Tigers legend Fidrych passes away

Tigers legend Fidrych passes away

DETROIT -- Former All-Star pitcher Mark Fidrych, whose incredible rookie season with the 1976 Tigers made him a national sensation, passed away Monday in an apparent accident on his Massachusetts farm at age 54.

Mark Fidrych, 1954-2009

Worcester County district attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. told The Associated Press that a family friend found Fidrych at about 2:30 p.m. ET under a dump truck that he appeared to have been working on. He was on the same farm he bought more than 30 years ago in his hometown of Northborough, Mass.

It was an abrupt and tragic end for someone who had suddenly endeared himself to Detroit and the rest of the baseball world seemingly out of nowhere, and remained memorable even after his greatness proved fleeting.

"The entire Detroit Tigers organization was saddened to learn of the passing of former player Mark Fidrych today," the team said in a statement Monday evening. "Mark was beloved by Tigers fans, and he was a special person with a unique personality. The Tigers send our heartfelt condolences to his family and friends."

Fidrych was the last player to make the Tigers' roster out of Spring Training in 1976, a wiry 21-year-old right-hander who was initially tucked away on the back of the roster. He made two brief relief appearances in Detroit's first 23 games that season before a rotation scratch prompted the Tigers to give him a spot start. He pitched a two-hitter against the Indians, and the rest was history.

Fidrych won seven straight games during a 9-1 start that landed him on the American League All-Star team. Among his feats were back-to-back 11-inning complete games in his third and fourth Major League starts, an 11-inning shutout of the Oakland A's coming out of the All-Star break in July, and six consecutive complete games in August of that year.

Not only did Fidrych win 19 games that season, his 2.34 ERA led the Majors, and his 24 complete games led the American League. Just as incredible as his performance, however, was his persona. A 6-foot-3 New England farm kid with bushy blond hair seemingly trying to escape from under his cap, his genuine personality and unforgettable mound demeanor -- including talking to himself as well as the baseball on occasion, while also pacing around the mound with each out -- quickly landed him on sports pages and nationally televised games.

Alan Trammell was a Tigers Draft pick in the summer of '76, and a Tigers shortstop by the end of the next season. His memory of his first Opening Day in the big leagues in 1978 includes an unforgettable image of Fidrych.

"I can visualize this right now: It was the ninth inning, it was windy, and there was a wrapper in front of the mound," Trammell said, "and 'The Bird' bent over as he did in his windup. This wrapper blew away, and he went to get it, and the crowd went crazy. I was at shortstop that day. It was something I'll never forget. Unfortunately, he's no longer with us.

"I know he enjoyed himself and lived life the way he wanted to. For myself, as far as being selfish as a ballplayer, I wish I could've played with him longer. He was special when he was doing his thing."

Just as sudden as his rise to fame was his struggle to repeat it. He suffered torn knee cartilage during Spring Training in 1977, costing him more than a month. He returned seemingly the same pitcher, racking up six straight complete-game victories in June, before his arm essentially gave out in a July game.

Fidrych started just 16 more games for the Tigers from 1978-80, including his final big league appearance at age 25, then a season at Triple-A Evansville under then-manager Jim Leyland. Detroit released him in 1981. He then pitched in the Minors for the Red Sox until 1983. He officially retired before the age of 30 and went back to his farm.

"Very charismatic guy," former teammate Kirk Gibson said. "A great teammate. Very energetic every day. He played baseball with great passion and he lived his life that way."

Fidrych remained a beloved figure in Detroit, and became a more visible presence in recent years. He usually visited the Tigers when the schedule brought them to Boston, and he took part in several Tigers fantasy camps. Instead of lamenting his sudden fall, he remained an upbeat, positive person, true to the traits that made him so popular during his incredible season.

For all the ups and downs in his career, friends and colleagues all agreed, his personality remained constant.

"He reminds me of that line of [poet] Rudyard Kipling: 'He could meet triumph and disaster and treat them the same way,'" Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell said.

Fidrych married his wife, Ann, in 1986, and had a daughter, Jessica.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.