It's been a tough day in baseball, and it's not even over yet. First came word that Philadelphia Phillies Harry Kalas collapsed and died. Then a report just came over the wire that Mark Fidrych was found dead under his pickup truck.
I never heard Kalas work regularly, although every sports broadcaster I knew could do an impression of him based partly on baseball and partly on his work for NFL Films. Fidrych, though, always will be affectionately remembered.
"The Bird," as he was called because he looked like Sesame Street's Big Bird (there was a great Sports Illustrated cover of the two of them), was a classic free spirit who came out of nowhere in 1976. He'd talk to the baseball, and smooth out the mound between batters. Then when he pitched, few could hit his deliveries.
His coming-out party was in June of that year. The Tigers played the Yankees on Monday Night Baseball on ABC. He won a 5-1 decision that took less than two hours, and it seemed like every baseball fan in America was watching. Overnight, Fidrych became a national sensation. It was pretty obvious that he was enjoying the ride, and was laughing along with everyone else.
Fidrych won the rookie of the year award for the American League. The next season, he started well but hurt his arm. It took about eight years for a doctor to figure out that he had a torn rotator cuff. His comebacks went nowhere in the meantime. My friend Glenn Locke and I saw Fidrych pitch in Tiger Stadium around 1980. It was Al Kaline day, but both men took a back seat to Al Oliver in that doubleheader. Here's the way Oliver's day went: groundout, homer, triple, double, fly out, groundout (after hitting a ball that was a foot foul and a foot from leaving the stadium completely), intentional walk, homer, homer, homer. As for Fidrych, he was talking to the ball, but it wasn't listening.
Fidrych eventually bought a farm, got married, and was in the midst of living happily ever after. Every so often he'd be written up for a "Where are they now?" feature, and he never showed any bitterness about the sudden fall. Fidrych seemed content with the brief rise.
There aren't many originals out there, but Fidrych qualified. He'll be missed.