Colorful Bird

By Bill Castanier

Quirky '70s Detroit Tiger pitcher gets a biography

In 1976, as most of the country was celebrating the nation’s bicentennial, baseball fans were rallying behind a Detroit Tigers pitcher with an unusual nickname: Mark “the Bird” Fidrych, who created enough fireworks with his fastball and on-field antics to satiate folks who had become bored with the national pastime.

Fidrych, from the small town of Northborough, Mass., was 22 when he was named the American League Rookie of the Year, with a 19-9 record (with 24 complete games and a 2.34 ERA). He won the hearts of fans with his flowing locks, his propensity of talking to the baseball and his custom of getting down on his hands and knees to groom the mound.

Like fireworks, his career was short-lived, lasting only five seasons, after sustaining an injury in spring training in 1977. Baseball historian Doug Wilson has captured Fidrych’s spirit in his new book, “The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych.”

“What you saw on the mound was him, not somebody putting on an act,” Wilson said in a recent phone interview from his home in Columbus, Ohio. “He was a spontaneous bundle of human energy, and out on the mound he was having a ball. In modern baseball, there isn’t anyone like him. Not anyone even close.”

Wilson, 52, appears at the Schuler Books & Music in Eastwood Towne Center on Saturday to discuss and sign copies of “The Bird.” In the book, Wilson describes how Fidrych would occasionally run over to one of his infielders and shake his hand after a good play. He wasn’t above shaking hands with the ump, either. Wilson said the new era of baseball doesn’t allow players to be themselves.

“Money changed everything,” Wilson said. “Players now have agents and handlers and carefully protect their image.”

Wilson said players who might have been put off initially by Fidrych’s lack of decorum were quickly won over, and so were fans, who filled stadiums whenever he pitched. In his rookie year, he accounted for nearly half of his team’s season’s attendance.

“Mark would pitch a game in two hours, and fans would stay until the ninth inning to watch him, with everybody screaming at the final out,” Wilson said.

He said in one complete game he threw only 81 pitches. (Are you listening Verlander?) Wilson said he was surprised that no one had written a book on Fidrych.

“I wanted to write a book that would show that there was more to Mark Fidrych than his on-the-field actions,” he said.

Wilson interviewed more than 70 people, including Fidrych’s former coaches, family members and fellow players, from high school, minor league and pro players. His goal was to show that Fidrych was a complex young man driven to succeed while never forgetting his youthful love of the game.

One important point in Wilson’s book sheds light on the start of Fidrych’s career-ending injury, which for decades has been blamed on over-pitching him his rookie year. Not so. In his book, Wilson describes how Fidrych blew out his knee while shagging balls in the outfield, which is what ultimately led to his early departure from baseball. (He would only win 10 more games in four additional seasons.)

Following his career, Fidrych would return to Massachusetts where he would farm and drive a truck. He was killed in 2009 when his clothes became tangled in a spinning takeoff shaft as he was working beneath a dump truck.

Wilson will be joined by Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, who works as a play-by-play announcer for the Lansing Lugnuts. Goldberg-Strassler has worked as a play-by-play announcer for nine years, five of which for Lugnuts, and has become a student of the game. He wrote the book “The Baseball Thesaurus” about the language of baseball.

“Baseball is a talking sport,” Goldberg-Strassler said. He said the vocabulary of baseball has moved interchangeably into our everyday language and gives numerable examples in his new book.

“If you are in a board meeting and do particularly well, you hit a home run — or maybe you strike out,” he said. In his book, Goldberg-Strassler shows just how a phrase evolves into the baseball lingo used to call a game.

“If a player gets an Annie Oakley, it means that he got a walk or a free pass,” Goldberg-Strassler said. “That was based on Oakley’s dead aim at a playing card, which then was adapted to a conductor punching your ticket for a free pass.”

Jesse said the game is personal for each announcer, and he’s studied early announcers like Red Barber, the legendary announcer for the Red Sox, Dodgers and Yankees who brought his country-boy linguistics to the radio and television.

“If a player was having a good game he’d say, ‘He’s tearing up the pea patch,’” Goldberg-Strassler said. He said one of his favorite descriptions was calling a hard-hit ground ball a “worm burner.”

If Barber had called plays for “the Bird,” he might have said he was sitting in the “catbird seat,” when in May 1977, Fidrych became the first athlete to be on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Doug Wilson and Jesse Goldberg-Strassler
Schuler Books & Music
2820 Towne Center Blvd., Lansing Township
1 p.m. June 29
(517) 316-7495