The Bird was The Word

fidrychIt’s an odd coincidence that two of baseball’s greatest characters – Harry Kalas and Mark Fidrych – died on the same day. Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be in some sense… who knows. Maybe people better versed in spirituality, religion, science or whatever else can explain it.

Needless to say, Mark Fidrych’s death kind of got lost in the shuffle here. When an icon dies – the pope of Philadelphia for a lack of better description – everything else kind of takes a backseat.

Besides, Mark Fidrych was a shooting star in the night in baseball. He was here for a moment – bright, shiny, beautiful and majestic – and gone. Snap… just like that. Fidrych owned baseball in 1976. He was the best pitcher in the game, started the All-Star Game for the American League at The Vet, won 19 games and then tore up his rotator cuff in 1977.

The thing about that was Fidrych had the gall to rip up his shoulder before the proliferation of arthroscopic surgeries. Undoubtedly the injuries that ended careers like Fidrych’s are nothing more than out-patient procedures these days. High school kids have Tommy John surgery the way they used to rub their faces in Clearasil in the good old days.

If Fidrych only would have waited a few years to rip up his shoulder he might have had a longer career. He might have been around long enough to make enough money throwing a baseball so that he would not have had to return to Massachusetts and go to work as a contractor or help out at Chet’s Dinner, owned by his mother-in-law.

But from all the stories, Fidrych probably would have done it the same way.

By now most people know all the stories about “The Bird.” He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated AND Rolling Stone (back when that meant something) with that floppy Tigers’ cap pulled over that crazy mop of curly hair with Big Bird. He talked to the ball, smoothed the dirt on the mound with his bare hands while on his hands and knees. He waved to the fans in the middle of the game and ran over to teammates to shake their hands after good plays.

Hell, he even told hitters where he was going to throw the ball and they still couldn’t hit it. Charlie Manuel’s old pal, Graig Nettles, tells a story about watching The Bird talk to the ball before delivering a pitch. As soon as he saw it, Nettles says he called time, hopped out of the batters’ box and began talking to his bat.

“Never mind what he says to the ball,” Nettles said he told his bat. “You just hit it over the outfield fence!”

But when Nettles struck out, he blamed the bat.

“Japanese bat,” the story goes. “It doesn’t understand a word of English.”

I missed Fidrych’s act. I was too young, but I caught bits and pieces of it at the very end when he staged one of his many comebacks with the Tigers. I also caught enough of the hype to understand what everyone was talking about, though how does one explain Mark Fidrych to people who missed it? How do you properly explain a pitcher who talked to the ball, told hitters where it was coming, yet still racked up 24 complete games and 19 wins?

Anyway, one part I remember was a game on TV at the end. It must have been in ’79 back before cable TV when the Game of the Week was the only chance us D.C. kids had to see teams other than the Orioles, and Fidrych was talking to Tony Kubek before a game about his return. Needless to say, it was so much different than any other ballplayer interview.

Fidrych looked like he was actually having fun. He looked like he liked to play baseball. He smiled when he played and bounced when he ran. It was a game, right? It was supposed to be fun.

markTo this day there was never anyone like Mark Fidrych. If there was someone like him, that personality would be stamped out and pulverized before he reached the big leagues. But thankfully there was The Bird. When they showed him on TV, even all those years after that summer of ’76, personality beamed from the set like trippy, psychedelic colors. It just oozed out there like dripping honey. Years later, any time there was a Fidrych sighting or even a story in a magazine, I stopped in my tracks and took notice as if in a trance.

Still, it was impossible to watch those old tapes and wonder about the “what if.” What if he never got hurt? Would the game be different now? Would it be more fun?

Fortunately, the “what if” never got to The Bird. Years after his comet had streaked out of view, they found him in Massachusetts on his farm with that crazy curly hair and that big goofy smile. He was still having fun, only without the sellout crowds and the baseball in his right hand. When asked who he would have over for dinner if he could invite anyone in the world, Fidrych was as goofy as ever.

“My buddy and former Tigers teammate Mickey Stanley, because he’s never been to my house,” he said.

Fidrych reportedly died approximately an hour after Harry Kalas. But unlike Philadelphia’s Voice, Fidrych was far away from the ballpark when his dump truck apparently fell on top of him. He was apparently working on his truck when it came loose and crushed him…

A strange ending for one of the neatest and pleasantly strange ballplayers ever.

Good day for Baseball in Milwaukee

MILWAUKEE – Pretty cool day so far. After all, it’s not every day that a guy like me wakes up, goes to the ballpark, talks to a Hall-of-Famer near the cage during batting practice, heads up to the press box and is greeted by another Hall-of-Famer who hands out the day’s lineup card.

After chatting with Robin Yount and Harry Kalas, I had waffle fries and the best veggie dog I ever tasted for lunch. Usually those things taste like pencil erasers, but the people in Milwaukee know their wieners.

After that, the great writer from The Inquirer, Phil Sheridan, took my photo beneath the huge Rollie Fingers poster, which was pretty cool. Needless to say, I learned a lot about ol’ Rollie when I was a kid.

Besides, wieners, they also know how to make a lot of freaking noise in Milwaukee. As the fans walked in this morning, the ushers handed out those thunder stick things and now everyone is beating the hell out of them. With the lid closed on Miller Park, it was almost impossible to hear yourself think down on the field.

But Jimmy Rollins didn’t have to think – just swing. And on the sixth pitch of the game, the Phils’ leadoff hitter lined one into the seats in right field.

Suddenly it got eerily quiet.

They got noisy again soon, though. When Ryan Braun laced a two-out single to left against Joe Blanton it sounded like they were beating a tin trash can with a crowbar. Thankfully, when Prince Fielder ended the inning with a fly out, the fans all got up, put down the thunder sticks and went to the concourse to get a wiener or some fried cheese curds.

They eat a lot of weird things out here.

End of 1: Phillies 1, Brewers 0

Good try, team!

FootballLet’s get this straight: The Eagles lost to the Patriots on Sunday night and Philly fans are pleased? Really? Is this true? The Eagles lost and folks are genuinely pleased?

Hold on for a second while I drop to one knee to catch my breath…

Look, it was a wildly entertaining game. In fact, I even napped at halftime so I could make it the whole through the second half. For a detached “fan” like me who watches Eagles games (not the NFL… that’s too much effort) when it’s convenient, Sunday night’s game was perfectly compelling. And frankly, that’s the appeal of football – the casual fan doesn’t have to invest much to be entertained. One doesn’t have to get too deep into it like with baseball where the minutia of the game seems to be the appeal. Nevertheless, the game was fun to watch and just as riveting as the Eagles-Giants game from a year or two ago that went to overtime. Now that game was one to describe in your best Keith Jackson voice…

A real donnybrook!

Still, from what I can tell from some of the reaction around town, folks are happy that the Eagles gave the Patriots all they could handle… even though they still lost.

What, has Philadelphia become a town of happy losers? Are moral victories just as good as the real thing? Lovable losers in Philly – what is this, Chicago? Moral victories – are they turning into St. Louis fans?

Hey, I know how good everyone says the Patriots are and it seems likely that they will win every game this season. I also know that the betting line was 22 points some absurdity like that. But from what I could tell the Eagles lost a game they could or should have won. You know, kind of like those games they lost to the Packers, Redskins and Bears.

So there you have it – there’s my football analysis for the rest of the season. Makes you feel smarter, huh?

Speaking of feeling smarter (I couldn’t come up with a better transition), the free-agent/hot stove comings and goings for the Phillies are beginning to come a little clearer. Or so it seems…

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MoraAnyway, the Phillies appear to be interested in Orioles’ third baseman Melvin Mora, according to the Baltimore Sun. Mora has a no-trade clause and signed a three-year extension with the Orioles in 2006, but reports indicate he is unhappy with the direction the team is taking. As such, Mora is said to be willing to waive the clause to play for an east-coast team.

Meanwhile, there are reports that the Astros and former Phillies’ GM Ed Wade is in the race to ink ex-Phillies Randy Wolf and Jon Lieber. Wolf, as has been well documented, has been made an offer by the Phillies after the Dodgers declined to pick up his option for 2008.

Finally, cross the White Sox off Aaron Rowand’s list of potential suitors. According to a report in The Chicago Sun-Times, Rowand and his former club are way off in contract terms. The Dodgers, Rangers and Phillies are still interested in signing the free agent center fielder.

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Lots of folks (OK, three) have asked me what I thought about Tom McCarthy re-joining the Phillies’ broadcast team. My initial reaction was, “Cool.” Wherever he is,Tom is often the friendliest guy at the ballpark so the more often we get to see him, the better. Then I thought, “Hey, it seems like the Phillies have a lot of broadcasters now… is someone leaving?”

According to folks smarter than me, Tom is likely being groomed as Harry Kalas’ successor. That’s cool, too, I guess though I agree with Dan McQuade‘s idea that a good Harry Kalas impersonator could handle those duties for decades to come.

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Hey, Billy Wagner is mouthing off about the Mets

Also, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.