There had never been another pitcher like him in MLB history, and there hasn’t been another one since. Mark Fidrych’s nickname fit him perfectly because he was a bird of a different breed. Fidrych played a short but stellar MLB career that included winning AL Rookie of the Year honors in 1976. Tragically, in 2009, at age 54, Fidrych’s life ended, fittingly enough, in a very bizarre way.
Mark Fidrych becomes an overnight sensation in 1976
Mark Fidrych, who was given his nickname “The Bird” from a coach while pitching in Detroit’s minor-league system because his 6-foot-3-inch frame and mopped hairstyle looked like the popular Sesame Street character, pitched one inning in his MLB debut on April 20, 1976. Three weeks later, he made a spot start against the Cleveland Indians, fired six no-hit innings to start the game, and finished with a complete game 2-1 victory.
While the final result from his first game was impressive, it’s what he did on the mound in between pitches that had everyone talking. Fidrych talked to the ball including giving it directions, paced in a circle around the mound after each out, patted down the mound, and in the sixth inning refused to allow the groundskeepers to repair the mound. After the game, Indians player Rico Carty said, “Fidrych was trying to hypnotize them.”
Over the next two months, Fidrych became a star for the Detroit Tigers for his antics and, more importantly, for pitching one complete game after another, including back-to-back completes games where he threw an incredible 11 innings each time. The Bird became a national star on June 28, 1976 when he tossed a 5-1 victory over the powerful New York Yankees in front of 47,855 at Tiger Stadium and millions watching on national television. After the game, fans refused to leave the stadium until he emerged from the dugout for a curtain call.
Fidrych won Rookie of the Year honors in 1976 and finished second in Cy Young voting after completing the season with a 19-9 record that included an MLB best 2.34 ERA and an unbelievable 24 complete games.
Injuries cut short a promising career
Fidrych injured his knee in spring training to start the 1977 season, but fought through the pain and started off the season strong with the Tigers. Then, in early July, Fidrych felt his arm “go dead.” He had torn his rotator cuff, which wouldn’t officially be diagnosed until 1985.
Despite the pain, Fidrych continued pitching up until the All-Star break, where he was invited to play a second consecutive year. He declined the invite because of the injury. He never pitched again that season and finished with a 6-4 record and 2.89 ERA.
For the next three seasons, Fidrych took the mound entertaining fans with his crazy antics, but the injured shoulder prevented him from recapturing the form of his rookie season. In 1981 the Tigers released him. He pitched a couple of seasons in the Boston Red Sox organization, but never made it back to the majors. He retired in 1983 at age 29.
The tragic death of Mark ‘The Bird’ Fidrych
After he left baseball, Mark Fidrych returned to his roots in Northborough, Massachusetts, where he lived with his wife Ann and daughter Jessica on a 107-acre farm. When not working on the farmhouse, Fidrych worked as a contractor hauling gravel and asphalt in a ten-wheeler dump truck. On weekends, he helped out in his mother-in-law’s business, a diner. In his spare time, he would show up unannounced at the local baseball field and work with the kids on their fundamentals.
On April 13, 2009, Fidrych was performing maintenance and working underneath his dump truck when something went horribly wrong. A friend found him unconscious and tangled in the shaft of the truck and called 911. It was too late. Fidrych had suffocated. Several days later, the state medical examiner’s office ruled his death an accident.
“He appeared to have been working on the truck when his clothes became tangled in the truck’s power takeoff shaft,” District Attorney Joseph Early Jr. said in a statement.
On April 15, 2009, the Tigers paid tribute to Fidrych at Comerica Park with a moment of silence and a video of the beloved pitcher before the game. A couple of months later, Jessica Fidrych honored her father at Comerica Park by throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. Before throwing the pitch, Jessica “manicured the mound” like her father and received a loud ovation from the crowd.