Sunday, August 17, 2014

Review: The Bird (2013)

By Doug Wilson

Go ahead. Try to explain Mark Fidrych and his summer of 1976 to someone who wasn't there. It's a difficult task.

Fidrych came out of nowhere that magical year. He wasn't considered a top-notch project at the start of the season, but he was ready when he got the chance after several weeks. Fidrych rolled up 19 wins and became the American League Rookie of the Year, starting in the All-Star Game along the way.

But that's only part of the story. He patted down the dirt on the pitcher's mound to make sure it was up to his specifications. Fidrych seemed to be telling the baseball on each pitch what to do, although he was simply talking to himself about what to do in a given moment. The right-hander bounced around with unlimited energy, congratulating his teammates on good plays and running everywhere. He picked up the nickname "The Bird," and it caught on as he sort of resembled Sesame Street's Big Bird with his long, curly hair and his flapping limbs.

Popular? Fidrych was more than popular. Ballparks were filled whenever he pitched, and after wins the fans demanded he take curtain calls after games. People delivered cakes and cases of beer to his house. Interview requests were through the roof.

And then, it ended quickly - thanks to an arm injury that Fidrych suffered in the middle of the 1977 season. He spent three years looking for an answer to his medical problem, and never found it. He left the stage as quickly as he entered it.

This sounds like a great subject for an ESPN documentary, and it probably will be someday. In the meantime, Doug Wilson does a good job of explaining what all the fuss was about with this book, "The Bird."

This is a full-fledged biography, starting in Fidrych's childhood days in Massachusetts. Wilson provides a couple of early clues to Fidrych's behavior in later years. His guess is that the pitcher had ADD, which was partly responsible for his hyperactive behavior at times. Then there's some sort of reading disorder, perhaps dyslexia, which made school work a challenge for Fidrych. It also left him unable to learn about baseball, and other players, in the usual ways of the time. Remember there was no SportsCenter or Twitter feeds to review the latest baseball news then. When Fidrych arrived in the majors, he had no idea who the best players in the game are. This led to some comic moments, but eventually the pitcher caught up with what was going on in the game.

When the arm trouble came, Fidrych tried almost everything as a cure but never could get his velocity back up to 1976 levels. He simply thanked everyone for the ride and went back to Massachusetts, where he started a farm, got married, and lived a down-to-earth life almost as if the period of fame never happened. By the way, Fidrych had an exam done on his shoulder with new medical technologies years later, and doctors found two tears in his rotator cuff - which, in hindsight, explained everything but didn't do him any good at that point in his baseball life. Still, it must have been nice to get an answer.

Wilson just wrote a book on Brooks Robinson, and the two publications have something in common. The subjects were not only great players - at least for a while in Fidrych's case - but they were admirable people. The point is repeated several times in both books, and gets a little tiring after a while as the point is overdone. There's little doubt, though, that people like to have their sports stars to be role models in everyday life. Fidrych and Robinson both qualified in their relationships with the public. This probably works better with Fidrych, since stories about how he dealt with his baseball rise and fall are what attracts us to him in the first place. The arm injury to Fidrych supplies the drama that was missing in Robinson's story.

"The Bird" fills in the details on what probably ranks as one of the most unusual careers in sports history. Those who are curious certainly will get the idea about what happened and why, and those who lived through it all will enjoy taking it all in once again.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

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