Mark Fidrych Roundtable Discussion Part II

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?

Wilson:

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.

EPSTEIN:

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.

EPSTEIN:

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.

WILSON:

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?

WILSON:

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.

EPSTEIN:

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.

Doug Wilson is the author of biographies of Mark Fidrych, Carlton Fisk, and Brooks Robinson as well as a book about Fred Hutchinson and the 1964 Cincinnati Reds. He can be found online here.

Dan Epstein is the author of Stars and StrikesBig 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!

Mark Fidrych Roundtable Discussion Part I

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.

I recently had 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.

 How would you describe Fidrych as a cultural phenomenon to someone who didn’t experience Bird-Mania?

Epstein:

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.

Wilson:

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?

Wilson:

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.

Epstein:

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.

 Note:

Dan Epstein and Doug Wilson literally wrote the book(s) on Mark Fidrych.

Dan Epstein is the author of Stars and StrikesBig 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.

Doug Wilson is the author of biographies of Mark Fidrych, Carlton Fisk, and Brooks Robinson as well as a book about Fred Hutchinson and the 1964 Cincinnati Reds. He can be found online here.

I am extremely grateful for their cooperation on this and click here for Part II.