It’s official – I’m old. I caught myself yesterday saying “back when I was a kid” while talking about Mark Fidrych. And this morning, I found myself reflecting that baseball may never have a Golden Age like the late 1970s again. The Sox-Yankees feud was as ugly as it ever got (when was the last time you remember players actually getting hurt in a baseball fight?), the spectre of steroids hadn’t sullied the game, and the number of stars on the scene seems seemed in retrospect to shine that much brighter.
And then there was the Bird. Peter Gammons yesterday called Fidrych “one of the great pop phenomenons in baseball history”, but in my 9-year-old head in 1976, he was just the guy you wanted to be. On the mound in summer camp, kids talked to the baseball like Fidrych. They smoothed the dirt. They paced, they gesticulated, and then they uncorked a 40-mile-per-hour fastball to the backstop, because they screwed up their motion so much trying to be like Mark Fidrych they couldn’t actually throw.
Sadly, it turned out he wouldn’t be able to for long, either. In 1976, the funny looking, “Big Bird”-like character won 19 games and the AL Rookie of the Year award. But in 1977, Fidrych hurt his shoulder, and his career sank like a stone, even though his enthusiasm didn’t. After struggling through the late-70’s in Detroit, he ended up in Pawtucket, where he was a fan sensation, but never was able to quite put it all back together.
And no wonder – his shoulder was in pieces.
Turns out that back in 1977, Fidrych had torn his rotator cuff. By the time it was diagnosed in 1985, Fidrych was past his prime, and came back to central Massachusetts to be a farmer.
In a way, I’m glad he had let it go by then. That way, the image in my mind is still the untarnished one of the crazy man from Detroit – if you were a Boston kid, you loved Lynn, Rice, Yaz and Tiant. You hated Munson, Jackson, and the Bronx. And on the mound, for one hot summer – you wanted to be “The Bird.”