It’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.
To 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.