I was 8 or 9 years-old the first time I met former Detroit Tigers pitcher Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. We were at The Hideaway in Mancelona, Mich. He was part of the Wertz Warriors, a group of snowmobile endurance riders who were spending a week in Northern Michigan raising money for Michigan Special Olympics.
In photo from nydailynews.com: Willie Mays makes “The Catch” on a deep fly ball by Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series. Wertz would go on to create the “Wertz Warriors,” a charitable organization which helps fund the Michigan Special Olympics.
Our cousin, also a Warrior, had told my Dad that we should come meet the group at one of the stops on our own annual trip. When we walked in, my Dad immediately pointed out “The Bird” while saying the man had once pitched for the Tigers.
I really couldn’t believe it – a guy who had played for the Tigers was out here in the middle of the woods on a snowmobile raising money? That was Mark.
DAD JOINED THE WARRIORS
Within a year, my Dad had joined the cause and we were seeing and hearing from our new friend Mark a lot. He took a liking to our family, and would eventually ask us to drive him to Metro Airport following the trip each year. Maybe because we were little kids, or maybe because we were so amazed at what was happening, I don’t remember many Tigers stories being told on those drives. Instead, we heard jokes and stories about Mark’s family. We heard about him still taking shifts cooking at his Mother’s restaurant, Chet’s Diner, in his hometown of Northborough, Mass., where we visited him in December, 2006.
In photo: “The Bird” and fellow Wertz Warriors handing out a plaque during their annual ride.
He was quirky, funny and loved McDonald’s Breakfast Burritos. He could light up any room and had the thickest Boston accent I think I’ve ever heard. He never turned down an autograph request, and in my estimation signed a couple thousand during his week with the Warriors each year.
In photo: Mark “The Bird” Fidrych signing autographs with his fellow Wertz Warriors.
LEGACY OF THE BIRD LASTS
Mark Fidrych cemented a legacy that lasted a lifetime and beyond. His style and demeanor on the mound were like nothing anyone had seen before or since. He would talk to the ball and play with the dirt. He was on the cover of Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated. His 24 Complete Games in 1976 are still the most by a rookie since Bill Voiselle in 1944.
In photo, from left: My brother Dominic, Mark Fidrych and myself at a Pig Roast for Michigan Special Olympics.
When you read about Mark or his playing career, you may find it a sad story. It is one of a world-class athlete who was injury plagued throughout his career and died in a tragic work accident.
But that’s not the story he would want told.
Thanks for the Friendship, Mark.
Featured pitching photo at top right from The Oakland Press
Willie Mays photo from nydailynews.com
Other photos by Dan Cahillane