If you’re ever at a baseball game and you see a shooting star pass overhead, that’s Mark Fidrych saying hello. Fidrych is the personification of a shooting star. His baseball career and life were both far too brief. But there was once a time when he shined brighter than anyone.
Nicknamed The Bird by a minor league coach for his resemblance to the Sesame Street character Big Bird, Fidrych enjoyed a sensational rookie season with the Detroit Tigers in 1976. He started 29 games that season, 24 of which were complete games. Fidrych was 19-9 with a 2.34 ERA on his way to being an all-star and American League Rookie of the Year.
He was instantly loved by fans in Detroit and throughout baseball. A group of fans nicknamed “Bird Watchers” would flock to Tiger Stadium every time Fidrych took the mound. Those fans would chant, “We want Bird, we want Bird,” forcing Fidrych to accept a curtain call, which was still uncommon in baseball in those days. The Bird became so popular league-wide that opposing teams would ask the Tigers to alter their rotation so they could host one of Fydrich’s starts.
It wasn’t just his brilliance as a pitcher that attracted fans to Fidrych, it was his quirky personality. He would fix cleat marks on the mound in a ritual called “manicuring the mound.” Fidrych also had a habit of talking to baseballs, yelling at himself, and insisting that umpires remove balls from the game if he believed they “had hits in them.” Such behavior was endearing to fans, particularly young women, who enjoyed his curly hair and care-free attitude.
But it was not meant to last. After displaying immense promise during his rookie season, showcasing impeccable control and late movement on his pitches, Fidrych’s star quickly faded. During the 1977 season, Fidrych tore his rotator cuff. However, the injury wasn’t officially diagnosed until years after he retired from baseball.
“His baseball career certainly ended far too soon, and now I’m sorry to say we’ve lost him far too soon. He was a remarkable character. He was like a meteor in the baseball world that one year. He played center stage and the entire game of baseball kind of played around him.”
Mike Tamburro, former Pawtucket Red Sox GM
After winning Rookie of the Year in 1976, Fidrych started just 27 games over the next four seasons, plagued by his untreated injury. Following an unsuccessful minor league stint in 1981 in an effort to get back to the majors, Fidrych retired from baseball, even though it would be years until the world-renown Dr. James Andrew actually diagnosed his torn rotator cuff. However, his impact during his short career was undeniable, as he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated twice and became the first baseball player to ever grace the cover of Rolling Stone.
Despite all the unfulfilled promise, Fidrych settled into a happy post-baseball life. He spent his time fixing up his farmhouse in rural Massachusetts, driving a 10-wheel truck to haul asphalt and gravel, working at his mother-in-law’s Massachusetts diner, and teaching kids to play baseball. Sadly, Fidrych died in 2009 when he was just 54 years old when he was caught beneath his 10-wheel truck while performing maintenance on it.
“What I got out of baseball is what I have today, and I’ve got to look at that. I still see some of my friends that never made it past Triple-A. I made that last big step. I was lucky. I’m in love with my land. I got it all from playing ball. It gives me prestige. Someone says, ‘What you got?’ I say, ‘One hundred and twenty-one acres of nice land.'”
But his spirit lives on, particularly with Tigers fans, who still remember him fondly. Fidrych was once one of the most promising pitchers in baseball, as well as one of the game’s most colorful personalities. His life and career did not last as long as they should have, but he made the most of both of them while they lasted. So, when you see a shooting star at a baseball game, it’s simply the man they called The Bird stopping by to say hello.