Mark Fidrych walked off the mound at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto on October 1st, 1980 after throwing five innings against the Blue Jays. He surrendered five runs (four earned) on seven hits while walking three and striking out three. He also earned his 2nd win of the season. It wasn’t his best performance or his worst performance, but it was his last performance. Fidrych would never pitch in the big leagues again.
How would you describe Fidrych as a cultural phenomenon to someone who didn’t experience Bird-Mania?
Within the context of 70s pop culture, I like to say that The Bird was cooler (and, for a year there, hotter) than Peter Frampton, Evel Knievel and the Fonz put together. It was a total “overnight sensation” thing: He was practically unknown when he made his first start for the Tigers on May 15, 1976; less than two months later, he’s the starting pitcher for the American League in the All-Star Game.
His story and his personality resonated with people far beyond the realms of baseball fandom, to the point where even opposing teams could sell 10,000-20,000 extra seats when he took the mound for the Tigers — and wherever he pitched (but especially at Tiger Stadium), the fan reaction was so crazy and intense that it was like being at a rock concert. He was so naturally telegenic, Hollywood producers wanted him to cast him in their films, TV shows and commercials. People recorded songs about him, little leaguers wanted to pitch like him, and teenage girls across the country had his posters tacked to their walls. And best of all, he had the ability to back up all of the hype that surrounded him.
I talked to so many people who remembered that summer and the number one response to that question is, “You can’t describe it. You had to be there.”
I think the reason for that response is that there has never been anything close to it. People nowadays have absolutely no reference point to judge it.
You can get a little sense of it watching the youtube clip of the end of the famous Yankee game: 50,000 fans, on their feet, screaming “Bird, Bird, Bird,” the announcers struggling to come up with superlatives to describe what they were seeing, a huge smile on everyone’s face—and all for a meaningless June game played by a fifth-place team! And the thing about it was that he did that every single time out. It went on for four months. He never disappointed.
The cultural phenomenon exploded unlike anything baseball had ever had. It pulled in nonsports fans of all ages. People couldn’t get enough of the Bird. Overnight he went from an unknown quirky rookie to the most recognizable, and loved, person in the country.
Why do you think he still holds people’s interest to this day? Right place/right time or was it something inherently Fidrych that people still connect to?
For those who know the whole story, it still resonates because it was something totally unique and fun. It was definitely a right place/right time phenomena because the ‘70s was the perfect era for something like this. As I said in my book, if he had come up in the button-down ‘50s or the troublesome generation-gap ‘60s, he would have been popular with a lot of people, but the whole experience wouldn’t have been the same.
But I think Mark’s brilliantly unique personality would connect with anyone, anywhere. I talked to so many people who met him long before, and long after 1976 and they all loved the guy. He was just impossibly energetic, fun-loving, completely without guile or ulterior motives, and, I think, above all, one-hundred percent genuine. People respect that.
No one who experienced “Birdmania” will ever forget it, because it was such a magical moment in baseball history and popular culture. The joy that he radiated whenever he took the mound was absolutely infectious and completely genuine, and none of his quirky mound mannerisms — the “talking” to the ball, the grooming of the mound, the goofy celebrations after his teammates made great plays — were an “act”. They were just part of who he was.
But I also think the fact that he never pitched another full season in the bigs has a lot to do with why Mark Fidrych continues to fascinate us. If his amazing first season had been followed by five or six solid-to-mediocre ones before his arm gave out, we likely wouldn’t care as much about him today. Even if he’d had a Vida Blue-like career, where he followed his early dominance with over a decade of sometimes great, sometimes not-so-hot seasons — and likely have some of his natural exuberance ground down in the process — I’m not sure that we’d remember him quite so fondly now.
As it is, though, the Fidrych story is like Icarus with a baseball — he flew (or threw) too close to the sun for one brilliant season, and he paid the price for it. And that’s still compelling as all hell.
Dan Epstein and Doug Wilson literally wrote the book(s) on Mark Fidrych.
Dan Epstein is the author of Stars and Strikes & Big Hair and Plastic Grass, which give great insight into baseball in the 1970s. He also is a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone and other publications. He can be found online here and on Twitter here.
I am extremely grateful for their cooperation on this and click here for Part II.