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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…..

92 Responses to “Goodbye, Bird….”

carlos benjamin says:

on April 20, 2009 at 2:38 am

What a shame….. two premature endings.

Maybe the old “good news, bad news” joke is true.

“Good news! There is baseball in heaven!”

“What’s the bad news?”

“You’re pitchin’ Monday night…..”

Hope that’s the case. Rest in peace, Mark…..

Anirban Chatterjee says:

on April 20, 2009 at 2:42 am

May his soul rest in peace. Tragic! But that’s how I guess life dish out it’s destinity!
U tc

Anirban Chatterjee says:

on April 20, 2009 at 2:42 am

correction….destiny

bythewei says:

on April 20, 2009 at 2:44 am

There’s something very powerful about the last image but i just cannot put a description to it..

Randy Baran says:

on April 20, 2009 at 2:58 am

Yeah…sigh. There’s nothing good about this except the struggle is over.

Eric Ferguson says:

on April 20, 2009 at 3:18 am

Mr McNally, this post was probably the best window into what the real life of a press shooter is all about than anything I’ve read from any author/blogger/photographer so far. I’ve been reading for a while but haven’t posted any comments on your blog in the past, but couldn’t pass this one up. Beautiful photos, the perfect tribute to a friend.

Lots of photographers have started up blogs… some of them for sort of of dubious reasons (so and so has “gone 2.0, had to get a blog” etc) but the atmosphere here is really different, and I think this post really speaks to what you set out to do by writing the blog. Maybe you agree.

Can’t tell you how much I appreciate you taking the time to write this down. Will keep reading. All the best,

Eric

Mike Jandavs says:

on April 20, 2009 at 4:18 am

Thanks for sharing that heart felt story Joe, in words and in your photos. It’s amazing how we get to know so many of the same people thanks to your talent as a photographer. Makes us remember we’re not just taking pictures but capturing the essence of who they are and preserving that forever.
Thanks.

Martin Meier (PL) says:

on April 20, 2009 at 4:21 am

I think you get much more than a cover for the Bird with this one Joe. A true story that he deserved. I’m from Poland and we don’t play baseball here so I didn’t know Mark’s name til now. But after reading your story I fell like I lost a friend. And this story is written with your magical pictures. That’s why I love your blog. You’re the best modern storyteller for me. Thanx for sharing Joe!

RIP for Mark.

Bruno Monteiro says:

on April 20, 2009 at 5:27 am

Great, touching, story. Seemed the nicest guy, Mark. Keep it up, keep it going.
All the best!

Ilan says:

on April 20, 2009 at 5:58 am

Funny to see that little chick on your should and a few photos after that a not so small hog on the same shoulder. Kind makes you wonder and question the whole evolutionary theory :D

Great photos (the last one + the first one = Winner!).

But then, as you read the post, the smile kind of goes away… Tragic. Thank you for sharing that.

Jeff Fay says:

on April 20, 2009 at 6:15 am

Mr. McNally,
I am very sorry for your loss. I am sure Mark’s family very much appreciates your tribute. Thank you for sharing this touching story both in pictues and in words.

Jeff Fay
Madera, California

scott brooks says:

on April 20, 2009 at 7:07 am

A beautifully written piece, Joe.

Mark’s is a tragic story – it was nearly ten years before his torn rotator cuff was diagnosed – a career that didn’t have to end when it did. You’ve shown that this was an inspiring story lived by a man who saw past his circumstances to find the joy in the hand he was dealt.

thank you for sharing this

typo says:

on April 20, 2009 at 7:11 am

touching… But you should probably fix the last name: Fidrych, not Fydrich (and delete this comment)

Joe says:

on April 20, 2009 at 7:26 am

Simply beautiful, sir.

Herve Pelletier says:

on April 20, 2009 at 7:38 am

Joe,
Beautiful work with the Bird. Can’t forgot my dad watching him with me on TV one day, talking to the ball, pacing the mound, the gangly wind up, the confounding pitches. “This guy makes baseball fun again,” said dad. Had to agree.

-Herve

Martin says:

on April 20, 2009 at 7:46 am

Thanks for sharing this story, Joe. It was a good read about a good man. Nice ending with the Big Bird photo

Ed says:

on April 20, 2009 at 7:50 am

Joe- Great photos, and an even greater post. Thanks for the memories..

Ed
Detroit, Mi

Kevin Williams says:

on April 20, 2009 at 8:34 am

Fantastic story, Joe. The ending kinda sucks though. :-/ (sorry, a little levity in sad times keeps us goin’, ya know?)

The images are real winners and your writing continues to get better. You deserve cover stories for NatGeo, LIFE, and SI as much now as ever before. I hope this blog reaches as many fans of you and of The Bird as possible.

Keep up the great work!

art meripol says:

on April 20, 2009 at 8:59 am

Hey Joe,
I think you’ve summed up the struggles of both ‘Bird’ and those that do what we do as succinctly as possible, with heart and beauty. I’m always intrigued by how much time affects our assessment of an image. I’m sure the last shot was great at the time of the shoot/edit. I can all but feel what you must have felt when it came together in the viewfinder. But now, with the tragic loss of Mark, that shot is deeply, heart wrenchingly, beautiful.

Thank you for this post.
Art

Lewis W says:

on April 20, 2009 at 9:25 am

Long or short, life is a cloud across the sky. We are honored, no, duty bound as photographers to capture that moment. Joe had Mark. Whose memory do we preserve today?

S Paterson says:

on April 20, 2009 at 9:30 am

Blog after blog you make me so glad I met you and have been following your photography and writing. As a Tiger’s fan when Mark arrived on the scene, I always thought of him as the most fun professional sports figure of all time. Thanks Joe for the terrific images and, just as importantly, for the wonderful way you have with words.

Stu

Chase says:

on April 20, 2009 at 9:38 am

Joe,

Your short little story made me connect with Bird in away no one else I knew could. I feel like I knew the man personally after reading your story and seeing your pictures.

Thank you for giving the man a fond farewell and doing it with grace.

Beautiful as always.

~Chase

Kayla says:

on April 20, 2009 at 9:39 am

This is my favorite post on your blog – beautiful images and a wonderful story. So sorry for your loss and for the loss of a great guy. May he rest in peace.

Mike the B says:

on April 20, 2009 at 10:23 am

Well said, well shot, well done. Thanks Joe

Frank Wise says:

on April 20, 2009 at 10:30 am

Wow Joe,

Beautifully told story in the McNally way, and I really enjoyed hearing about the heart tugging getting the cover/not getting the cover part.

But that last pic? Brought a tear to my eye.

Brilliant,

Frank

J.P. says:

on April 20, 2009 at 10:37 am

Very touching story. You have a gift, Joe. The way that you write brings us all in (briefly) to your world. Thanks for the glimpse into something very personal for you.

All the best.

Brendan Falkowski says:

on April 20, 2009 at 11:08 am

Loving this story. It’s a shame the tales of making an image could never be captured in the publication that commissioned them. Thanks for writing this one down for us.

Steve Hyde says:

on April 20, 2009 at 11:24 am

Jeez, Joe!

Being a Brit, I’d never heard of Mark Fydrich. Nevertheless, I was hanging on your every word. I can’t tell you how this story touched me. If you ever give up the photography game, you should become a full-time writer. The way you convey emotion and draw the reader in to the story is just wonderful.

Thank you,

Steve

Mark says:

on April 20, 2009 at 11:37 am

Joe, this may be one of the best posts I think you’ve ever published. The photography is fantastic (love the one with Big Bird and the little birds the best) and your writing is spot on. Well done, sir.

He passed on the same day as Harry Kalas. Guess God needed an arm AND a voice on the same day….

David Wooten says:

on April 20, 2009 at 11:51 am

A great remembrance of how fleeting, unpredictable, universal and connected our lives are.

David Wooten says:

on April 20, 2009 at 11:51 am

A great remembrance of how fleeting, unpredictable, universal and connected our lives are.

Gary Thom says:

on April 20, 2009 at 12:18 pm

Thanks for posting.

Bret says:

on April 20, 2009 at 12:33 pm

Joe -

You have a wonderful gift to translate life into a static image. Your writing combined with images has a raw and no-nonsense approach that evokes emotion in such a way that your subjects are given worthy tribute to their existence. I remember Mark the first time around and now I’ll remember him long into the future as the person you caputured here.

John P. says:

on April 20, 2009 at 1:07 pm

Thanks for a great story and photos. It just made my day.

Take care,

John

Ron Eggleston says:

on April 20, 2009 at 1:24 pm

Joe,
Your pictures of The Bird and other birds, as well as your comments were touching and insightful. While much of the persona of The Bird was created by a press hungry for a “feel good” story, he was apparently as simple and refreshing as we all hoped he was. What a contrast with the majority of professional athletes who are so wrapped up in themselves (forget the team, just give me the money).
You did miss one sad element of The Bird story. I think the Detroit Tigers, desperate to find fans, exploited The Bird in a cynical fashion. He pitched way too many innings for a young pitcher, and his body could not take that abuse. He was willing to do whatever he was asked to do, but this moment of fame was doomed to be a short one when his arm (or more accurately, his rotator cuff) gave out. To his credit, he never seemed to be bitter or upset, happy that he had that brief fling with fame. His death was all too symbolic – strangled by the old truck that was his livelihood, all that he had to show for his short time in “The Show.”

Ranger 9 says:

on April 20, 2009 at 1:31 pm

A newspaper columnist here recently had some quotes from a man who had hosted Fydrich as a houseguest . He had talked to him a bit about some of his alleged eccentricities, and Fydrich said he never talked to the baseball.

He would talk, he had said, to himself, to help him focus his concentration — encouraging himself, reminding himself of his pitching strategy and such — and while he was doing that, he’d often stare at the baseball he had in his hand. But talk to the ball, no.

But the image of the zany guy ‘who used to talk to the frikkin’ baseball on national TV’ was such a piece of perfect-fit folklore that it’ll probably never go away… especially not now…

Jason Lykins says:

on April 20, 2009 at 2:39 pm

Just read the story on what happened. Shitty way to go. RIP. Sorry about your loss Joe.

Cat Norman says:

on April 20, 2009 at 4:11 pm

Love the last shot the most… Thanks for sharing.

CAT

Tom Marriage says:

on April 20, 2009 at 4:21 pm

Thanks Joe,

It’s characters like Mark (and you) that make life fun and also show how unfair it can be. Love the photos.

Tom

Arun says:

on April 20, 2009 at 4:55 pm

Excellent post Joe – you truly have a unique gift and its not just behind the camera.

Bill Bogle, Jr. says:

on April 20, 2009 at 5:07 pm

Joe:

Your humanity, your humbleness, and care for your subjects and work is so clear with posts like this. Perhaps we need to focus on the quality of the individuals, not the wins and losses, or covers and short paragraphs. I seem to recall Burt Lancaster in Field of Dreams, when it was noted that Midnight Owen could not play a game in the majors, and how that was such a tragedy, and he remarked, no, if I had not become a doctor and served the community, that would have been a tragedy.

I loved how you humanized the Bird. This is a true picture story, that someone should have run. Thanks for the post.

Bill

Bill Rogers says:

on April 20, 2009 at 6:07 pm

Thanks, Joe. A wonderful piece.

andy says:

on April 20, 2009 at 6:24 pm

Thanks Joe:

Only you could remember Mark like that for us. No bull, all taste.

Don Horne says:

on April 20, 2009 at 7:12 pm

Joe,

Thanks for sharing your memories and images with us. It’s always a shame to hear of someone’s untimely passing. I’m glad you had a chance to know Mark and be able to share your time together with us.

In a classic example of the coincidences in life, I read the following article in the Chicago Tribune right before going to your blog.

http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/chi-19-fidrych-movieapr19,0,2568679.story

Jose Fernandez says:

on April 20, 2009 at 9:35 pm

Quite a eulogy, Joe. For me, you’ve made a rather daunting point. If every photo has a story, and if the story isn’t interesting, or doesn’t grab me, or doesn’t move me, maybe the photo isn’t so hot. Maybe such a photo is just practicing with camera and light — practice for a real moment.

T. C. Knight says:

on April 20, 2009 at 9:36 pm

I wanted to comment. I just had to. But I am at a loss for words.

I am astounded.

I hope SI picks this up and Mark gets ink one more time.

Vidar says:

on April 20, 2009 at 11:38 pm

What a storyteller You are Joe!
As a swede born and resident, I never heard of this guy until now. I´ve never seen a baseballgame live. But the story gives me a hair rise over my body, if you know what I mean. Best post ever.

David Brown says:

on April 21, 2009 at 3:28 am

Sad. Life throws some pretty tough curves…

Garry says:

on April 21, 2009 at 4:05 am

My sympathies for the loss of your friend and my thanks for sharing the story.
The last pic is the perfect end to the tale, the heroes walking off into the sunset…

Tatiana says:

on April 21, 2009 at 7:34 am

Beautiful.

There is something about the last image. It is haunting, I can’t explain it. I keep coming back to it.

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