August 14, 1954
April 13, 2009 (aged 54)
|Batted: Right||Threw: Right|
|April 20, 1976 for the Detroit Tigers|
|Last MLB appearance|
|October 1, 1980 for the Detroit Tigers|
|Earned run average||3.10|
|Career highlights and awards|
In 1976, Fidrych led the major leagues with a 2.34 ERA, won the AL Rookie of the Year award, and finished with a 19-9 record.
The son of an assistant school principal, Fidrych played baseball at Algonquin Regional High School in Northborough, Massachusetts, and at Worcester Academy, a day and boarding school in central Massachusetts. In the 1974 amateur draft, he was not selected until the 10th round, when the Detroit Tigers picked him. In the minor leagues one of his coaches with the Lakeland Tigers dubbed the lanky 6-foot-3 right-handed pitcher "The Bird" because of his resemblance to the "Big Bird" character of the 1970s Sesame Street television program.
Fidrych made the Tigers as a non-roster invitee out of the 1976 spring training, not making his major-league debut until April 20, and not making his first start until mid-May. He only made that start because the scheduled starting pitcher had the flu. Fidrych responded by throwing seven no-hit innings, ending the game with a 2-1 victory in which he gave up only two hits. He went on to win 19 games, led the league in ERA (2.34) and complete games (24), was the starting pitcher in that year's All-Star Game, won the American League Rookie of the Year Award, and finished second in voting for the Cy Young Award.
In the process Fidrych also captured the imagination of fans with his antics on the field. He would crouch down on the pitcher's mound and fix cleat marks, what became known as "manicuring the mound", talk to himself, talk to the ball, aim the ball like a dart, strut around the mound after every out, and throw back balls that "had hits in them," insisting they be removed from the game. Mark Fidrych also was known for shaking everyone's hands after a game. On June 28, 1976, he pitched against the New York Yankees in a nationally televised game on ABC; the Tigers won the game 5-1. After a game filled with "Bird" antics in which he and his team handily defeated the Yankees, Fidrych became a national celebrity.
Every time he pitched, Tiger Stadium was jam-packed with adoring fans who became known as "Bird Watchers". Fidrych's fan appeal was also enhanced by the fact that he had his own "personal catcher". Because Tigers coaching and managerial staff were somewhat superstitious about "jinxing" Fidrych's success; Bruce Kimm, a rookie catcher, caught each of Fidrych's outings. It became common to hear the crowd chant "we want the Bird, we want the Bird" at the end of each of his home victories. The chants would continue until he emerged from the dugout to tip his cap to the crowd. While these "curtain calls" have become more common in modern sports, they were not so in the mid 70's baseball. In his 18 appearances, attendance equaled almost half of the entire season's 81 home games. Teams started asking Detroit to change its pitching rotation so Fidrych could pitch in their ballparks, and he appeared on the cover of numerous magazines, such as Sports Illustrated (twice, including once with Sesame Street character Big Bird), The Sporting News, and became the first athlete to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone. In one week, Fidrych turned away five people who wanted to be his agent, saying, "Only I know my real value and can negotiate it."
Fidrych also drew attention for the simple, bachelor lifestyle he led in spite of his fame, driving a green subcompact car, living in a small Detroit apartment, wondering aloud if he could afford to answer all of his fan mail on his league-minimum $16,500 salary, and telling people that if he hadn't been a pitcher, he'd work pumping gas in Northborough. He fascinated everyone, most especially young girls, with his frizzy blond curls, blue jeans, and devil-may-care manner.
At the end of his rookie season, the Tigers gave him a $25,000 bonus and signed him to a three-year contract worth $255,000. Economists estimated that the extra attendance Fidrych generated around the league in 1976 was worth more than $1 million. Fidrych also did an Aqua Velva television commercial after the 1976 season.
For the 1976 season, Fidrych was nominated for several awards and ranked among baseball's leaders in multiple categories.
During the offseason between the 1976 and 1977 seasons, Fidrych published an autobiography with Tom Clark titled No Big Deal.
Fidrych tore the cartilage in his knee fooling around in the outfield during spring training in 1977. He picked up where he left off after his return from the injury, but about six weeks after his return, during a game against Baltimore, he felt his arm just, in his words, "go dead." It was a torn rotator cuff, but it would not be diagnosed until 1985. .
Fidrych managed to finish the season 6-4 with a 2.89 ERA and was again invited to the All-Star Game, but he declined the invitation due to injury. He pitched only three games in 1978, winning two. On August 12, 1980, 48,361 fans showed up at Tiger Stadium to see what turned out to be his last attempt at a comeback. Fidrych pitched his last MLB game on October 1, 1980 in Toronto, going five innings and giving up four earned runs, while picking up the win in a 11-7 Tigers victory which was televised in Detroit. At the end of the 1981 season, Detroit gave Fidrych his outright release and he signed as a free agent with the Boston Red Sox, playing for one of their minor league teams. However, his torn rotator cuff, still undiagnosed and untreated, never healed. At age 29, he was forced to retire. After seeing everyone from chiropractors to hypnotists, Fidrych went to famed sports doctor James Andrews in 1985. Dr. Andrews discovered the torn rotator cuff and operated; still, the damage already done to the shoulder effectively ended Fidrych's chance of coming back to a professional baseball career.
Fidrych remained cheerful and upbeat. In a 1998 interview, when asked who he would invite to dinner if he could invite anyone in the world, Fidrych said, "My buddy and former Tigers teammate Mickey Stanley, because he's never been to my house."
Fidrych lived with his wife Ann, whom he married in 1986, on a 107-acre (0.43 km2) farm in Northborough. They have a daughter, Jessica. Aside from fixing up his farmhouse, he worked as a contractor hauling gravel and asphalt in a 10 Wheeler. On weekends, he helped out at his mother-in-law's business, Chet's Diner in Northborough.
Fidrych was found dead on April 13, 2009, according to the Worcester District Attorney's office. The D.A.'s office said Fidrych was found by a family friend beneath his 10-wheeled dump truck at his Northborough home around 2:30 p.m. He appeared to have been working on the truck at the time of the accident. Authorities said Fidrych suffocated after his clothes became entangled with a spinning shaft on the truck he was working on. The state medical examiner's office ruled the death an accident, according to a release from the Worcester District Attorney's office. "He appeared to have been working on the truck when his clothes became tangled in the truck's power takeoff shaft," District Attorney Joseph Early, Jr. said in a statement.
Joseph Amorello, owner of a road construction company, occasionally hired Fidrych to haul gravel or asphalt. He had stopped by the farm to chat with Fidrych when he found the body underneath the dump truck. "We were just, in general, getting started for the [road building] season this week and it seems as though his truck was going to be needed. It looked like he was doing some maintenance on it," Amorello said in a telephone interview. "I found him under the truck. There's not much more I can say. I dialed 911 and that's all I could do."
Current Tigers manager Jim Leyland had fond memories of "The Bird" dating to the times he managed the pitcher in 1978, 1980 and 1981, when Fidrych was trying to come back from the knee and shoulder injuries. "We drove to spring training in my van one year," Leyland said. "I drove up to Detroit from Toledo, picked him up, then drove him back to my house for the night. I remember how much he ate at breakfast the next morning. My mom kept fixing him eggs and the Bird kept eating them." Fidrych made 27 starts for Leyland’s Triple-A teams in 1980 and 1981. He made it back to the Tigers in 1980 and pitched his last complete game in the majors on September 2, with Leyland and his mother in the stands. "After the final out, he came over and handed the game ball not to me, but to my mother," Leyland said. "I couldn’t believe it. She couldn’t believe it. I’ve never forgotten it."
In one of Bill James' baseball books, he quoted the Yankees' Graig Nettles as telling about an at-bat against Fidrych, who, as usual, was talking to the ball before pitching to Nettles. Immediately Graig jumped out of the batter's box and started talking to his bat. He reportedly said, "Never mind what he says to the ball. You just hit it over the outfield fence!" Nettles struck out. "Damn," he said. "Japanese bat. Doesn't understand a word of English."
On June 19, 2009, Jessica Fidrych honored her father at Comerica Park by throwing out the ceremonial first pitch to manager Jim Leyland for the Tigers game against the Milwaukee Brewers. Prior to throwing the first pitch, Jessica "manicured the mound" just like her father. Ann Fidrych, widow of Mark Fidrych, was also present on the field for the ceremony.