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Huffman column: The Bird's career, life too short

Not too many years ago, Sports Illustrated included Mark Fidrych in the magazine’s annual “Where are they now?” issue.
Fidrych was asked if he had any regrets about the way his career ended.
“Regrets?” Fidrych responded. “How many people get to do what I got to do?”
Better still, how many are remembered so fondly more than 30 years after the close of their brief appearance on the national stage?
Fidrych died Monday on his farm near Boston, apparently killed in an accident while working underneath one of his company’s dump trucks.
I don’t typically write sports columns, but I figure there’s a time and place for everything. And Fidrych’s passing prompts me to do so.
As a 21-year-old pitcher for the Detroit Tigers in 1976, Fidrych was 19-9. He threw a two-hitter in his first major league start and was the American League’s Rookie of the Year.
He had a 2.34 ERA that year and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated alongside Big Bird (Fidrych’s nickname, “The Bird,” was bestowed upon him in the minor leagues when teammates noticed his uncanny resemblance to the “Sesame Street” character).
Fidrych was embraced by a nation just weeks shy of celebrating its 200th birthday, an era of disco and leisure suits. He talked to the baseball (OK, later he said he wasn’t talking to the ball, only to himself, but he sure appeared to be in the midst of a heated conversation with the orb), dropped to his knees to groom the pitcher’s mound and sometimes sprinted at mid-inning to high-five one of his infielders who’d made an especially good play.
Fidrych was part star athlete, part cult idol. His scheduled starts guaranteed sellout crowds, made up largely of young girls who knew next to nothing about baseball.
Annie Leibovitz photographed Fidrych for a Rolling Stone cover, the first time the magazine so honored an athlete.
I was never that big a baseball fan, but I remember a nationally televised Monday night game where Fidrych lived up to his hype, beating the New York Yankees 5-1.
But shoulder problems derailed Fidrych’s career and he won but 29 games in the major leagues before retiring.
Fidrych tried a couple of comebacks, but they didn’t amount to much. People in the small Massachusetts town where he lived said he was as down-to-earth a guy as there was, friendly to a fault. The fact that he died underneath a dump truck he was repairing attests to his work ethic.
Fidrych apparently lived a clean existence. He was married but once and had a daughter. No affairs, no illegitimate offspring.
Like any red-blooded American male, Fidrych enjoyed quaffing an occasional beer, but was never arrested drunk and passed out behind the wheel of his car. No drugs, no nightclub shootings.
Could such an athlete exist today, in this era of 24-hour sports programs, where a person’s every move is monitored?
Maybe and maybe not, but it’s sure nice to look back on Fidrych’s career and life with nothing but smiles.
Contact Steve Huffman at 704-797-4222.

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