Dave Carroll - TSN.ca
The news of Mark Fidrych's death came as a big shock to me on Monday, he was my first sports idol.
It didn't take much to pique my curiousity back in 1977; in fact all I knew about him was that he posed with Big Bird for a Sports Illustrated cover, that was enough. (You can see the cover and read the Peter Gammons article here)
I was five.
I had no idea what "The Bird" was all about, but he was posing with one of my non-sports idols so he was officially my favourite athlete. I questioned my big brother about him and found out that Fidrych groomed the mound with his hands, got excited enough to run up and high five teammates if they made a good play and spoke to the baseballs - in later interviews he explained he was actually talking to himself.
Even at that young age, I knew that made him unique.
I didn't know my new hero's career was just about over when I discovered him. I was a kid and cartoons consumed much of my time, they still do, and I didn't start playing any form of baseball for a few years. I played soccer back then, badly. So I didn't really have the attention span or means to follow that bird.
As I got older and the hold on the game grew on me I researched Fidrych, reading anything I could find at the library (kids, don't listen to your parents, the pre-internet days, not fun).
The old playing footage shows him as a tall gangly guy whose delivery was a mess of arms and legs. The clips don't explain how he helped MLB rebound from a messy lockout prior to the 1976 season. Baseball always seems to find something to help recover from tough moments.
The Bird might have been the most famous 29 win pitcher of all time. His rookie season ranks right up there with Dwight Gooden (1984) and Fernando Valenzuela (1981). Fidrych went 19-9 with a 2.34 ERA over 250.1 innings. He won the American League Rookie of the Year award in a walk over Twins catcher Butch Wynegar and was second in AL Cy Young voting to Jim Palmer (22-13, 2.51, 315 IP). On a side note Padres pitcher Butch Metzger tied Reds pitcher Pat Zachry for NL Rookie of the Year in 1977, I guess it was a good year for guys named Butch too.
Anyway, injuries took their toll and he would only post a 10-10 record for the rest of his career. Aside from a knee injury he was able to beat, his real problem was a rotator cuff tear and doctors didn't know how to fix those back then.
You can find clips of an interview he did with an 80's sports show and one of a game he pitched in the minors against Dave Righetti. Both are well worth a look.
When I heard the news Monday I was driving home from the CTV compound. It took a minute to process the information and the image of that SI cover jumped to mind. I thought about how sports today could use a few more "characters" and if Mark Fidrych was anything, it was that. He was just an odd guy who once upon a time was one of the best pitchers in the world. Maybe that isn't a bad way to remember The Bird.