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REMEMBERING ‘THE BIRD’

By JIM MAGDEFRAU

bruce and bird

Bruce Kimm, Amana, shows a fund-raising book given to him by his late friend and teammate, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. He looked back recently on his years with the Tigers and his friendship with Fidrych. Also shown are Fidrych and Kimm during their days with the Detroit Tigers.

In Bruce Kimm’s house in rural Amana, the walls of his office have decades of pictures from his career in the major leagues.

In a trophy case is a World Series trophy from his time as a coach with the Florida Marlins. Next to it is a coloring book.

Yes. A coloring book, signed by Mark “The Bird” Fidrych.

The book was part of a fund-raiser featuring the famous Detroit Tigers pitcher, remembered fondly for his brilliant 1976 season when Kimm was his personal catcher, and for his devotion to his friends, neighbors and fans in the decades following his baseball career.

Fidrych was killed in a farm accident last month. Kimm heard about the death from his sister, and the first thing that came to mind was the song, “Only the good die young.”

Also on the walls are many baseball pictures of Kimm with Fidrych.

In an interview last week at his home, Kimm looked back at those times.

The Tigers saw Kimm work with Fidrych just once, then made a point to have Kimm as Fidrych’s catcher.

“I had a reputation as a pretty good catcher and I had caught him the year before,” said Kimm of his being assigned to Fidrych, with coaches telling him, “You know him better than anybody.”

In that game Fidrych had a no-hitter for seven innings and allowed just two hits overall in a 2-1 victory.

“He just had a great outing, so they stuck with it,” Kimm recalled.

“There’s no doubt in my mind he was the best pitcher in the major leagues in ’76 ... to have 29 starts and 28 decisions, to be 19-9 and have 24 complete games … that’s just phenomenal. You just don’t see that.”

Fidrych rarely shook off Kimm’s calls as catcher.

“He had two great pitches. He had a great fastball and a great slider,” Kimm said of his pitching philosophy. “He could have struck a lot of guys out with his slider, but the game plan was pretty much to go right after them and make them hit the ball early in the count – make them hit a ground ball. If they get a runner in scoring position, then we’d start bringing the slider out more to get the strikeout, because that’s when you need it.”

Batters mainly got singles off of Fidrych, because his ball was a running sinker, Kimm said.

If one works hard for strikeouts, the pitch counts go up, and the pitcher is not around by the end of the game.

What also helped him, Kimm said, was that Fidrych was a great fielder. Fidrych played pepper on his off days with Alex Johnson, working on his reflexes. “Johnson could really handle the bat, and he hit firm ground balls to him. He made himself a great fielder.”

Kimm added Fidrych was difficult to steal against as well, and had a great throw to the plate.

He also said Fidrych had the ability in the eighth or ninth inning to “take it up another notch and finish it off.”

“He wasn’t looking for any bullpen. He’d put into another gear.”

He recalled Norway’s Dick McVay had the ability. “He’d take it up to another level and it was over.”

“It’s pretty amazing that a guy can have really one great year, and he’s made his mark in baseball,” Kimm observed, saying Fidrych’s injury after a year and a half slowed down what could have been a great career.

What made Fidrych stand out?

Kimm said, “His thing was that he was out there like how we all played when we were kids. He was having fun.”

Fans also enjoyed watching Fidrych smooth the mound and appear to talk to the ball. “He was giving himself reminders on what he needed to do be successful – to lay back, get your arm on top and keep the ball down. And he’d say it out loud to himself. You really couldn’t hear it from home plate but you could see his lips moving. He was focused right in where he wanted to throw the ball. Whatever I called, he’d put it right there. Boom, boom, boom!”

After Kimm left Detroit, he stayed in touch with Fidrych occasionally by telephone.

In 1980, Fidrych pitched against Kimm in Fidrych’s final season with Detroit.

“He smiled and said, ‘Hey Bruce’ and I went out there to hit. He laid it right down the middle and I popped it up. That’s the kind of guy he was. You’d think he’d try to strike me out and he threw me a big pumpkin right down the middle.”

At Fidrych’s funeral, Kimm heard of the many charities Fidrych worked with, particularly raising money for the Special Olympics.

Others recalled that during bad snowstorms he’d the first one out with this truck to clear driveways. People wanted to pay him, and Fidrych would say, “No, I won’t take any money. Merry Christmas.”

Kimm looks back and is proud to be known for his year and half with Fidrych. While the Tigers didn’t have a very good team, it was a playoff and World Series atmosphere every time Fidrych pitched. Reporters and the media swamped in on them and the parks were filled every time he pitched.

“I just can’t imagine anyone not liking him. He was always so good to his friends, his parents and fans. He was always nice to everybody. He didn’t go out of his way. That was just him.”

“It was a special time for me. I’ve got 17 years in the major leagues, and I’m probably known more for being Mark Fidrych’s catcher than I am for coaching in the major leagues, or half a year as a manager for the Chicago Cubs.”

Kimm concluded, “That year catching for Fidrych is truly the highlight of my career, just like when I played for Norway in high school is a highlight for me, too.

While they didn’t stay in touch a lot, Kimm counted Fidrych as a friend.

“I just can’t imagine anybody not being his friend.”

UPDATED May 6, 2009 9:53 AM

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