"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Observations From Cooperstown: Remembering The Bird

Like much of the nation, I first experienced the wonder of Mark “The Bird” Fidrych on a Monday night in June of 1976. Prior to that game, I had seen only snippets of Fidrych’s antics on local sportscasts and read tidbits about him in the New York newspapers. Beyond that, I didn’t know much about the rookie right-hander. There was no ESPN or MLB Network around to provide continuous highlights or in-depth analysis about what this strange-looking character was doing during his whirlwind tour of American League cities.

On June 28, ABC chose to broadcast the Tigers-Yankees matchup as its featured game on “Monday Night Baseball.” With the old Tiger Stadium providing the backdrop, Fidrych put on a show like few fans had ever seen. He “manicured” the mound by combing over the dirt with his hands, fixing cleat marks along the way. When one of his infielders made a great defensive play behind him, Fidrych applauded loudly, congratulating his teammate. After recording the third out of each inning, Fidrych didn’t walk off the mound, but ran as if he were in the midst of a 40-yard dash, usually engaging in a full sprint before coming to a sudden halt at the Tigers’ dugout. There was also an element of superstition in his running. On the way back to the dugout, he jumped over the chalk baselines so as to avoid stepping on the lines. The way this big, gangly right-hander acted, it was little wonder that they called him The Bird.

And, oh by the way, Fidrych talked to the baseball. He felt that by conversing with the ball he could better control the pitch and make it move in the way that he wanted. Fidrych felt every baseball possessed a kind of karma. Once a batter reached safely with a hit, Fidrych asked the umpire to throw out the ball and give him another. He felt the old ball still had hits in it and needed to mix with other baseballs so that it would “right itself.”

Prior to Fidrych’s arrival on the major league scene in 1976, pitchers usually showed little emotion on the mound. They restrained themselves from exhibiting much body language, instead approaching the job of pitching in a businesslike manner. Clearly, Fidrych had a different way of doing things. And the country loved every minute of it.

As a Yankee fan, I didn’t like the fact that Fidrych beat my team, 5-1, that night in Detroit. Granted, the Yankees didn’t field a vintage lineup that night. Thurman Munson and Lou Piniella sat out the game, Jim Mason played shortstop, and Reggie Jackson had not yet arrived. But as a baseball fan, I could appreciate Fidrych as a developing sensation. Fidrych had talent, too. He threw a 93-mile-per-hour fastball with great sinking action. Intentionally or not, he pitched to the strength of his defense. In 1976, the Tigers had a decent defensive infield, but their outfield defense was somewhere between adventurous and atrocious, with Alex Johnson in left, Ron LeFlore in center, and Rusty Staub in right field. In retrospect, some critics of Fidrych (like Bill James) have pointed to his inability to collect strikeouts, but I can’t remember a single person mentioning that in 1976. No one cared. All Fidrych did was collect outs—and fans—while entertaining the hell out of the entire nation.

Fidrych went on to win the American League’s Rookie of the Year. Unfortunately, 1976 represented the pinnacle of his career. During spring training in 1977, Fidrych hurt his arm while shagging fly balls in the outfield. The injury, which turned out to be a rotator cuff tear, sidelined him for most of the next three seasons, never allowing him to return to his previous form. By the end of the 1980 season, he was out of a major league job. To the surprise of no one who knew him, Fidrych became a commercial trucker after his playing days and settled down to live on a 107-acre farm in Northborough.

It was on that farm that Fidrych was doing some work on Monday. A family friend came by his house, discovering his body under a dump truck, which Fidrych was trying to repair. Fidrych’s clothes had apparently become tangled in the truck’s spinning power shaft, strangling him, and claiming his life at the age of 54.

Mark Fidrych should have lived longer, just like he should have pitched longer. That’s the sad part of the story. But he managed to create more memories than any player who lasted a mere five seasons in the majors. And he lived more vibrantly than most of us could do given twice the time he had…


No one wants to hear about a player having to undergo season-ending surgery, especially within the first two weeks of Opening Day. That’s the scenario that Xavier Nady is facing, so soon after having won the right field job in the spring. But if there is a position where the Yankees can sustain such an injury, it is in the outfield. Nick Swisher, their hottest hitter, is fully capable of playing regularly, despite the recent nay saying of John Kruk, who claimed that Swisher is not an everyday player. (Ridiculous.) The Yankees also have a capable fourth outfielder in Melky Cabrera, whose defense and throwing make him an asset off the bunch.

The problem comes after Cabrera, because there is currently no one after Cabrera. Instead of adding a fifth outfielder, the Yankees added a 13th (13!) pitcher in the person of David Robertson. The Yankees will eventually need to make room for another outfielder, someone who is capable of pinch-hitting and providing occasional pop. Triple-A veterans John Rodriguez and Shelley Duncan are two options; another is prospect Austin Jackson, off to a good start with Scranton-Wilkes Barre. Jackson’s situation is problematic, however. If the Yankees cannot give “Ajax” regular at-bats, he would be better served playing every day at Scranton.

Historically, Brian Cashman has resisted making trades in reaction to major injuries. (See Derek Jeter in 2003 and Alex Rodriguez in 2009.) This is one occasion where Cashman should aggressively explore options outside of the organization. A glut of corner outfielders on the trade market could put the GM in a buyer’s mode. He can look to Washington, which desperately needs pitching and can offer Austin Kearns, Josh Willingham, or the recently demoted Lastings Milledge. (Willingham, with his past experience as a catcher, would be a great fit for the Yankees.) Cashman can talk to Milwaukee, which has the versatile Bill Hall, currently a starting third baseman but with experience in the outfield. The Rangers, with Andruw Jones and Marlon Byrd, are another possibility.

Over the long haul, a bench of Cabrera, Ramiro Pena or Cody Ransom, and Jose Molina will not cut it. At some point, whether it’s through trade or the system, a threatening bat will be needed.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLBlogs at MLB.com.


1 Cliff Corcoran   ~  Apr 18, 2009 10:06 am

The Yankees demoted Robertson yesterday and called up Juan Miranda, but Miranda's only played first base since signing with the Yanks, so they might need another outfielder eventually anyway.

2 monkeypants   ~  Apr 18, 2009 10:21 am

[0][1] Especially with Matsui not only unable to play the OF, but also unable to play period.

3 ms october   ~  Apr 18, 2009 10:40 am

sad to see matsui like this.
but i cannot resist saying i told you so. seemed very shortsighted to me that the yanks had faith in matsui's knees recovering and with him under contract just for this year and some good dhs who could play mediocre outfiled on the market they should have gone after one of them.
but they didn't - so the question is now what? should the yanks give up quality and get someone with a future? or is this just a stop gap solution?

4 Cliff Corcoran   ~  Apr 18, 2009 11:53 am

Well, the Yankees are going to need someone to replace Damon and Matsui going forward as both are in the last years of their contracts. There are big free agent targets out there in Matt Holliday and Carl Crawford, but making another Swisher-level trade now might be in order (though that trade looked like a steal at the time and looks even better now, so it's unlikely that it can be replicated).

5 monkeypants   ~  Apr 18, 2009 1:56 pm

According to River Ave Blues, the yankees have now demoted Miranda and called up RHP Anthony Claggett.

Assuming this is accurate, is it me, or are they now just making moves for the sake of it? I had really hoped that the departure of Torre would take with it the fascination with a 13 pitcher staff.

6 Shaun P.   ~  Apr 18, 2009 2:23 pm

[5] monkeypants, if I had to guess, this is more due to the "15 games in 15 days" stretch (with no off days) the Yanks are currently on. The bullpen has been pretty taxed the last few days. Recall that they did this last year early on too, shuffling relievers in and out as needed.

My gosh, if the Nats would be willing to trade Lastings Milledge for a pitcher or two (say, IPK and one of the relievers), I'd hope Cashman would jump all over that. Otherwise, I think they could easily get by with John Rodriguez filling the Nady memorial 4th OF slot. Willingham has too many injury flags for my taste right now, and I think Kearns is (and has been) done.

7 monkeypants   ~  Apr 18, 2009 2:30 pm

[6] You're probably right, but then why call up Miranda for a day?

It's too bad about Kearns. I was living in Ohio when he came up with the Reds and he looked like he was going to be a positive stud. What happened to him over the last couple years? At age 28, he should be peaking, not death-spiraling.

8 Mr. Max   ~  Apr 18, 2009 2:31 pm

I wanna watch the game on my PC today, but the old proxy IP loophole for MLB.TV doesn't seem to work anymore. Anyone have any ideas? Fox national blackout sucks...

Maybe a way to stream the Fox feed to my PC??

9 Shaun P.   ~  Apr 18, 2009 2:38 pm

[7] A fair question about Miranda - maybe just to have an extra bat around, so Matsui didn't have to pinch hit? (Of course, this line of thinking is negated by Matsui having pinch hit, and Miranda riding the bench.)

Perhaps it had something to do with Dunder-Mifflin? Maybe they didn't want to leave them two relievers short (could Robertson get back quickly enough? Are they on the road?)? I'm speculating now, because I'd like to believe there was a good reason behind it.

All Claggett needs is 2.1 IP and he'll have pitched more for the Yanks than any other piece of the Sheff trade. Not what I expected when that trade went down two years ago.

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