Mark Fidrych appeared in the majors in 1976 and almost immediately became a national phenomenon. With his mop-top hair and on-field quirks (like manicuring the mound and appearing to talk to the baseball), the fun-loving Fidrych drew massive crowds to Tiger Stadium during a Rookie of the Year season in which he posted a 19-9 record with a 2.34 ERA and 24 complete games. But injuries derailed his career the very next year, and though he'd play in parts of four more big-league seasons, he'd never again enjoy sustained success on the mound.
In his new book, The Bird, author Doug Wilson chronicles Fidrych's life and career, from his Massachusetts upbringing and whirlwind 1976 season to his comeback attempts and tragic death in a 2009 accident on his farm. Wilson spoke with Sports on Earth about Fidrych's career, and why the mid-1970s were the perfect time for someone like him to come along.
It's hard to imagine someone breaking onto the scene in 2013 in quite the same way that Mark Fidrych did in 1976. As you write, the thing that really put him in the national eye was a TV broadcast -- a nationally televised Monday Night Baseball game. How do think things would have been different if someone like Fidrych came up in today's media environment?
Unfortunately, I think it's impossible for anybody to arrive on the scene like that now, because even before he pitched, there would be such an anticipation. People would know about him from high school and early minors, and they'd be watching his progress. And of course, a guy with that kind of talent now would have an agent who would stick the team up for $20 million before he even signed. So everybody would be waiting for his arrival. That was one of the appeals of Mark Fidrych -- he literally came out of nowhere and burst on the scene.
During June of that year, he was winning games, and rumors were leaking out about an unusual guy, but nobody had really seen him across the country, because they only had the two nationally televised events. And it was a big event on a Monday night. You know, you had three channels, so it wasn't like with cable and all the different options. There was no Internet. You had a one-in-three chance that someone was going to sit down and watch the game that night. And they'd been hyping the game, so they had a big audience for that. And everything all came together that one night. He pitched great, the fans were going crazy in a packed stadium, and everybody saw it. Just the total package. I don't think you could ever get that now -- just with the different channels, you can watch a game every single night now. You wouldn't get as big as an audience.
I was trying to think if I've seen anything in recent years like Fidrych in 1976: someone who went from a relative unknown to a national phenomenon. The best comparison I could think of was Jeremy Lin, last year. I'm sure you were already working on a Fidrych book then, so what went through your mind as you watched that?
Well, of course with Jeremy Lin, he went viral overnight because of the different social media, and things like that. And then the media got so big so quick for him. If Mark Fidrych were here pitching now, it would be a similar thing. People would watch him, there would be some video posts online, people would be texting each other, posting more videos at the stadium of people calling him back out [for curtain calls]. The sky would have been the limit as far as how much exposure he would have gotten.
You talk about so-called Bird myths -- things that got reported and became accepted as fact, even if they weren't. Which myths still live on?
One of the big things that I tried to explain at the end is that he really wasn't an eccentric or a flake. That was one of the big myths, that this guy was a nut. And he really wasn't. In talking to people who knew him after baseball -- he was just a regular guy, blue collar worker, a guy you'd see going down the street. He wore his emotions on his sleeve. He would just say anything that popped in his head. But that was one of the things that I wanted to say in the book, that he deserves a little more respect than being known as the crazy guy who talked to the baseball. There was a whole lot more to him than just that.
That's one of the things people remember about him -- how he appeared to be talking to the ball. But he'd said that he wasn't actually talking to the ball. So what was he saying?
That was something that he had always done. Talking to kids who played Little League baseball with him, they said he was always talking, always fidgeting, always moving, and in games when he was in Little League, his lips were always moving. He was really talking to himself, and I think part of that was the genius of his father. His father knew baseball, and I think he knew his son, and he knew how much activity his son had, and he kind of used that to channel it, and it was a focusing mechanism. And when he was on the mound, he would talk to himself, telling himself what the situation was. You know, man on first, two out, need to throw a strike here -- just talking to himself, keep the ball down. And his teammates really said his concentration was amazing. They said, we thought he was a savant. Nobody had ever had that much concentration on the mound. He could block out everything. He was so uninhibited and so focused on the batter, he really didn't know some of those other things he was doing that people laughed about and made a big deal about. He was just trying to get batters out, and it was just part of the routine to keep himself in the game.
Did you have a favorite story that you hadn't heard before?
Well, one of the neat ones was, I talked to a lady who had lived in the neighborhood that Mark lived in when he was a rookie, and she went back and mentioned me to some of her friends, and two ladies e-mailed me. They were little girls and lived in his apartment complex in 1976, and they just remembered how nice he was to all the little kids in the neighborhood. He would get out and play just like a big kid himself, and the one said that he actually taught her how to swim that summer. That was her claim to fame.
She was like six at the time, and nobody had ever been able to get her to put her face underwater. She was just afraid, but she did it for him because she knew he was such a big deal that she wanted to please him. So for all this media sensation, he's on top of the world, he's still got time to teach little kids how to swim, and just come across like a regular guy. And that's kinda neat. You really don't know about somebody till you find out how they were away from the camera, when the reporters weren't around, just being themself.
The question of whether Fidrych threw too many innings so early in his career is raised in the book. Obviously, this has been a big topic lately, especially with Stephen Strasburg last year. Do you think Fidrych threw too many innings?
I'm not sure. I don't want to throw Ralph Houk under the bus. You can't really hold somebody to 2013 standards for something they did in 1976. Back then, pitchers started games and expected to finish, and pitchers pitched a lot of innings, and it was routine for guys to throw 270, 280, 300 innings in a season. Even at a young age, that's what they did. Look at Nolan Ryan, the inning totals he put up when he was 22, 23. Didn't hurt him. There's something more to pitchers breaking down than just pitch counts and innings. The main difference nowadays is they can fix that stuff. It's all conjecture, but Mark Fidrych didn't pitch an excessive load compared to other pitchers his age and his talent level, for the time he was in. And some of them got hurt; some of them had 15-year careers.
It seemed like the mid-70s were the perfect time for someone like Fidrych to catch on.
Absolutely. It was, you hate to use the phrase, the perfect storm. If he had come along five years earlier, with his hair, people would have automatically turned the TV off. Old men would have automatically not liked him because of the hair. If he'd have come along five years later -- the money was so big then. And again, that's one thing we'll never see: that kind of love from a fanbase to a player, because of the money. He was happy making $16,000 and he was doing it at the time when people were worried about free agency and big bucks. And that was exactly what everybody wanted to hear, and that increased his appeal.
So he was the perfect guy at the perfect time, and that's what made everything explode. And another thing, too, that's kind of sad, is that if a guy came along like that today, people would write him off. He would seem too good to be true, and unfortunately, as fans, we've been burned so many times the last few years with any story that seems too good to be true and you come to find out it is. And I think people would have some reservations. They wouldn't give themselves over as willingly to a guy like that now, just because of what's happened in the last five years -- all the bad stories.
So what made you want to tackle a book on Fidrych?
I grew up following baseball in the 60s and 70s, and when I decided I wanted to write, I wanted to write about the good guys and the good stories of the game. You know, you hear so much about the steroids and the scandals and all that, and Mark Fidrych was just the perfect story for somebody who was a good guy, who did something good for the game. People went out to the ballpark, and they had a good time. And I thought that would be fun for people who remember to relive that, and also good for the present generation to read about something like that -- to find out what the big deal with him was, because it's something I don't think will ever happen again.
This interview has been edited and condensed.