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Goodbye, Bird….

Apr 20

In Friends, history, Stories at 1:26am

In the summer of l976, a youthful goofball named Mark Fidrych blew fastballs past just about everybody with a bat in their hands on the way to a 19-9 record, a 2.34 ERA, and the Rookie of the Year award. America’s pastime grew more and more fun with each start, as the Detroit youngster with a ball cap stuffed onto the hay bale of hair on his head threw strikes, talked to the ball and skipped about the mound like a three year old in an FAO Schwartz.

He was having fun, and so were we. Then he blew out his arm. Tried a comeback or two, but the zip was gone, and hitters he once had in a trance were jumping on his stuff. As fast as he hit the national radar screen, he was gone, a rueful footnote. Dang, Mark. That sucked. It woulda been so much fun watching you pitch for a few more years. (I woulda loved to shoot him pitching, but SI never gave me that duty, knowing full well I can’t shoot anything moving faster than tree sap in the wintertime.)

One of SI’s big sellers every year is the “Where Are They Now?” issue. Where do all these big time athletes go? What is their life after the diamond, the field, the court, the rink?

Some years had passed, so Bird qualified for a “where are they now” treatment. The Bird was back on the radar. SI was wondering where he had flown. The editors conferred. “Hmmmm. Who do we send to take pictures of this zany, eccentric chatterbox of a former athlete who still seems to live in a fantasy world?”

The first time I met up with Mark, he was making a go of it as gentleman pig farmer just outside of Boston. He approached me and the story carefully, as one would who had the experience of the world’s media pounding on his door and screaming for his time and then blowing away like yesterday’s newspaper. He had learned the hard lessons of fame, and exactly how ephemeral all that bullshit really is. So we took it a step at a time.

But he warmed up. Didn’t take long. Mark was such a bubbling life force that he couldn’t hold himself back from engaging. Remember, he used to talk to the frikkin’ baseball on national TV. Reserved is not the adjective for Mark, at least for long.

We talked, we laughed. I got on my knees into a bunch of pig shit to shoot him. A neighbor’s youngster watching the whole deal called him a buckethead. I agreed. Then he called me that, too. Again, I agreed. A pair of bucketheads, out there in the mud.

More years passed. Once again, SI wanted to know about the Bird, and wanted to know big time, like, you know, cover story. “Lessee, Fidrych is still a nut job, right? McNally available?”

This time I went back out there at the behest of my dear friend Mo Grise, now Mo Cavanaugh. Jesus, I miss Mo at the other end of the line. As an editor, she was that wonderful blend of empathy, enthusiasm, love of photography and the engagement of people that making good pictures requires. She’s a mother of two now, with a third on the way, and I daresay, she left the picture game at SI just about the right time. We went up to Massachusetts together, to meet the Bird, along with another feathered creature, Sesame Street’s Big Bird.

Days like that are the reason I have been a shooter for 30 years. Dreams of more days like this are the reason I remain a shooter. Met Mark again, and we just smiled. One more time around the block. Pair of goofballs, out there now with a yellow, nine foot, talking bird.

I also rented some baby chicks, which Mo had a helluva time wrangling, cute as they were. Little suckers are apt to go anywhere. I put the tiny darlings all over Bird, and he got down in grass and played with ‘em just like, you know, a kid.

Lost the cover. Lost it to a grouping of the very first iteration of the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. (I was shooting for SI, you may remember.) I’ve lost so many covers in my career, I don’t even think about ‘em. But this one stung, mostly cause, once again, Bird had ventured. He played the game, opened his door, and his heart, and didn’t get the cover. I felt bad in the way a field person does, that way that a NY managing editor with a regular table at Elaine’s can never know about. You make a bridge, right? You connect. You push a little, prod a touch, and do your job. You come back with pictures, and, on those best of days, something that remains in your heart. A good feeling. Maybe, even, a friend. You never, never promise anything, cause you know how it goes once you drop those pictures into the giant maw of a powerful weekly magazine.

But the promise is there, nonetheless, hanging in the air, the elephant in the corner everybody tries to ignore while they continue pleasant conversation. The cover. Hope I get it. Not for me. Really wanted it for him.

It went away. The story ran, and it was a good story, and by NY publishing calculus, everything was cool. “Hey, he got ink! Who’s he to complain? Story ran, he should feel lucky.”

Yeah, I guess.

It was a good story. One paragraph….

“To feed the hungry furnace of his mortgage, for instance, he now works as an independent subcontractor, laying sewer pipe and doing road repair with the aid of a 10-wheel Mack dump truck he bought in 1986 for $88,000. “The truck has kept the fahm goin’ and kept my life goin,” he says.  The other day, though, on a road repair job at afternoon drive time, he accidentally dug into a water main that had been mismarked on the macadam.  Which is how Fidrych–perhaps the most famous man in America during its bicentennial summer–found himself standing, forlornly, in the slapstick spray of God’s seltzer bottle. “I don’t know if you evah seen a broken watah main,” he says. “but 100 pounds of pressure through an eight-inch opening, that ain’t no small thing.” No, Indeed, and thus there appeared a geysah ovah Woostah.”

Now he’s gone, killed underneath that damn dump truck. I won’t go to see the Bird again, for another of our ten year reunions.

We had a prop jersey for the shoot. He signed it for me, and I have it framed. He simply said, “To Joe….what it is… Bird.”

Mark was what he was, at every moment. He threw a fast ball right into our hearts, and we loved him for it. Like Peter Pan, he always seemed suspended by wires, floating through a daydream of a life. I’m sure there were dark times, moments and memories. That was never shared with me. The Bird I knew, just a little, was a big kid with a big heart, a cartoon character with a Boston accent, and a slightly, wonderfully cockeyed view of life around him.

The last picture I made of him that day was the Bird walking with the Big Bird, over the hill, and through the grass. Laughing and chattering, as birds do.

Farewell, Mark. Godspeed. What a flight it was…….more tk…..

90 Responses to “Goodbye, Bird….”

Hali says:

on April 21, 2009 at 8:57 am

What a wonderful story it brought tears to my eyes. There was never a ball player like him, full of verve and joy for the game, thank you for bringing memories of him back to me.

Bob DeChiara says:

on April 21, 2009 at 9:15 am

Great great story, touching to say the least.

-Bob
(Boston)

JimShannon says:

on April 21, 2009 at 9:24 am

Growing up in Michigan, I had the honor of watching Mark pitch for the Tigers. A great career and life, both cut too short. Nice tribute.

Jim Orr says:

on April 21, 2009 at 9:48 am

Mr. McNally – Often your blogs are about lighting. This blog concerning Mark is no exception – it is about the light that Mark brought to us baseball fans, reminding us it is about the GAME of baseball, not about contracts, agents, and personal stats. Mark helped me demonstrate my love of baseball to my son. Thank you for this blog and the energy it contains!

Joe DuPont says:

on April 21, 2009 at 9:53 am

I have to add that I also really love that last picture. Godspeed Mark.

Dutch says:

on April 21, 2009 at 12:45 pm

Mr. McNally, I watched the bird in all of his glory, seems like yesterday. Absolutely loved the reverence and insight you gave to the “Bird”. Baseball is a wonderful game filled with memories and emotion; there will never be another Fidrych or another season like 1976. Playing with the chicks is a great shot, look at the eyes and see the man.

Demetrius says:

on April 21, 2009 at 1:37 pm

I can never forget a valued experience: a person who changed my life; someone I respected and loved for whatever reason; my ability to become a better person because of him. That’s a gift that will never leave me, and he will never be forgotten. Thank goodness I was lucky.

Karma Dharma says:

on April 21, 2009 at 1:39 pm

Great Images and a Wonderful Tribute to Bird.

Can’t understand why SI would go with young beautiful full breasted cheerleaders instead of Pig Farmer for their cover

Got spoiled by you Hot Shoe Diary so is that an Octobox in the truck windshield or a shoot through lastolite?

Some photographers avoid the green grass like a plague fearing a greenish color cast to the skin tones and use black cloth all around. What’s your technique?

Lost the cover but I think you found a new business nitch for aspiring potogs, the flip side of Weddings, —> Eulogy shots, ’cause after they have Gone to God, family and friends search for a nice 8 x 10, 11 x 14 or images for a slide show.

Being a Baby Boomer, it seems that everyone is going all around me. Just yesterday my wife gave me an assignment to shoot all our friends and family [got to do something with the word "shoot" or "capture" to make it less agressive]–this was just a few days after she said that I can’t spend any more money on photography until she gets her new Kitchen.

No reason why the Esq Estate Planners and the body burner-grave diggers should get all the action in the high cost of dying.

Dana says:

on April 21, 2009 at 2:46 pm

That was a wonderful tribute to a great athlete and a great man.
Thanks Joe.

Dana
From Boston.

Krista says:

on April 21, 2009 at 4:25 pm

Wow. Great post Joe. :)

Jason says:

on April 21, 2009 at 4:52 pm

Damn. Good story, Joe. I’m sure Mark is proud.

~Sheryl says:

on April 21, 2009 at 5:04 pm

Not only is this a great behind the scenes look into the connection between a photographer and the subject, it’s also a very touching tribute.

Thanks for sharing yourself here.
~Sheryl
(Michigan)

Michael Rathsam says:

on April 21, 2009 at 8:37 pm

Hey Joe, As usual another great post. Being a lover of baseball I liked this story the best. Mark was amazing in 1976 and his joy and enthusiasm was just amazing. He is probably more normal(if there is such a thing) than the majority of ego players that play the game today. ESPN classic(or MLB network) recently replayed that Yankee game from 1976. What an amazing thing to see. The fans would not leave the stadium until Mark came out(about 10 minutes standing and cheering), I’ve never seen anything like it. A very sad day indeed. P.S.- Is there anyway to purchase the last picture so I could add it to my baseball wall? Thanks a million.

Sam says:

on April 21, 2009 at 8:41 pm

You’re my model Joe. Be the best at what you do, be a teacher and ready to share your knowledge, be a friend to any human being, be a human with your humor & practical jokes, and be an angel to comfort others when it needed. Instead of another Joe’s how2 lighting blog, this is a much better & enlighten blog I have to say.
I don’t have to say “Godspeed Mark”, I know he’s already there under God’s wing. Trust me, because a “lowly” being like Joe have such compassion for others, I don’t think God could have is less.

Sam

marco says:

on April 22, 2009 at 1:29 am

Ciao, mark ..good game at celestial field .

Francesco Bonomo says:

on April 22, 2009 at 6:36 am

Thanks for writing and sharing such a beautiful eulogy, Joe..truly touching words.

F

Diane says:

on April 22, 2009 at 8:32 pm

Joe,
I too grew up in Michigan and loved watching The Bird. Thanks for sharing this touching story. I’m sorry Mark didn’t get the cover, but he made a great friend. I love reading your posts. You illumine much more than your than your amazing photographs! I will share this with my non-photog family and friends.

Diane

PS… please bring your Kelby Training tour to Detroit. We need all the help we can get!!!!

craig pulsifer says:

on April 23, 2009 at 1:05 am

nice touch, Joe… what it is…

Randy Harris says:

on April 23, 2009 at 6:51 am

Joe,

Not only are you a terrific photographer, but you’re a wonderful writer as well. Thank you for sharing your gift.

Randy

Taffy Orlowski says:

on April 23, 2009 at 1:33 pm

Thank you Joe.

Howard Simpson says:

on April 23, 2009 at 3:09 pm

Joe,

He was larger than life. You captured him the way I remember. The curley hair popping out from under his ball cap. The big smile….He was unique in many ways. He will be missed.

Howard – Sterling, MA

Lloyd Eldredge says:

on April 23, 2009 at 11:04 pm

Thanks Joe,

Great photos, but it’s your writing that really shines here. Mark was special in so many ways, and you captured that wonderfully. Truth is, we need more people like him.

Chuck Solomon says:

on April 24, 2009 at 7:25 am

Thanks for a beautiful recollection of your experience with the Bird. I too remember a session with him some thirty years ago. Having to photograph him going through his pitching motion the lanky right hander wore a left handed mitt and perfectly went through the session as a southpaw. I went along with him for a while and then asked him if we could now do it the “right way”. Enthusiastically he obliged. Always having fun he was truly a breath of fresh air.

Sherrie says:

on April 27, 2009 at 4:06 pm

Joe,
Thanks for sharing the pictures and memories of Mark.

Keep up the good work.

Christian Lee says:

on April 27, 2009 at 8:35 pm

Great story. This should be run in SI.

M.D. Welch says:

on April 28, 2009 at 6:30 pm

Great post, great images, and such a sad story.

Paul M. says:

on April 29, 2009 at 5:53 am

I’m an independent contractor (dump trailer). I worked with Mark last year on a couple of paving jobs. He was a hell of a nice guy. I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard what happened. Thanks for the great story and pictures.

jj says:

on May 13, 2009 at 5:43 am

Wonderful!

Joan Gnagy Campbell says:

on June 8, 2009 at 8:48 am

Thank you for these great photos and your memories of Mark.

I lived in the Detroit area when Mark played there and he brought so much enthusiasm and fun to the game.

jeff feldman says:

on August 5, 2009 at 1:36 am

I was the same age as Mark. During that amazing summer of 76, I was a 21 year old aspiring sportscaster near Detroit. Mark and I spent time together, once walking together through the streets of downtown Toronto. He couldn’t believe that i would pay $20 for a silk tie. I needed a tie for an event, and it was the only one I could find in the hotel lobby store. I often thought, over the years, that I wanted to find him in Mass. – to let him know that I hung out with him those few times not because he was the star of America that summer, but because I liked him. He was fun to hang out with. I just found out that he died, and my heart is sad.

Jaden Flores says:

on May 25, 2010 at 1:38 pm

My grandpa is also a Baby Boomer and we love him a lot…,

Alexa Stewart says:

on August 29, 2010 at 12:43 pm

my grandfather is a baby boomer and i am quite proud of his longevity all these years:-.

pinball games says:

on July 22, 2011 at 9:23 am

you have a great blog here! would you like to make some invite posts on my blog?

Dave Ensley says:

on September 9, 2011 at 10:02 am

Mr Mcnally, I am a little late finding your story on the internet but thank you so very much for a wonderful tribute to my favorite Tiger of all time. Mark & 1976 were turning points in my 15 year old life and I have never forgotten the joy of being swept up in Bird-mania in Motown that year.

Saul Wisnia says:

on October 23, 2011 at 1:34 am

Mr. McNally,
What a terrific story — and photos. I grew up just outside Boston and was 9-year-old and a Detroit Tiger Little Leaguer when Fydrich debuted in ’76. This was back when you still got real wool uniforms in Little League and ours looked just like the real Tiger unis with the old script “D.” So of course I spent countless days imitating The Bird in front of my mirror in my uniform, and for years have kept his ’77 baseball card on my shelf with his big mop of hair as a reminder of childhood. I was a sportswriter for about 15 years but never met Mark, one of my big regrets. Thank you for taking me back to that wonderful, innocent time.

Brian Polhamus says:

on October 14, 2012 at 12:17 pm

I remember the “Bird” growing up in the seventies, LOL. He was true youth, along with his memory. I am a 47 year old young man, inspired by, knowing where to go next in life is no longer a question.

Ed Putnam says:

on April 25, 2013 at 11:51 am

We lived in Northborough when Mark was in high school, when he pumped our gas at the local Sunoco station. Always a smile on his face. He played HS basketball at Algonquin Regional HS and I still smile at the memory of his spring-like curls bouncing up and down as he bounded down the court. A great guy who added a lot to baseball and to those who encountered him.

Mark says:

on June 11, 2013 at 9:22 am

As a New Yorker and lifelong Tigers fan, I didn’t get to see enough of Mark as a player. But there was never anything like his 1976 season, before or since. Yes, there have been phenoms like Vida Blue and Fernando Valenzuela but none had the charisma and excitement of The Bird.

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