The author: Doug Wilson
The vital stats: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 306 pages, $26.99
The pitch: This is such an easy sell. Go to a publishing house, pitching them a story on how you’ll reconstruct the life of one of the most beloved big-leaguers in the last half century — a guy who always had a grin on his face and a mop of curly blond hair, talked to baseballs on the mound, shook hands with teammates after they made great plays, got on his knees to smooth over the dirt to his liking, and was linked to a beloved Sesame Street character.
How do you not buy into that?
The toughest job then is to pull it off. The cover created to spark interest with what’s inside is already a winner. What’s next? Execute.
With one last Tiger-related tale before the Angels finish their three-game series with Detroit this weekend, the focus is on the bittersweet comet that burst onto the baseball scene at a time when we needed someone who wasn’t trying to sell his soul as the next high-priced free agent, and Detroit could use something positive amidst a depressed situation. Then all the air came out of it, the media exploration and exploitation, the failed comebacks. Sadness, and broken hearts, on many levels.
It’s an excellent launching point into a discussion about how greed corrupted the game in the 1970s and ’80s, and someone like Mark Fidrych was such a breath of fresh air. But breathing new information into the Fidrych mystique isn’t all that simple, no matter how many people you interview who knew or played with or just saw him burst on and flame out.
Maybe the high expectations we built up for this book weren’t quite met. Or we’re just kind of depressed in reading the story all over again, this time with all the facts that fill in the gaps between the memories that we don’t want tarnished.
Wilson does a commendable job in his research and tracking down people to revisit this story, not getting too bogged down in details about games that might otherwise slow the narrative.
He’s honest in pointing out that sure, Fidrych was a non-roster invitee in the spring of 1976, but the 6-foot-3, 175-pounds of energy inside of him had been well known in the Tigers’ organization. Fidrych moved from Single-A to Triple-A in the matter of four months during the ’75 season.
It was also not fair to label him a “flake,” as one writer pointed out then, because that was too easy an adjective.”Fidgety Fidrych” was what this writer called him. Go back to his childhood, and may would have described him as “a little wild, a little eccentric, definitely extroverted, and a fun-loving guy.” These days, someone like him might be labeled with ADD.
His Tigers teammates immediately took to him as he entered the rotation. Although, there’s still the quote attributed to teammate Bill Freehan: “This kid is from Boston? Shouldn’t he be more sophisticated?”
As for that magical 1976 season, Fidrych’s first start didn’t come until May 15 (sound familiar, Mike Trout?). By the time he made his now legendary ABC “Monday Night Baseball” appearance on June 28 at Tiger Stadium against the AL East-leading Yankees (one that Wilson equates to the Beatles on the “Ed Sullivan Show”), Fidrych was already 7-1 with a 2.19 ERA. He had pitched back-to-back 11-inning complete game victories, followed by a nine-inning, complete game win over Nolan Ryan and the Angels (a fact not noted in the book … Detroit scored the winning run in the bottom of the ninth, and Ryan left the game trailing just 3-1 in the fifth inning, with nine strikeouts).
Understandably, there’s an entire chapter devoted to Fidrych’s “Monday Night Baseball” game, noting that broadcaster Warner Wolff admits he was unfamiliar with Fidych’s story to that point and shocked when he arrived to see thousands lined up to buy tickets. At least Bob Uecker (interviewing Fidrych in the video above) had seen him before. Hall of Fame broadcaster Bob Prince, also in the booth, admitted: “He’s giving me duck bumps and I’ve seen over 8,000 games.”
There is an interested tidbit on Fidrych’s appearance in Anaheim in August to face the Angels — or, rather, not face them. His spot in the rotation was missed, but the Angels asked him to sign autographs to appease fans. Wilson has one account of how that went down, but notes a different one in Fidrych’s autobiography, “No Big Deal,” published in 1977, where the pitcher says he was concerned about being exploited by the visiting team.
There’s another tale about Fidrych making an appearance on Bill Cosby’s TV show during that trip, but he had trouble reading the cue cards. “Hey man,” Fidrych screamed back at the director who yelled at him. “This isn’t my field. I’m a baseball pitcher.”
The fact that Fidrych finished 19-9 with a league-best 2.34 ERA for the fifth-place Tigers (29 starts, 24 complete games, AL All-Star starting pitcher) and easily won the AL Rookie of the Year isn’t downplayed considering he was somehow second to Jim Palmer (22-13, 2.51 for Baltimore) in the Cy Young voting.
The place where the book finally turns a corner in nailing the true essence of Fidrych is in how he handles the adversity of everything beyond 1976 — starting with an injured knee that needed surgery in spring training of ’77.
His cover shot for Rolling Stone came in May of that year, with the Sports Illustrated cover in June (after the magazine dropped him off the cover months earlier, following the injury). The media tried to spur his comeback on. Yet, Fidrych made just 11 starts that year (6-4). Three starts in ’78 (2-0), including an Opening Day win, after a shoulder problem sidelined him, and he was replaced by a 23-year-old named Jack Morris.. Four starts in ’79 (0-3). And then, nine starts in ’80 (2-3). And that was that as far as his baseball card would show.
ABC tried to put him on “Monday Night Games” with Al Michaels, but Fidrych’s honesty about not know much about the other players fell flat.
Reading through Fidrych’s ’76 season flashes back for us what L.A. experience with Fernando Valenzuela’s rookie year of 1981 — the season following Fidrych’s finale, although he did try a comeback with the Boston Red Sox. Maybe Fidrych didn’t ignite a particular culture like Valenzuela did with the Hispanic population in L.A., but he had become more pop culture value, most likely because of his colorful language and wanting to please people.
A poignant reference to Fidrych starting the ’79 season with a picture of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes and him saying, “Thank God my arm feels better,” doesn’t make the rest of it any easier to read again.
Wilson spends only four paragraphs at the end of Chapter 9 to explain Fidrych’s accidental death in 2009 (the fourth year anniversary was April 13).
Maybe it’s fitting. It’s not something we even want to think about.
As Tigers manager Jim Leyland said about Fidrych in 2009: “You can talk about Ty Cobb or anyone else, but for one year, he was the biggest impact star in the history of the Tigers. For that one year, he was bigger than anybody in the history of the game.”
And the point Wilson really wanted to get across — that Fidrych was hardly a “flake” despite showing up in so many books about the subject of baseball’s oddballs and unforgettable characters — isn’t missed.
“Mark Fidrych never really was The Bird either,” Wilson concludes. “He was always Fid. Regardless of the hype, the media exposure, the unimaginable fame, he remained — throughout his life — Fid from Northboro … in his later years, he realized how much The Bird meant to people. He brought The Bird back to make people feel good on occasions.”
And so too does Wilson.