Summer Nostalgia in the Winter Gloom
It’s not spring yet. Pitchers haven’t reported yet. Hockey season is in full bloom. It’s the All-Star Weekend for crying out loud! I’m worried about why so many Blackhawks made the starting lineup, and why isn’t there an old guy exception rule like they’re used to be? Jaromir Jagr anyone? But this week we are talking baseball. Detroit Tigers baseball. And youth. And, for a real change-up off the mound, the positive power of nostalgia.
My brother-in-law passed on a copy Doug Wilson’s 2013 Mark Fidrych biography THE BIRD: THE LIFE AND LEGACY OF MARK FIDRYCH at Christmastime. I do remember as a child listening to Ernie Harwell’ on the radio at my great-grandmother Helen’s house, watching Al Kaline and George Kell on the television with my Grandma Bea. My Grandma Bea really disliked Kaline’s game-calling skills and always referred to him as “sounding like a dumb hick.” I actually remember liking their lazy day language. That was part of the summer routine all through the mid-70s and into the early-80s before we moved to SoCal. John Wockenfus. Dave Rozema. Jack Morris. “Sweet” Lou Whitaker. Dave Bergman. Aurelio Rodriguez. Names and flashes of an olde English D. And the Bird. Mark Fidrych. I don’t profess to remember the 1976 season. I do remember bicentennial celebrations. A blue satin jacket I had with a Michigan patch on it. Red, white and blue license plates. I remember starting kindergarten that fall. But not a lot of those Tigers.
Wilson makes me wish I did, however. The opening chapter neatly captures the excitement of the June 28, 1976 Tigers game against the New York Yankees as Fidrych pitches on the national stage. The sights, the sounds, the smells. Yes, the electricity of Wilson’s voice, surrounded by quotes of the day and reminiscences from the present neatly encapsulates that moment, that day in June 1976. You feel the rush, the fervor, the excitement. It’s a great opening to the book.
And Wilson maintains that joie de vivre throughout the book, not just the first half of the book, which encapsulates the life of Fidrych from childhood to the minor leagues and into the breakthrough season of 1976. The enthusiasm plows through. It an interesting life too, as Fidrych and his dad come off as the anti-Todd Marinovich, a loving father coach figure who enables his son to succeed, and to succeed well. To never forget the sacrifice. Or the joy. It truly is a rose-colored vision of what you want the world to be like. Fidrych is painted as a catalyst of excitement, of wonder, for both himself, and those around him.
Which makes the second half of his career, his life, that much more bittersweet. His life plays out on the national stage, first a knee injury, and then the arm injury that never truly heals pulls him further from the spotlight, and further from the game, you can’t help but be struck by the unflagging optimism that still permeates Fidrych. The quotes of that period, the remembrances, paint someone still laughing, still ready to share his excitement. Wilson captures a spirit that rarely flags, that always presses on. Through surgeries. Through a return to the minor leagues. Through retirement. And into his early death at 54. It’s a measure of both Wilson as the writer, and Fidrych as a man, that this does not devolve into pathos in the second half. We’ve talked so often of poisonous nostalgia in this column, in the hands of skilled fiction writers, it is amazing that a truly bittersweet biography is filled with positive nostalgia. Fidrych comes off as happy with his lot, all of it, the highs, the lows, with a minimum of regrets. It’s not burdened down by the weight of the past, but enhanced by it, transcends it. I was struck with the similarity to Aviva Kempner’s 2001 film THE LIFE AND TIMES OF HANK GREENBERG about another Tiger who thrived even in the face of adversity. It’s something you don’t often see anywhere in the real world.
Wilson’s work is not perfect. The Frankenstein quilt of Wilson’s enthusiastic prose, the period quotes, and modern reminiscences work in spurts, such as the first chapter, but over the long haul, it can run the reader ragged. The quotes, clippings, and commentary can be like the ticker tape across the bottom of ESPN during a game after awhile. And Wilson’s enthusiasm trumps his writing skills more than once. Like many sports biographies, it comes off baldly written, thinking that facts and excitement will trump insight. There is enough insight to draw the reader in, but also just enough to want more meat on some of them there bones.
The call from the bullpen in the ninth? If you’re a baseball person, you’re a THE BIRD person. If you’re not a baseball person, you’re not a THE BIRD PERSON. It’s as simple and complex as that. As simple and complex as Fidrych himself.