Thursday, April 4, 2013

Fidrych's love of game, life bursts through in The Bird

I was only seven years old when Mark Fidrych broke into the major leagues, setting baseball on its collective ear with his zany antics and darting fastball. I hadn't yet been caught up by the baseball bug, and even living in western Michigan, I wasn't in the loop on the Bird. In fact, I have a distinct memory of talking baseball cards with a couple of kids on the school bus in second or third grade. One of them asked if I had the Bird. I thought he meant Doug Bird. He thought I was an idiot.

By the time I fell absolutely head over heels for the game, Fidrych was on his way out, victim of what years later proved to be a torn rotator cuff though at the time was chalked up to shoulder tendinitis. He battled for several more seasons, spending the last three years of his career pitching in Triple-A before finally hanging it up in 1983. Even in the minors he drew crowds, though it was nothing like the packed houses he played as a rookie, when he won 19 games for a bad Tigers squad and led the American League in ERA.

Had I been born a couple of years earlier, I probably would have caught Birdmania in 1976, when most of the rest of America did. And I probably would have loved Doug Wilson's The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych even more than I did anyway. Which was a lot. What a fun book, about a guy so refreshingly down to earth that you'd find his story hard to believe if this were a novel.

What made it even more enjoyable for me was I had recently read the Mike Piazza book, about a guy who by his own admission played with a chip on his shoulder and has yet to figure out how to remove it six years after he retired. Fidrych was the anti-Piazza. He played for the sheer joy of playing and would often surprise teammates by running over and shaking their hands after a great play, even in the middle of an inning. Despite having passed away in 2009 and not having been available to Wilson as a resource for this book, his enthusiasm for life bursts through on every page. This is as fun a book as I've read in quite a while.

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