Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Fidrych Never Stopped Being A Kid, And Nor Should We

Mark Fidrych can't be dead. That's like killing off fun.

Mark Fidrych can't be dead. That's like saying the sunshine is gone forever.

Mark Fidrych can't be dead. That's like announcing the death of the kid in all of us.

Fidrych, the person, died Monday afternoon, in an apparent accident at his farm in Massachusetts. They found him under one of his trucks, possibly trying to fix it, when things went horribly wrong.

But Fidrych, the spirit, is not dead. So rest easy.

It's up to each and every one of us, though, to make sure that Fidrych doesn't truly die.

Oh, to have such an outlook on life as The Bird did!

I had the good fortune, in more ways than one, to talk to Fidrych a couple years ago, for one of those "Where are they now?" magazine pieces.

I got his phone number at the farm and dialed. I got lucky, because Fidrych said he grabbed it on his way out the door.

"You're lucky you caught me," he said with a slight chuckle.


So Fidrych reminded me of the story of when he first found out he'd made the Tigers out of spring training in 1976.

"I went straight for the nearest pay phone and called my parents," Fidrych related. "All I said was, 'I'm goin' north.'"

That's all that needed to be said.

Then Fidrych talked about the night he shut down the mighty Yankees on Monday Night Baseball in June '76.

"I was driving down to the ballpark ("ballpahk") with Tommy Veryzer," Fidrych said. "Tommy says, 'Well, kid, this is it--Monday Night Baseball.' We got to the stadium and people are already lined up outside. I couldn't believe it.

"Tommy says, 'They're not here to see Tom Veryzer play shortstop!'"

It's all been chronicled time and again: Fidrych's magical 1976 season, followed by an injured knee in spring training in '77, followed by another great run of pitching, followed by mysterious shoulder pain. Followed by the end of his career, after just 58 big league games.

What should be hammered home, though--and thank goodness it is in the wake of this terrible news--is Fidrych's love of life, despite his early flame out.

Fidrych on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the Tigers got off to a strong start in 1978

It would have been easy to have turned bitter and very un-Bird-like once the shoulder betrayed him, and even more so when medical advancements that could have saved his career happened upon the scene just a year or two too late.

I've talked to many a big league player of the past, and a common theme is for them to grumble and snarl about the injustice of them playing in the era before free agency and the big bucks.

Some of them are so bitter, they make dark chocolate look sweet.

Fidrych never, that I know of, uttered one word of regret nor publicly felt sorry for himself, even though the thoughts of what he could have done in baseball if healthy tantalize the brain.

He always wanted to drive a truck, anyway. He said so, even during his rookie season.

So he did, and he bought a farm and developed some land and got married and had a daughter and made some appearances and that was fine and dandy with him.

I asked him, back in 2007, what he would like to say to the folks of Detroit.

"Thanks for sticking by me then, thanks for sticking by me now, and thanks for sticking by me in the future," was his answer.

Too bad that "the future" has to be posthumously so soon.

So don't suppress that kid inside of you. Now, more than ever.

"The Bird" will always be the word.


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