BOSTON - Whether he was dominating hitters or hauling asphalt, Mark Fidrych had fun.
The colorful pitcher talked to baseballs, smoothed the mound with his hands and high-fived teammates in the middle of the diamond. He had one terrific season in 1976, and after injuries curtailed his career — just five years in the majors with the Detroit Tigers — he lived on his farm in Northborough, Mass., where he enjoyed driving his truck and using it for building projects.
On Monday, Fidrych was found dead beneath a 10-wheel dump truck by Joseph Amorello, a friend and owner of a road construction company who sometimes hired Fidrych. He was 54.
"Everybody wanted him on their crew," Amorello said in a telephone interview. "He was a hard worker, but, at the same time, he always had a smile on his face."
Worcester County district attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. said Fidrych was found at about 2:30 p.m. Monday in his home town about 35 miles west of Boston, the victim of an apparent accident. He appeared to have been working on the truck, Early said. His office declined to release further details.
Amorello, owner of A.F. Amorello & Sons, said he had stopped by the farm to chat with Fidrych.
"We were just, in general, getting started for the (road building) season this week and it seems as though his truck was going to be needed. It looked like he was doing some maintenance on it," Amorello said. "I found him under the truck. There's not much more I can say. I dialed 911 and that's all I could do."
Fidrych was a curly-haired right-hander who was nicknamed "The Bird" because of his resemblance to the Big Bird character on the Sesame Street television show.
He was the American League Rookie of the Year in 1976 when he went 19-9 with a 2.34 ERA and 24 complete games in 29 starts.
Stats only told part of the story that season. The Tigers weren't very good then, and were barely drawing 10,000 fans per game when Fidrych made his first start on May 15.
His antics and success quickly made him a local sensation, and huge crowds started showing up at Tiger Stadium to see him. A complete-game win on ABC-TV's "Monday Night Baseball" against the Yankees in late June made him a nationwide phenomenom, with teammates rushing to greet him after the last out and fans calling him back from the clubhouse for a final salute.
Less than three weeks later, he started the All-Star game for the AL in Philadelphia. Though the likes of Pete Rose, Catfish Hunter and Johnny Bench had accumulated far greater career statistics, no player created more interest that night at Veterans Stadium than Fidrych.
Injuries, however, limited him to 58 major league games with a 29-19 record and a 3.10 ERA.
"The entire Detroit Tigers organization was saddened to learn of the passing of former player Mark Fidrych today," the Tigers said in a statement. "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 attempted a comeback in 1982 and 1983 in the Boston Red Sox organization. He pitched for their Triple-A team in Pawtucket, R.I. But he never played in the majors after 1980 and retired in July 1983.
The Worcester, Mass., native later owned a trucking business. State police detectives are investigating the circumstances of his death, Early said.
"People that didn't know him might say he was weird," Amorello said, "but people who knew him didn't. He was just a big-hearted person. He never even slightly suggested any regrets of his injuries. He was just happy to have the time he had in sports. He considered himself a lucky man.
"He bought his farm. He married the woman he was in love with and had a beautiful daughter."
Fidrych married his wife, Ann, in 1986 and they had a daughter, Jessica.
He tore knee cartilage during spring training in 1977 and was placed on the disabled list until May 24. He sustained a shoulder injury in July 1977. Fidrych pitched 250 1-3 innings in 1976 but only 162 after that when he was just 10-10.
"Baseball will miss him. They missed him because he didn't have as long a career as everybody would have liked in the first place. It's just horrible," said former Orioles pitcher and Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, who beat out Fidrych for the 1976 Cy Young Award. "He did embrace life. I remember him trying to play golf when he couldn't play golf and enjoying every minute of it."
Fidrych's first major league start was a complete game, two-hitter in which he beat the Cleveland Indians 2-1. He won seven of his first eight decisions. In the All-Star game, he allowed two runs in the first inning and put runners at second and third in the second, but got the final two outs and left after two innings trailing 2-0. The NL won 7-1.
Chicago Cubs bench coach Alan Trammell was a rookie shortstop with Detroit in 1977 and saw Fidrych's on-field behavior up close.
"He was very genuine. It was not an act," Trammell said. "He never changed. He liked to have a good time. You'd go over his house and he'd make dinner. That's the type of guy he was."
After taking 1981 off from pitching, Fidrych went to Pawtucket where he made his first appearance on July 3, 1982. He finished that season with a 6-8 record and 4.98 ERA in 20 games, 19 of them starts. The next season he was 2-5 with a 9.68 ERA in 12 games, including eight starts, and retired in July of that season.
"When he got to us in late June every place he pitched in the league was a sellout. Six years after his great year he was still selling out minor league parks," said Pawtucket team president Mike Tamburro, who was general manager when Fidrych played there.
"His baseball career certainly ended far too soon, and now I'm sorry to say we've lost him far too soon. He was a remarkable character. He was like a meteor in the baseball world that one year. He played center stage and the entire game of baseball kind of played around him."
One of Fidrych's most memorable minor league games was against Dave Righetti, the AL Rookie of the Year with the New York Yankees in 1981 who was sent to Triple-A Columbus the following season. Fidrych pitched a complete game, 7-5 win.
"He was almost too down to earth," Tamburro said. "He was just a wonderful guy to be around. I think the antics on the field were never an act. I think it was his true feelings. He was just a simple guy, lived a simple lifestyle and just brought that lunchpail mentality to the pitcher's mound every four or five days."
San Francisco Giants hitting coach Carney Lansford's first three seasons, with the California Angels, coincided with Fidrych's last three in the majors.
"I don't think you'll ever see someone like that come around again," Lansford said. "He was just great for the game. That's what the game needed, more guys like him — colorful. He was one of a kind."