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Fidrych killed in accident

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  April 13, 2009 05:42 PM

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Mark Fidrych, whose aw-shucks charm and colorful on-the-mound antics helped make him a national phenomenon with the Detroit Tigers in 1976, was killed in an accident while working on his dump truck at his Northborough farm. He was 54.

Fidrych, who won 19 games as a rookie in ’76 but had his pitching career abbreviated by injuries, was found dead by his friend Joseph Amorello beneath his 10-wheel truck at about 2:30 p.m. State police detectives are investigating the circumstances of the accident, said Worcester Country District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr.

Fidrych, who worked in trucking and construction since his baseball career ended in 1983, had a job scheduled for this morning, but the site wasn’t ready, so he returned home. Later in the day, Amorello, the owner of the A.F. Amorello & Sons construction company for which Fidrych often worked, stopped by Fidrych’s home to say hello and discuss an upcoming job, only to encounter a gruesome scene.

Neither the district attorney’s office nor the Northborough Police Department would confirm further details of the accident. Reached via cell phone tonight, Amorello said, ‘‘It was obvious there was nothing I could do at that time.’’

Fidrych’s baseball legacy is as one of its more memorable and enjoyable shooting stars in the sport’s history. In 1976 -- less than two full years after the Tigers selected the lanky righthander in the 10th round of the 1974 amateur draft out of Worcester Academy -- Fidrych made the Tigers’ Opening Day roster out of spring training as a non-roster invitee.

With his out-of-nowhere success, affable grin and unkempt curls -- he was nicknamed ‘‘The Bird,’’ after the Sesame Street character to whom he bore a resemblance -- it wasn’t long before the 21-year-old had an enormous following.

Fidrych’s starts soon became must-see events -- he appeared on the covers of ‘‘Sports Illustrated’’ (once with Big Bird) and ‘‘Rolling Stone,’’ among others. But his newfound celebrity did not hinder him on the mound.

He went 19-7 as a rookie, leading the league in earned-run average (2.34) and complete games (24). He was the starting pitcher for the American League in the All-Star Game, won the AL Rookie of the Year Award, and finished second to the Orioles’ Jim Palmer in the AL Cy Young voting.

Fidrych’s star-making moment came June 28 against the New York Yankees. In a nationally televised game on ABC’s ‘‘Monday Night Baseball’’ and in front of a crowd of 47,855 at Tiger Stadium, Fidrych pitched a complete-game seven-hitter, allowing just one run in the Tigers’ 5-1 victory. Strutting around the mound, talking to the baseball, and always engaging the crowd, he received a prolonged ovation after the final out, eventually returning to the field to acknowledge the raucous cheers.

But his success in the majors was fleeting. He tore knee cartilage while chasing fly balls in the outfield during spring training in 1977 and was placed on the disabled list. While compensating for the knee problem, he sustained a serious shoulder injury in July that season and never fully recovered. He won just 10 big league games after his rookie year.

Fidrych attempted a comeback in 1983 with the Red Sox, pitching for Triple A Pawtucket. He retired at age 29 following the season with a 29-19 record and a 3.10 ERA in parts of five major league seasons.

He settled in Northborough, marrying his wife, Ann, in 1986. He lived on a 107-acre farm, and owned his own trucking company for a time. Friends say he remained as beloved in his hometown as he was in Detroit during the heady summer of ’76.

‘‘Mark was still very popular everywhere,’’ Amorello said. ‘‘We rented his truck from time to time, and he would work on our crews [at our contruction] company. People would still stop him all the time asking for an autograph or picture, and he was always patient, nice and humble.

‘‘You’d never have known he was an ex-ballplayer by the way he carried himself. The guy had a million friends.’’

Sometimes, Amorello said, his past profession would have an impact on his present one.
‘‘He did a ton of charity work. Every once in a while he’d have to ask for day off to go to some event, always for some good cause here or there. We’d give him a hard time about him losing his spot [on the work crew], that we were putting him at the bottom of the pecking order, but it was all in good fun.’’

Sometimes the fun was at Fidrych’s expense -- particularly when he was on the dance floor. Amorello and his wife, Nancy, both laughed at the recollection of their friend doing what they dubbed ‘‘The Fidrych Dance’’ at a wedding.

‘‘Oh, he thought he was dancing, but it was horrible,’’ said Nancy Amorello recalled. ‘‘He’d be flailing his legs, limbs flying everywhere, leaving five or six people with a bruise.

‘‘That was Mark Fidrych, though. The life of the party. A hell of a guy.’’

Globe correspondents Vanessa Parks and Peter Martin contributed to this story.

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