Sweet Bird of (My) Youth

Mark Fidrych died today at the age of 54. That news brings out a lot of different emotions: sadness and sympathy for his family and friends; nostalgia for the time his memory evokes (and my own lost youth); surprise at the fact that he was 54, although since I’m 43, it shouldn’t have surprised me. In my mind’s eye he will always be 21, all arms, legs, flying blond hair, and at-the-knees fastballs. He’s one of those guys who you never could imagine as being old.

For those of us in Michigan, maybe it was hard to imagine him anywhere but on that mound, in that magical year. That’s why the news of his death is so jarring.

I was ten years old when he had his great season, and while I idolized him like all the other ten-year-olds did, he always seemed like he’d be just as comfortable playing whiffle ball with us kids as he seemed to be on the mound at Tiger Stadium. And he probably would have had just as much fun.

Besides his phenomenal talent, that was his biggest appeal: the pure joy he brought to the game. The free agent era was just beginning. The Tigers had just come off a dismal 1975 season in which they lost 102 games (and 19 in a row at one point). Most of the 1968 stars were gone. He represented the hope of the future. But most of all, he reminded everyone of the joy the game of baseball can provide.

That’s what I’ll remember most. And that’s the emotion I choose to feel now, because I got to witness it the first time around.

One thought on “Sweet Bird of (My) Youth

  1. Well done, Jim. At age 12, I had already started my lifelong love affair with baseball in 1976, but that magical season really cemented it as THE game, as the sport I would make my own. Didn’t matter that I was learning the hard way that the difference between the minors and “majors” in my local little league was about 10 mph and the occasional curve ball, which together rendered my once mighty bat completely ineffective (we’re talking .000 here, THAT kind of ineffective). Nope, I loved the game, and that crazy kid who appeared to talk to the ball and didn’t hesitate to show how much joy he felt on the field made me realize I could still love the game even if i couldn’t play it anymore.

    I still have clear memories of trying to get a friend of mine who bought baseball cards about once a summer to part with the Fidrych card he got in his first freakin’ pack in the spring of 1977. I, of course, had already bought about 30 packs, and has zero Bird All-Star cards to show for my efforts. Despite offering him three All-Star players in return, including Reggie Jackson, for god’s sake, he would not part with his prized Fidrych card, much to my chagrin. I finally got my own, of course, but not until four months had passed and our hero had started experiencing injury problems. Even then, just a year later, that summer of ’76 seemed so distant.

    In recent years, I always loved hearing Fidrych interviews, as he still had that “hey, let’s have some fun” attitude, which made me happy. It would have been so easy for him to be bitter about the meteoric flash that was his career, but I never once got heard him utter anything but fond memories of that single season. Oh sure, he was bummed that things didn’t turn out differently–how could anyone NOT be in that situation–but it was always a secondary emotion, always mentioned after he talked about how much fun he’d had. More telling, he talked about his life after baseball–running the farm, operating the trucking company–with the same sense of happiness, his face lit by the same smile he flashed when talking baseball. That, my friends, is a rare individual–I dare say 1 in 10 could pull off that kind of outlook on life after being dealt what seemed to be such a bad hand.

    And as I listened to fan after fan call into The Ticket today to talk about their memories of The Bird, my feelings that Mark Fidrych was a rare and special individual were confirmed over and over. He did so much for charity back here in Detroit still–far more than I realized he did. The unifying theme of all the stories of those who had actually met him was that no matter what the setting, Fidrych was just a nice, down-to-earth guy who was happy to sit and talk to anybody, anytime. In other words, a great guy.

    Rest in Peace, Mark, you will be sorely missed.


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