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.