Doug Wilson's "The Bird," a new biography of the late Mark Fidrych, is 251 pages on a flash-in-the-pan phenom, one who went 19-9 as a 21-year-old rookie with the 1976 Detroit Tigers and quickly faded away. Fidrych's small claims to fame can be filed in the quirky-and-weird folder: When he pitched, he talked to the baseball and manicured the dirt on the pitcher's mound, and he treated routine outs as if they were cause for fireworks.
Fidrych was a relatively unknown minor-league righthander when he arrived in Lakeland, Fla., for spring training in 1976. Before long, however, folks started to take notice -- not merely because of his mid-90s fastball and pinpoint control, but for his lovable, oft-naive unawareness. Writes Wilson of a game against the Red Sox: "In an event that would later be retold by numerous reporters and added to Bird lore, Mark was warming up in the bullpen, just beyond the first-base bleachers, when he remembered that he had forgotten his protective cup. He ran into the clubhouse and returned with it. Then, on the bullpen mound, in full view of the stands, oblivious to the rest of the stadium, he pulled his uniform pants down and inserted his cup in the athletic supporter. Now fully protected, he resumed warming up for the game."
This sort of stuff happened all the time with Fidrych (nicknamed "Bird" for his resemblance to Sesame Street's Big Bird), and Detroit's fans dug it. Before long, he was drawing sellout crowds to Tiger Stadium and appearing in Sports Illustrated. Wilson -- a top-notch researcher who clearly spent hour upon hour digging through old newspapers -- makes clear that Fidrych wasn't merely a feel-good story but a beloved figure.
Yet as fascinating as Fidrych's season in the sun often is, it's an athlete's post-sport life that can supply the most riveting material. Wilson exerts so much energy building Fidrych up, then chronicling his efforts to return to the big leagues (he spent time in the minors after an arm injury), that he treads lightly through 26 years of retirement. We know Fidrych married, had a daughter, drove a truck and owned some land -- but little of the pain (or joy) that accompanied those 21/2 decades. He died at 54, when he was working beneath his car and a piece of his clothing became caught in the engine.
The life of a has-been baseball player can be hell. One is forever reminded of what one was but can never be again. That Wilson overlooks this isn't a deal breaker (the book is a worthwhile read), just disappointing.
Even when birds can't fly, after all, they're still worth looking at.