Monday, April 13, 2009

Mark "the Bird" Fidrych, 1954-2009

Mark Fidrych, one of the most magnetic personalities in recent baseball history, died today, apparently after an accident on his farm in Northborough, Massachusetts. I always considered myself a fan of his, even though I am too young to have ever seen him play. Let me explain:

Baseball is still our national past time. Baseball is popular with men my age, but is far and away the most popular sport among children, women, and senior citizens. Mark Fidrych was the sort of 'regular guy' player who appeals so broadly to baseball fans. Tall and skinny, with a goofy mane of curly hair, bizarre mannerisms and an overabundance of enthusiasm, Fidrych had one of the best rookie years every had by a pitcher. As a 21 year old, he went 19-9 for the fifth-place Detroit Tigers, leading 2.34 ERA, and a mind-blowing 24 complete games, to go along with a WHIP of 1.079. Fidrych was able to throw so many complete games because of his pitching style: he rarely struck anybody out (only 97 strikeouts in 250 innings) but never walked anybody, either (only one walk every five innings, on average). He just threw strikes, and specialized in getting batters to hit ground balls. That way, even if the batters got the ball through the infield, they almost never got extra bases, and Fidrych got batters to hit into a great deal of double plays.

People liked him because he looked like the Sesame Street character Big Bird (hence the nickname), because he gave hilarious, candid interviews in a thick Boston accent, and because he loved the game of baseball. He would pump his fist after an outfielder caught a fly ball, and would run across the diamond to high-five an infielder who made a good play on a ground ball. He would fix the pitcher's mound by re-arranging the dirt before every inning he pitched, and he had a series of bizarre warm-ups and pitching motions that fan found endearing. He was an easy player to cheer for, like a character from Major League come to life.

Fidrych won the first six games of his second season, then tore his rotator cuff in two different places, lost his next four games, and couldn't play for the rest of the season. After an off-season of rest, he effective again in the three games he pitched in his third season (2 complete games with a 2.45 ERA and 1.00 WHIP) before his injured shoulder sidelined him for the rest of the year. He was out of the major leagues two years later, his career over at the age of 25, having thrown a grand total of 412.1 innings in the major leagues. He is still beloved in Detroit, where retro jerseys bearing his name are frequently spotted in crowd shots of Tigers games.

In recent years, the baseball statistician Bill James (a big fan of Fidrych's) has shown that, given statistical trends, a pitcher who struck out as few batters as Fidrych was unlikely to have a very long career in the major leagues. (Note: the same is said of the New York Yankees' Chen Ming Wang). Perhaps that's true, but its hard to imagine a player who made a bigger impression in fewer games than Mark Fidrych.

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