Note: This is the second part of a virtual “roundtable discussion” with baseball authors, and Mark Fidrych specialists, Dan Epstein and Doug Wilson about The Bird, his legacy and the sad end to his career. Read Part I here.
The Detroit Tigers sent Fidrych back to AAA during spring training in 1980 and The Bird wasn’t happy. After throwing just 36 total innings in 1978 and 1979, he finally appeared healthy. Still the Tigers weren’t convinced and they sent him to Evansville, IN where he played under Jim Leyland. He took some shots at the organization and Sparky Anderson in particular, including an incident where he felt slighted because Anderson didn’t watch him pitch in a minor league game.
Fidrych let his frustration show and took some shots in the media at the organization, and Sparky Anderson in particular, including an incident where he felt slighted because Anderson didn’t watch him pitch in a minor league game.
“I noticed Sparky wasn’t there,” Fidrych said. “I don’t know, maybe he’s off his feed. I could care less. All this is doing is cutting into my pension time. This thing is nothing but a business with them and it’s costing me money. I might be wrong, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t lost any money for the Detroit Tigers.”
Sparky was none too pleased and fired right back.
“Evidently he drew big crowds when he pitched,” Anderson said. “and he feels he made the Tigers money, correct? Then, if that’s so, how many big crowds has he drawn in the last 2 ½ years? Have the Tigers paid him? Well, then, when does the balancing come out?”
In my research, it seems like Mark Fidrych became a bit jaded (at least towards Sparky & the Tigers) at the end of his career. Considering what he’d been through it’s understandable; but do you think it’s true, or am I misreading it?
He was certainly frustrated and struggling. People forget that he was an extremely competitive guy, and it was very frustrating because he couldn’t perform the way he wanted to because of the injury. The fact that no one had been able to diagnose the injury made it unbearable. He was doing what the doctors and so-called experts said to do, but nothing was working. Fans and the media wanted a repeat of the glory year—kept talking about it over and over–and that’s something he just couldn’t deliver.
Anderson was in a difficult situation, trying to move the franchise forward with the great young talent that he had at his disposal (Morris, Trammell, Whitaker, Parrish, Gibson), while inheriting a popular but unproductive player. They had some words in the media that were probably too emotional and both wished they had been more restrained.
From Fidrych’s standpoint, he had treated the Tigers very well on their investment in him; he had signed for much less than he could have, made a lot of money for the team at the turnstile and now had the feeling he was being thrown on the junk heap. That would lead to a certain amount of bitterness for anyone.
And he had been a little naïve in the ways of the world when he came up. As he got older, he learned that life, in general, is much more of a business than you think when you are 20 years old. Things like taxes, car payments and the future start to become more important.
I’m not sure that “jaded” is the right word — “frustrated” would probably be a better choice. He’d had one magical season in 1976 and then was never able to pitch another full season after that, thanks to a series of injuries that (in some cases) baseball medicine wasn’t yet able to effectively diagnose or define. He’d pitched very well during his brief returns to the Tigers in ’77 and ’78, but by ’79 Fidrych looked nothing like the guy who’d won the AL Rookie of the Year award in ’76. Even for someone with such a naturally sunny and exuberant attitude, it must have been absolutely soul-crushing to experience such a precipitous decline and such debilitating physical issues, and not be able to pull yourself out of it. I can’t blame the guy for getting a bit testy at that point.
If he came along today would he have the same impact? Easy to say yes with the media saturation we have but on the other hand the whole story screams innocence to me, which is pretty much gone now. I feel like he’d get ripped and get a lot of “respect the game” from “old school baseball” guys.
Fidrych was actually ripped by some contemporary players and sportswriters at the time; the Yankees, in particular, didn’t take kindly to his particular brand of flamboyance. I do think he would have enjoyed the same kind of broad appeal today — after all, he was a talented, good-looking guy with an infectiously positive attitude — but he also would have been seriously picked at by sports TV and radio commentators, almost from the get-go. Today, if a rookie came up and pitched a shutout in his first start, while talking to the baseball, flapping his arms and dropping to his knees to smooth out the mound, footage from the game would immediately be all over the internet, ESPN, etc., and folks would be immediately weighing in on whether or not he was “disrespecting the game”. But in the pre-internet, pre-cable age, the legend of “The Bird” was allowed to grow organically; most baseball fans — hell, most baseball writers and sportscasters — didn’t get to see him in action until that Monday Night Baseball game, which was six weeks after his first major league start.
Some of the reaction to him would be muted because we have seen so many fake wannabes over the past few decades—things that people get excited about, and then they find out it was all a put-on just to try to get notoriety or make a buck. It’s the reality-TV show epidemic. So there would be a lot of people who would off-handedly dismiss him without really checking to find out if he was the real deal.
On the other hand, can you imagine how Facebook and Twitter would have lit up about an hour into his first start—and it would have stayed lit up the entire season, every time he did anything.
The funny thing about the “respect the game” aspect is that the old-timers and hard-liners really liked Fidrych also. Those who got to know him understood that he was genuine and that it was not an act. Everyone enjoyed the enthusiasm he showed and the atmosphere of the sold-out crowds when he pitched. I don’t think he would get much negative feedback for that now. Ralph Houk was as old-school as you could get and he loved Fidrych. When I talked to Ralph about Mark, I could hear him chuckling on the other side of the line as he remembered those years.
Can you share some personal memories of watching him pitch or what he meant to you?
I remember as a teenager watching him on TV with my father, who was a big baseball fan but somewhat of a conservative guy, and we both loved it. I had never seen anything like the reaction that he got from fans everywhere he went. I also remember how sad it was watching his continued efforts to try to come back.
Sadly, I never got to see The Bird pitch in person, at Tiger Stadium or anywhere else. Growing up in Ann Arbor, going to a Tigers game was the sort of treat my dad or my friends’ parents would only give us a couple of times a year, and my childhood visits to “The Corner” never synched up with a Fidrych start.
My friends and I absolutely loved The Bird, though, at least once we got past our initial cynicism about him. The last time the Tigers had been any good was 1972, which seemed an eon away to us (I turned ten in the spring of ’76). We were used to the Tigers being terrible — 1975 was one of the worst seasons in Tigers history — and as such were immediately suspicious that all the buzz surrounding this guy we’d never heard of before was simply an angle pushed by the team and the local media in an attempt to get people to care about the Tigers again. We thought he was a “fake,” and that he must be doing all that wacky stuff on the mound as a way to get attention. Ah, youth…
It wasn’t until I watched that now-legendary Monday Night Baseball game against the Yankees in late June — which was apparently blacked out in Ann Arbor/Detroit, but which I was able to watch from my grandparents’ living room in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where I was spending part of my summer vacation — that I realized he was the real deal. He wasn’t faking it, he could pitch, and he looked like he was having as much fun out there as my friends and I did when we were playing pickup ballgames against each other in our neighborhood park. He seemed somehow familiar to us; like, I had friends with older brothers who kind of looked like him, who had long curly hair and liked to smoke weed and listen to Led Zeppelin — and I could totally imagine Fidrych hanging out with them. From that point on, I was a Bird fan.
ABOUT DAN AND DOUG:
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!