News of the death of Mark Fidrych today prompted me to hunt down some stories about the years after his heyday in 1976. In mid-March 1979, Thomas Boswell caught this glimpse of the man: “In the Detroit Tiger locker room, Fidrych is the same, hopping from stool to stool. In 10 minutes he can start a dozen conversations or tell a dozen jokes. Yet he never seems to be in a hurry, just more full of energy, good spirits and himself than anyone else.”
“I count these hairs on my chest every day,” he says to a teammate. “It’s up to nine. Come on, you hairs. Get growin’.
“Hey,” Fidrych says to a clubhouse flunky, “the only way I autograph four dozen of these balls is if I get a dozen of ’em to sell for myself. Nobody does nothin’ for nothin’ in this world.”
Then he laughs, signs all four dozen, squeezing his signature between those of others, returns the balls, keeping none.
“John Wockenfuss,” says Fidrych, inspecting his catcher’s signature on one ball.”Still misspelling your name, I see.”
His manager, Less Moss, said: “We’re not counting on Mark this season. Anything he gives us is a bonus. He must rehabilitate himself slowly.”
In mid-1978, Jim Lonborg had said: “The way young pitchers are treated is practically a scandal. ‘Give him a little rest and get him back out there’ is the common theory.
“I can see it happening now with Fidrych. He’s done it twice… now he’s doing it a third time.”
The Bird had his shoulder problems re-emerge that summer of 1978, ending his planned recovery that year. In ’79, Boswell wrote: “No one with the Tigers will confirm or deny what has always been the scuttlebutt about Fidrych’s initial injury — that he ripped knee cartilage while horsing around in the outfield here in Lakeland two years ago this week.
“Fidrych returned from knee surgery in just seven weeks. Judge the wisdom of that in retrospect. He went on a six-game winning streak, but apparently changed his delivery unconsciously. On July 12, 1977, a date that may yet live in Tiger infamy, Fidrych first felt the pain and stiffness in his shoulder that has plagued him ever since. He has pitched only 22 innings in the 250 Tiger games since then.”
When he signed a three-year contract after 1976, Fidrych said: “I could have gotten more if I had wanted to sign for one year, but I want to make sure I get my (four year) pension if something happens to me.”
In mid-March 1983, Fidrych, still just 28, and now with the Red Sox, said: ”I can be the Mark Fidrych of today. You’ve got to live with what you’ve got.” Rusty Staub, an old Tigers teammate, said: ”I’m sorry he’s pitching today. We had a special relationship. He tried to come back too soon after his knee operation, and he was young and didn’t tell them how much it hurt. And they let him come back. He used to throw in the low 90’s with sink. I never saw a rookie come up with the kind of location he had.”
In June 1983, Fidrych retired from baseball, leaving the Pawtucket Red Sox because he was simply not pitching well enough. He said: “Sure I’ll miss it. Ten years – best time of my life. Now I’ve got to start all over. Look at the ERA – 9.68. Look at the performance. That tells it all right there. It was brutal. I was not consistent. I was fluctuating dramatically.”
Fidrych said he was planning to look for another job and start operating Bluewater, his farm outside Northborough that he bought with his baseball money. Here’s one final quote about his retirement: “It’s a weight off my shoulders. But there’s a weight put on as well. Where am I going to get my next job?”
An 8-minute video feature on Fidrych in 1985, after he’d left baseball and was looking back at his time in the majors, is available on YouTube.