Awesome Men Throughout History: Mark “The Bird” Fidrych
As of this writing, the Ravens are in Super Bowl contention (hopefully they won’t screw that up by the time this column hits TSB’s website), and their success inspired me to find another sports figure to ennoble here as an Awesome Man. Easier said than done, it turns out. Professional sports is a crazy person factory in the scariest of ways, and one can only read so much about guys like Ron Artest or Rae Carruth (or more recently, Ben “Rapistberger” Roethlisberger) before wondering if there’s anyone with their name on a team jersey who isn’t a violent sociopath.
Then I found Mark “the Bird” Fidrych, and all of a sudden I had a column.
Fidrych pitched for the Detroit Tigers in the late 1970s, winning the AL Rookie of the Year award in 1976 and leading the major leagues that same year with a 2.34 ERA. His nickname came from his height and lanky build, which reminded people of Sesame Street’s Big Bird, hence “the Bird.”
Sadly, there’s no convenient shorthand for “the obsessive-compulsive superstitious kook,” because that’s a better term for Fidrych’s personality. He was well-known in the baseball community for his weird habits, which included talking to the ball, removing balls that had already been hit from play, and fixing cleat marks on the pitcher’s mound, which became known as “manicuring the mound.” If only our girlfriends were as conscientious about that as Fidrych was.
Fidrych was also prone to strutting around the pitcher’s mound after a strike-out, which made him famous when the Tigers ate the Yankees’ lunch in a 1976 nationally televised game. Even if people didn’t quite understand the Bird, they sure did like him, and his fans (called “Bird Watchers”) filled up Tigers Stadium to see him do his thing. Keep in mind that this was the 1970s when Detroit still had a large enough population to fill a stadium for any reason.
Fidrych’s individualism continued off the field as well – he lived simply in a Detroit apartment, drove a modest car, and often told people that were it not for baseball, he’d be pumping gas in his hometown of Northborough, Massachusetts. There really aren’t men like this in professional sports anymore, which is unfortunate because Mark Fidrych was a very humble man at heart, even after he got so popular that other teams began asking Detroit to alter their pitching line-ups so he could pitch in their stadiums to improve attendance.
When a rotator cuff forced him to retire in 1980, Fidrych and his family moved onto a 107-acre farm in Northborough, where he worked as a contractor. He wasn’t bitter about the abrupt end to his career, and happily returned to blue-collar work until he died suddenly in 2009.
Fidrych would stick out even more now than he did during his career – not to say that every modern athlete makes Derek Jeter money, but there are a lot of spoiled brats out there who can’t handle success and don’t appreciate the opportunities they’ve been given. And their craziness isn’t nearly as endearing as Fidrych’s was. I’ll end with this video tribute to the Bird, which includes some of his signature antics.
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.