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Monday, April 13, 2009

Angels and Birds Have Wings

Mark “The Bird” Fidrych
8/14/1954 - 4/13-2009

It’s a sad day for Tiger baseball fans today. My inner child is in tears. Mark “The Bird” Fidrych died today at his farm in Massachusetts, victim of an accident. A friend found him under a dump truck that he had been working on this afternoon. He was 54 years old.

I remember so fondly The Bird’s Rookie of the Year season in 1976. The 21-year old pitcher’s antics were the talk of the town and in a good way because he was racking up the pitching stats to support him doing whatever he wanted to do as an entertainer on the mound!

Fidrych got on his knees and groomed the dirt, paced in circles and talked to the ball. He was lovably crazy on the field, pitching 24 complete games, with a 2.34 ERA and a trip to the All-Star Game as a rookie.

I got to see him pitch one game that year. Tickets to a game when The Bird was pitching were not an easy thing to get. But that game is not what sticks in my memories from my childhood about him. It was off the field, out of the ball park. His summer condo was only a few blocks from my neighborhood and I remember gathering a group of friends to go to his house and see him. This was the summer I turned 10 and we were all about that age. I think there were five or six of us that went. We rode are bikes over and just sat there on the sidewalk looking at his door, his car, his grass in awe. We were at the home of The Bird. Then the door opened and Mark Fidrych walked out onto the porch! He smiled at us and said “hi kids!”

We said in chorus with wide unblinking eyes “Hi Bird!”

We rode home ecstatic. Mark Fidrych talked to us. He didn’t tell us to go away or anything and didn’t say we were bugging him like all our Moms said we would be. He said “hi.” He smiled!

That was the summer that we moved to Northville and what a great last hurrah in Southgate, the city I just hated to be leaving. Later in the summer, there was going to be an autograph signing at Little Caesar's Pizza restaurant that was a half block away from our house. By that time half of what we owned had been boxed up for the move, but Dave and I made sure we made time to go. John Hiller and Mark Fidrych were signing! I’ll mention that in 1976, there was no charge to meet the players and get autographs. The line was spiraling outside of the restaurant with more bikes than cars in the lot. We waited to meet a couple of our favorite players.

When I got to the table where The Bird was signing, I told him my brother and I had been to his house earlier in the summer with our friends.

“You were the kids on the bikes! How has your summer been?”

He remembered us!! HOW COOL!

As an adult, I realize that there were probably a LOT of kids on bikes in front of his lawn all summer and probably a lot of “recognizing” the kids on bikes, perhaps for every bike that was parked in front of the restaurant, but what a great man to seize that and make every kid who mentioned having been to his house feel remembered.

Fidrych’s career was cut short by injuries, but he is an on and off the field legend in Detroit. When the last game played at Tiger Stadium was finished and the closing ceremonies began, Sparkly Anderson spoke live from his home in California on the Jumbotron. He admitted himself that he’d probably shed a few tears watching the rest of the ceremony, giving permission for everyone in the park to cry without any shame.

I know a lot of men who admitted to crying there or even while watching on TV. I know Mom and I both started crying when they were announcing the Tiger greats in the ceremony. When The Bird was announced, he ran to the mound and got on his knees and started grooming it again, this time to put some in a bag to keep. The crowd that was there live just erupted with approval.

Baseball has lost a man that there is none like in the sport today. He played with a love for the game and a love for the fans. His career and his life were short but he is a legend in the hearts of the fans he touched, even for just a moment.

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