascent to the majors. He is credited by former teammates as having started the tradition of post-victory handshakes. Before Fidrych burst onto the baseball scene, teams generally celebrated wins in the dugout, out of the view of the fans. When Fidrych joined the Tigers, he often sprinted into the outfield mid-game to shake the hands of outfielders who made stellar plays or to commiserate with infielders who booted the ball, as well as celebrating wins with post-game handshakes and high-fives. Nowadays, this is considered standard practice after victories.

At the time Fidrych captured the imagination of a nation, the country was still recovering from the tumult of the ’60s, political scandal, and an economic recession (a “stagflation,” in which there was both high unemployment and high inflation). In Detroit, the auto industry was stagnating, and population was in decline as white residents left for the suburbs. Baseball fans were still reeling from the end of the reserve clause and the advent of free agency, growing weary of squabbling players and owners and agents. Americans needed something to seize on, and the right person came onto the scene at exactly the right time, in exactly the right place.

The Tigers had fallen on hard times after their last division title and playoff appearance in 1972. After a disappointing 1973 season, in which the Tigers finished in third place, the team selected Fidrych in the 10th round of the June draft. He advanced quickly through Detroit’s minor league system and made the Opening Day roster out of camp in 1976.

The Tigers had high hopes for their prized prospect, though few in the organization likely could have imagined what was to come. The Bird soon captured fans’ imaginations with his in-game antics—such as manicuring the mound and speaking to the baseball—and his unassuming lifestyle. Fidrych lived simply, and stated “if he hadn’t been a pitcher, he’d be pumping gas in Northborough.”

The burgeoning legend of The Bird can be credited to the rivalry between the two local papers, the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press. The sportswriters, sensing something special with Fidrych, each tried to outdo the other with Bird-related pieces, his antics sometimes exaggerated. The attention paid to the promising rookie by the papers helped cultivate what was to come.

On June 28, 1976, the remarkable Fidrych took center stage on Monday Night Baseball and cemented his legend. Nearly 50,000 fans were on hand to see him stifle the Yankees, pitching to a 5-1 score, in a brisk 1 hour, 51 minutes of playing time. Fidrych received a curtain call and a standing ovation after the complete-game victory. He later would be selected to start the All-Star Game in Philadelphia, a lofty accomplishment for a rookie, and took home the Rookie of the Year award as well.

Fidrych wasn’t an overpowering pitcher, sporting a puny 9.7 percent strikeout rate, but he featured exceptional command, control, and movement on his pitches. He also didn’t give up many home runs, allowing only 23 homers over 412.1 innings pitched.

The popular Fidrych would never enjoy a season quite like his rookie campaign. After tearing his knee cartilage in spring training the following year, he was never the same pitcher. Six weeks after his return from the injury, he tore his rotator cuff in July. He would never be able to return to the lofty heights he enjoyed as a rookie. Perhaps ironically, Fidrych’s July 1977 injury would pave the way for a future World Series champion and Tiger legend, Jack Morris.

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The Tigers let Fidrych go after the 1981 season, and after a few failed comeback attempts, he retired at 29. He later passed away in a freak accident in 2009, just a few days after Angels rookie Nick Adenhart, and the same day as legendary Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas. When the Tigers honored Fidrych later that season, his daughter Jessica was invited to throw out the first pitch. Jessica and her mother groomed the Comerica Park mound before she delivered a strike to then-manager Jim Leyland.

At times, Wilson’s biography reads a little bit like a hagiography, as absolutely no one has anything remotely critical to say of the former Tigers star. It does seem as though the real Fidrych was the likable, unpretentious, kind-hearted goof portrayed in the book. Several of the individuals interviewed in The Bird are also insistent that the “flake” label affixed to Fidrych is inaccurate and unfair; there was nothing flaky about him, they say. And none of it was a put-on or a costume designed to trick people. This is just who Mark Fidrych was.

Though the book is well-written and researched, its incredibly long chapters (upwards of 45-50 pages) make it a bit of a slog, as do long early passages spent on Fidrych’s childhood and high school years. While the background gives insight into Fidrych as a person, and the pay-off helps provide a framework for his later years, it seems to take a while to get to the good stuff. The book doesn’t really take flight—pardon the pun—until Fidrych is drafted and begins his professional career. This is, perhaps, a necessary evil when it comes to biographies and autobiographies, but it did take a little enjoyment out of the overall reading experience.

At the very end of the book, Wilson relates an anecdote from a Washington Nationals broadcast:

In May of 2010, the newest pitching phenom, Stephen Strasburg, played a minor league game in Syracuse. A huge crowd turned out, the largest in the history of the stadium. The game was broadcast on regional television. Gazing over the enormous crowd, the play-by-play man asked his partner on the air if he had ever seen a pitcher draw such a crowd all by himself. The color commentator, ex-Detroit Tiger pitcher Steve Grilli, answered without hesitation, ‘Yea, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych—every time he went out.’”

That passage made me think: Has there truly never been anyone quite like Fidrych since, well, Fidrych himself?

Would an individual like Mark Fidrych, with all his quirks and odd behaviors, have been allowed to flourish in today’s game? Or would that individuality have been stamped out of him by the time he reached the majors?

Today, baseball pundits and fans alike lament the lack of individuality, excitement, and fun in the game, some going as far to claim superstars like Mike Trout are too boring and bland to be marketable. Major League Baseball trotted out Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr.—credited with making the game more accessible and hip for a younger generation—and started a campaign of its own, #LetTheKidsPlay.

Despite these efforts to appeal to a younger, savvy generation, there still seems to be a disconnect. There’s something just a little ironic about an MLB-affiliated twitter account tweeting out a clip of Tim Anderson bat-flipping after a home run, championing it, promoting it, and tagging it #LetTheKidsPlay, only for MLB’s disciplinarians to give pitcher Brad Keller a light tap on the wrist by making him miss just one start for hitting Anderson in retaliation.

This is a battle that has been playing out for the last several years: old school vs. new school. Tradition and “class” vs. fun and individuality. If Major League Baseball is serious about “letting the kids play,” shouldn’t such behavior as Keller’s warrant stricter punishment?

Ex-major leaguer Michael Young pointed out on Twitter that you must take the good with the bad; if you want players to show positive emotion, you should accept that players will also show negative emotion as well. While there is some validity to the argument Young makes, there’s a difference between, say, pouting and whining or snapping back at an opponent, and throwing a mid-90s projectile at his body in an attempt to do damage.

Players should be able to express themselves on the field without worrying about whether or not the next pitch they see will put them on the injured list. During the days of the Detroit Tigers’ division titles, José Valverde angered many an opponent with his post-game victory dances and celebrations. Fans came up with a saying: “If you don’t want him to dance, don’t let him beat you.” Seems simple enough, doesn’t it?

Major League Baseball recently has implemented changes to the game in an attempt to improve the pace of play. They’ve added pitch clocks to limit the time a pitcher spends not throwing pitches, discussed eliminating defensive shifts, shortening commercial breaks, and doing away with the role of the LOOGY altogether with a three-batter minimum rule for pitchers. Most of these changes seem cosmetic, though, and don’t really get at the heart of the problem.

Yes, the games are long. Yes, they can be boring. Yes, attendance is declining. But tinkering with commercial breaks and implementing roster restrictions aren’t going to be what gets fans back through the turnstiles. Fans need competitive teams and players worth seeing. A mediocre Detroit Tigers team finished fourth out of 14 teams in attendance in 1976; it’s estimated the extra attendance generated by the Bird’s starts, league-wide, was worth $1 million.

Major League Baseball embracing #LetTheKidsPlay is a promising start. It’s long past time for the game to move on from the attitude that individuality and expression of emotion are negative things. Perhaps, given enough time, this current crop of young stars—stars like Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Javier Báez, Ronald Acuña Jr., and Tim Anderson, to name a few—and those on the way can turn the tide and rewrite those unwritten rules. The Bird showed the way.

Alexandra Simon is a pragmatic but somewhat rabid Detroit Tigers fan who enjoys candlelit dinners and long walks on the beach. Follow her on Twitter @catswithbats, and also @glasshalffulmer, where she also tweets about baseball.

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Fidrych was a right-hander.

John Autin
John Autin

Mark Fidrych was a RIGHT-hander. Getting that wrong suggests you’ve never seen a video or photo of him pitching — which is fine for an ordinary person, but terrible for someone reviewing a book whose cover has a drawing of him pitching right-handed.

Detroit Michael
Detroit Michael

I also thought it was an excellent book, especially the last chapter:

Tooele Dave
Tooele Dave

I’ve been a huge baseball fan for my whole life. I was 13 when The Bird first appeared for the Tigers. Obviously there wasn’t as much baseball on TV then as there is now. But I clearly remember seeing him pitch, talking to the ball and grooming the mound. He is unforgettable. My mom would watch games with me. She’s in her late 80’s now – but if I asked her if she remembered “The Bird” – the answer would be a definite “Yes”.

I was also a big Ron LeFlore fan, too.

Bless You Boys
Bless You Boys

First game was the Monday Night Game against the Yankees. Perhaps helps explain why I’m reading Fangraphs every day at age 48. Thanks for the well-written book review.


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