I remember The Bird’s rookie season. In 1976 I was 15 years old and my family moved to Florida. He was outstanding for that one season, but a preseason knee injury derailed his career one year later.
What kind of career Fidrych would have had if not for that injury, has been the subject of much speculation. Baseball stats guru Bill James argued strongly that The Bird wasn’t headed for stardom based on his low strikeout rate. It seems low strikeout pitchers don’t have long careers and Fidrych struck out less than 100 batters in 1976.
We’ll never know if James was right. RIP.
Mark Fidrych, an eccentric All-Star pitcher nicknamed “The Bird” whose career was shortened by injuries, was found dead Monday in an apparent accident at his farm. He was 54.
Worcester County district attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. said a family friend found Fidrych about 2:30 p.m. Monday beneath a dump truck at his Northborough, Mass., farm. He appeared to be working on the truck, Early said.
The curly-haired right-hander was the American League Rookie of the Year in 1976 when he went 19-9 with a 2.34 ERA and 24 complete games. He spent all five of his major league seasons with the Detroit Tigers, compiling a 29-19 record and a 3.10 ERA.
“The entire Detroit Tigers organization was saddened to learn of the passing of former player Mark Fidrych today,” the Tigers said in a statement. “Mark was beloved by Tigers fans and he was a special person with a unique personality. The Tigers send our heartfelt condolences to his family and friends.”
Fidrych attempted a comeback in 1982 and 1983 in the Boston Red Sox organization. He pitched for their Triple-A team in Pawtucket, R.I. But he never pitched in the majors after 1980 and retired in July 1983.
The Worcester, Mass., native later owned a trucking business.
Fidrych acquired the nickname “The Bird” because of his resemblance to the Big Bird character on the Sesame Street television show. During games, he would bend down and groom the mound with his hands, talk to the baseball and slap five with teammates in the middle of the diamond.
But knee and shoulder injuries limited him to 58 major league games.
“Baseball will miss him. They missed him because he didn’t have as long as a career as everybody would have liked in the first place. It’s just horrible,” former Orioles pitcher and Hall of Famer Jim Palmer said. “He did embrace life. I remember him trying to play golf when he couldn’t play golf and enjoying every minute of it.
“He was a marvelous pitcher and I just hate to see him go.”
Fidrych’s first major league start was a complete game, two-hitter in which he beat the Cleveland Indians 2-1. He struck out five and walked one. He won seven of his first eight decisions and was the AL starter in the All-Star Game. He allowed two runs in the first inning and put runners at second and third in the second, but he got the final two outs and left after two innings trailing 2-0. The NL won 7-1.
He tore knee cartilage during spring training the following year and was placed on the disabled list until May 24. He sustained a shoulder injury in July 1977.
After taking a year off from pitching, he went to Pawtucket where he made his first appearance on July 3, 1982. He finished that season with a 6-8 record and 4.98 ERA on 20 games, 19 of them starts. The next season he was 2-5 with a 9.68 ERA in 12 games, including eight starts, and retired in July of that season.
“When he got to us in late June every place he pitched in the league was a sellout. Six years after his great year he was still selling out minor league parks,” said Pawtucket team president Mike Tamburro, who was general manager when Fidrych played there.
“His baseball career certainly ended far too soon, and now I’m sorry to say we’ve lost him far too soon. He was a remarkable character. He was like a meteor in the baseball world that one year. He played center stage and the entire game of baseball kind of played around him.”
One of Fidrych’s most memorable minor league games was against Dave Righetti, the AL Rookie of the Year with the New York Yankees in 1981 who was sent to Triple-A Columbus the following season. Fidrych pitched a complete game, 7-5 win.
“He was almost too down to earth,” Tamburro said. “He was just a wonderful guy to be around. I think the antics on the field were never an act. I think it was his true feelings. He was just a simple guy, lived a simple lifestyle and just brought that lunchpail mentality to the pitcher’s mound every four or five days.”
Fidrych married his wife, Ann, in 1986 and they had a daughter, Jessica.
State police detectives are investigating the circumstances of his death, Early said.
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