"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Tag: Colorful Characters

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.


Card Corner–Joe Pepitone

  They don’t make ballplayers like Joe Pepitone anymore. I’ll leave that up to you, the reader, to decide whether that is something good or bad for our great game.

By the time that Topps issued this card as part of its 1968 set, Pepitone had established himself as arguably the most colorful character in the history of the Yankee franchise. That was certainly a tall task of grand proportions, given the precedence of former oddball Yankees like Frank “Ping” Bodie, Lefty Gomez, and manager Casey Stengel.

Considered a can’t miss-prospect who was fully capable of playing all three outfield positions and first base, Pepitone first reached the major leagues in 1962, joining a Yankees team that featured a conservative front office and a staid approach to playing the game. Pepitone’s flamboyance ran counter to the Yankee way. Incredibly vain, he arrived at spring training flashing a new Ford Thunderbird, bragging about his new boat, and wearing a new sharkskin suit. When the young star didn’t hustle during the regular season, he was greeted with angry catcalls from his veteran teammates, reminding him not to “mess with their money.” They were referring to their almost annual World Series shares, which they felt would become threatened if Pepitone’s lack of hustle continued.

Off the field, Pepitone’s love of the fast lane reflected the lifestyle preferences of established Yankees like Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford. Yet, there was something different about Pepitone’s way, which was less discreet, less subtle, and far more palpable. In perhaps his most blatant indiscretion, Pepitone occasionally didn’t show up for games, leading to speculation that he was being pursued by bookies for unpaid gambling debts.


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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver