Monday, April 13, 2009

"They knew I was intelligent a little bit, but this is the way I had to live."

One of baseball's all-time great characters died today. Mark "The Bird" Fidrych was only 54, and seems to have died in a freak accident involving work on a truck.

The single year that made Fidrych's legend was his rookie season, 1976, when he won 19 games, led the league with a 2.34 ERA, and threw 24 complete games (also a league high, and a number unheard of today; no one's thrown 10 or more since 1999, and you have to go back to 1986 for 20 or more). But those numbers -- pretty gaudy for anybody, let alone a 21-year-old -- were only partly responsible for the intensity of his fame. Fidrych was a shaggy-haired, rail-thin nut who frequently talked to himself and moved dirt around on the mound, and he had a rubber-band delivery that was something to see.

I'm not sure if he was the only pitcher to ever grace the cover of Rolling Stone, but it's probably a good bet. There was also this classic cover of Sports Illustrated:

I was two years old during his brilliant season, so I can't say I remember it. He hurt his shoulder early in the 1977 season, and medical marvels not being what they are now, it slowly cost him his career. He pitched sparingly for three or four years, the tail end of which is when I became aware of him. He tried to fight back in the minor leagues for several years, but ultimately ended up on a farm in his home state of Massachusetts, where Gary Smith caught up with him for a 1985 profile in Sports Illustrated:
Some days Fidrych would leave his chain saw and splitting wedge behind, walk into the woods and scream. Just after the dream year, he had looked down at his hands and told a reporter, "I've got a trade now. These hands are vital. I can't pour cement with these hands." Since he left baseball, those hands have poured cement for swimming pools, cleared lots for new houses, fed pigs and chopped wood. He has sold a pig or cow now and then, or a piece of land that he had bought when he was playing ball. A few times a year, someone pays him to speak at a banquet. For six months last year he was a traveling liquor salesman, but the money and the necktie were no good, so he quit. He doesn't need much, just enough to pay the $6,000 in taxes on his mostly wooded farm, with a little left over for hamburger and beer money—and to have an answer for "What do you do?"
There aren't many clips of Fidrych available online, but this nine-minute piece (below) is a classic. First of all, I had no idea that he sounded like an extra from Good Will Hunting, but check out that accent. There's also a moment you have to catch. If you're not interested in watching the whole thing, the preface of the moment I mean starts around 5:25.

Mark Fidrych was, among other things, one reason why baseball is awesome. Rest in peace, Bird.



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