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News » With Fidrych, seeing was believing: 'He had no superstar strut'

With Fidrych, seeing was believing: 'He had no superstar strut'

With Fidrych, seeing was believing: 'He had no superstar strut'
If you'd ever encountered Mark "The Bird" Fidrych at some time during the last quarter of a century -- and there's a very good chance you could have passed him on the sidewalk without realizing it -- you'd never know he was once one of Major League Baseball's most popular and celebrated players.

Despite the stardom and the adulation, Fidrych never let any of it go to his head. Before, during, and after his all-too-brief Baseball career, and right up until the day of his untimely accidental death earlier this week at the age of 54, he was always the same kid who'd grown up in Central Massachusetts ... if he ever really grew up at all.

He was goofier than most, certainly. And taller and awkward with a mass of unkempt curly blonde hair. But he never forgot he was from Northboro, spent his off-seasons there, never shied away from hard or grimy work, and was fiercely loyal to the friends he grew up with.

Ah, yes. Fidrych's friends. He did have an entourage that followed him around, but they were all more like Turtle on HBO's "Entourage" than Drama or E. And Fidrych was certainly no Vincent Chase.

When Fidrych was making his last comeback attempt with the Red Sox in the spring of 1983, he'd walk around Winter Haven dressed in a plaid flannel shirt, ill-fitting jeans and untied work boots. His entourage was even less attentive to fashion. Bib overalls seemed to be the only clothes in their wardrobes.

One evening they all jumped into the pool at the Holiday Inn ... still in their clothes. They apparently hadn't thought to bring bathing suits to Florida with them.

Watching Fidrych and his entourage pass by one night, playfully shoving and tripping each other, Peter Gammons shook his head and commented: "This is like watching a Fellini movie."

Only Federico Fellini never imagined characters so bizarre as Mark Fidrych and his friends.

Well, not all of Fidrych's friends were bizarre. Lowell's Bill Moloney, who's about as off-the-wall as a John Singer Sargent oil painting, was a friend, too. Moloney and Fidrych spent the spring of 1983 together in Winter Haven, both attempting to make the Red Sox as non-roster invitees to camp.

Neither did, and Moloney and Fidrych were also roommates for a brief time that season at Triple-A Pawtucket.

"He liked to hang around with the minor-leaguers in spring training," remembered Moloney, now the pitching coach for Class A Charlotte in the Rays' organization. "He wasn't interested in hanging around with the big-leaguers like (Jim) Rice or (Dwight) Evans.

"He had no superstar strut."

Although several years sometimes passed without them seeing each other, Fidrych and Moloney remained friends. I can remember one time when Fidrych showed up in Dracut -- underdressed for the occasion, of course -- for a fund-raiser Moloney had helped organize.

"A lot of people were horrified by his antics," Moloney remembered with a laugh.

"The last time we got together was about two years ago," Moloney said. "He picked me up in a limo with a bunch of his friends, and we went to some party in Wilmington. He rented the limo because he didn't want any of us driving if we were impaired.

"I couldn't believe it when I heard he died."

Drafted by the wretched Tigers on the 10th round in 1974, Fidrych had a meteoric rise through the system and made the major-league team less than two years later. He gave fans in Detroit a reason to come back to the ballpark, and it was usually packed to capacity when the gangly righthander with the flowing gold ringlets pitched.

If he hadn't opened the season in the bullpen, he almost certainly would have been a 20-game winner as a rookie. As it was Fidrych led the AL with a 2.34 ERA and finished the year with a 19-9 record.

He didn't get his first start until May 15 and took a no-hitter into the seventh inning against the Indians, beating them 2-1 with a two-hit complete game.

It was his flaky antics on the mound that really attracted the fans to him, initially in Detroit but ultimately all around Baseball. He got down on one knee to groom the mound to his satisfaction and spoke to the Baseball, telling it what he wanted it to do.

That's the way it was reported anyway. Fidrych said he was really talking to himself, reminding himself of the things he needed to do to make his pitches work effectively. His awkward appearance and movements earned him comparisons with the Sesame Street character Big Bird, and during that magnificent rookie season Fidrych appeared with Big Bird on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

It was Fidrych who popularized the curtain call as Tiger fans repeatedly summoned him from the dugout to tip his cap after yet another glittering performance.

The 1975 World Series between the Red Sox and Reds has sometimes been credited with reviving major-league Baseball. But it was Fidrych a year later who showed fans that Baseball could also be fun again.

Unfortunately for Fidrych, while horsing around in the outfield during spring training in 1977, he tore up his knee, altered his pitching motion, tore his rotator cuff, and was never the same. He won only 10 more games after his rookie year and was released by the Tigers in 1980.

His popularity never waned. While pitching for Pawtucket on July 1, 1982, against Dave Righetti, 9,389 fans packed themselves into McCoy Stadium to watch the game. It was, at the time, the largest crowd in Pawtucket's Baseball history.

But Fidrych could never get the ball to do what he wanted it to no matter how much he talked to it, and without regret he retired to the small farm he'd bought in Northboro. He bought a dump truck and hired himself out to contractors, hauling asphalt and whatever else needed transporting.

It was no surprise to learn he'd died while working under his truck, suffocated when his loose-fitting clothes got caught in the power takeoff shaft.

Unlike most pampered professional athletes, Mark Fidrych never asked -- or expected -- anybody to do anything he wasn't willing to do himself.

Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:
Added: April 19, 2009

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