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The Sports Bookie -- Remembering the joy of "The Bird"

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For one magical summer, The Bird was the word on the lips of major-league baseball fans.

In 1976, major-league baseball seemed drab and boring. The NFL had pulled ahead in popularity, and even a riveting World Series the previous year could not lift the game out of its lethargy. Mark Fidrych changed that — in a big way. He was a curly haired rookie pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, wide-eyed with childlike innocence and enthusiasm. When he pitched, he smoothed the mound and appeared to talk to the baseball before going into his windup. When a teammate made a good play, he would rush over and congratulate him. He was nicknamed “The Bird,” for his resemblance to Big Bird, the “Sesame Street” character.

He was a free spirit, full of joy and energy. Talent, too. Fidrych backed up his eccentric behavior with a live fastball and pinpoint control. In 1976 he went 19-9, posted a 2.34 ERA, had 24 complete games and threw four shutouts. He was named the American League Rookie of the Year and finished second in balloting for the AL Cy Young Award. Crowds in excess of 50,000 flocked to see him pitch, and he impressed a national television audience with a strong performance against the pennant-bound New York Yankees.

It all came undone the following spring when Fidrych hurt his knee while lunging for a fly ball. He was never the same pitcher again, suffering shoulder problems and going 10-10 in the majors before ending his career in the minor leagues. A torn rotator cuff was his downfall, but that injury was not discovered until his career was over.
Fidrych’s life ended tragically, when he died while working on one of his 10-wheel trucks in April 2009. Apparently a piece of his clothing got caught in a rotary part of the engine, ending his life at 54.

“Everyone playing in the major leagues today owes a debt of gratitude to Mark Fidrych,” teammate Willie Horton said in his eulogy. “He brought baseball back to the people. He made it popular again. He helped save the game.”

There had never been a biography written about The Bird. Leave it to an eye specialist to bring Fidrych’s life and career into proper focus.

Doug Wilson, an ophthalmologist from Indiana, gives readers a more complete view in “The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych” (Thomas Dunne Books, hardback, $26.99, 306 pages). Wilson’s day job concerns vision, but he is no stranger to baseball. He played baseball in college, is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and has one book under his belt: “Fred Hutchinson and the 1964 Cincinnati Reds,” which was published in 2010.

If I have a criticism of this book, it comes under the category of incorrect word usage. “Play the roll” (proper word is role), the “reining rookie of the year” (proper word is “reigning”) and “council” when the correct word was “counsel.” Minor glitches? Sure. But I’m a copy editor; I can’t help myself.

There also were a couple of incorrect names: Jerry Manuel was written as “Manual,” Evel Knievel’s first name was misspelled as “Evil,” and (don’t ask me why I even looked) but Bob Uecker’s name is written as “Ulecker” in the index (but correctly in the book; same deal with Graig Nettles, whose name is spelled “Craig” in the index).
But those mistakes do not detract from the full picture Wilson paints about Fidrych. Wilson interviews former teammates and managers, players on opposing teams, and family members and friends, presenting many examples of Fidrych’s character.

At times, The Bird seemed clueless. Asked for his reaction to a criticism leveled at him by the Yankees’ catcher Thurman Munson (New York’s eternally grumpy catcher had called Fidrych “fly-by-night” and a “showboat”), he asked, “Who’s Thurman Munson?”

Nettles, Munson’s teammate, enjoyed Fidrych’s antics and even provided his own during one at-bat, Wilson writes.

Nettles “stepped out of the box, held up his bat, and told it not to listen to anything Fidrych said,” Wilson writes, “and later complained to reporters after a hitless game, ‘the damn bat was made in Japan.’”

Wilson captures Fidrych’s appeal in “The Bird,” and it touched a diverse cross-section of major-league baseball fans. Youngsters attending games “were captivated by his boyish charm.” Teenagers related to him because “here was a guy with long hair who listened to loud rock music, wore jeans and T-shirts, and was still able to play Major League Baseball.” And older fans enjoyed “the old-school way he pitched.”

Looking back, Fidrych seemed too good to be true. His career is one of many “what could have been” stories in baseball, but Fidrych never seemed bitter about it. He made enough money to buy a farm and fleet of trucks, got married and had a family. At the time of his death, Fidrych was a contented man.

As he wrote in a children’s coloring book he authored in 1996 with Rosemary Lonborg (the wife of former Red Sox pitcher, Jim Lonborg), “Whatever you do, just do it with joy.”

Wilson helps the reader see how much joy Fidrych had — and gave to baseball fans.
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