Two days after the tragic passing of former Tiger pitching sensation Mark Fidrych on April 13, 2009, I spoke with Bruce Kimm, “the Bird’s” personal catcher during the American League Rookie of the Year’s magical 1976 All-Star season.
Kimm caught all of Fidrych’s 29 starts that included 24 complete games, two of which were remarkable back to back eleven inning victories.
After completing his three year major league playing career in 1980, Kimm drove a bread truck and sold insurance for one year before embarking on a 22-year coaching career that included major league positions with the Reds, Pirates, Padres, Marlins, Rockies and White Sox. In 2002 he was named the interim manager for the Cubs just prior to the All Star game. Today at 57, he is retired and lives in his native Iowa.
BD: When did you first start catching for Fidrych and what do you remember about that game?
BK: “It was in the minors. Mark joined our Evansville Triple A club in 1975 when we were on the road in Oklahoma City. He jumped out of a cab, all pumped up because he thought he was pitching that day. I said, ‘take it easy you’re not pitching until tomorrow night.’ Right away I could tell he had really great stuff. On the second out our shortstop Chuck Scrivener made a great play and Mark went over and shook his hand. We razzed him a bit in the dugout about it but he said, “ well they don’t make plays like that in double A.” The next year Mark made the Tigers out of Spring training and I was called up in early May when Milt May was injured.”
BD: When Ralph Houk (Tiger manager) gave Mark his first major league start on May 15th 1976 against Cleveland at Tiger Stadium, you were picked to catch him. What are your memories of that day?
BK: “Ralph picked me to catch him because I had done it in Evansville and that day Mark was just unbelievable. It didn’t take long for the Indians to find out that this guy meant business. He threw a no hitter for 7 1/3 innings and completed the game. We did so well together that Ralph just kept asking me to catch him, it wasn’t Mark asking for me. I know I’m lucky because if Milt May hadn’t been injured, I wouldn’t have even been called up that season and become Fidrych’s catcher.”
BD: What were the keys to Fidrych’s pitching success?
BK: “First, his control was phenomenal, I mean he could throw the ball anywhere he wanted, right on the money. He had a running 93 mph fastball that was really a sinker that ran in two directions, down and right really hard and a well above average slider. His plan was to keep the ball down and make them hit ground outs. It wasn’t about striking out batters because that takes more pitches. He really focused on what he wanted to do. He wasn’t talking to the ball he was talking to himself and saying things like, ‘keep the ball low’ and that kept him focused. He was also a fast worker, threw strikes, really went after the batters, and our fielders loved it. When it got to the end of the ballgame with a lead, Mark could smell a win and he took it up a notch, he wasn’t looking for a reliever. Just like when a great closer comes in today, you know the game is over. With Mark, it was the same way, you knew it was over.”
BD: Do you think you have been overlooked as the battery mate who called and caught all his games?
BK: “Not at all. I look at it that I was the fortunate one who caught his first game and then got to catch all the others. As a catcher you’re only as good as your pitcher, and Mark was just such a great pitcher.”
BD: What do you remember about the June 28th Monday Night Game of the Week when Fidrych first took the national stage and you beat the Yankees?
BK: “The Yankees of course were the elite team and it was going to be a real test for Mark but he was lights out. He was fearless and to him it was just another game. He only made one bad pitch and that was the homer by Elrod Hendricks. The electricity in the air that night was unbelievable. I was a coach with Marlins when we won the World Series in 1997, and I can tell you that when Mark pitched it had the same buzz and atmosphere as a series game. It was always like that when he pitched that year.”
BD: In August of ’76 you hit a solo home run off of the Angels’ Frank Tanana in the bottom of the eighth to break a 2-2 tie that ended up giving Mark another victory. It must have been a great thrill for you personally.
BK: “I was the first hitter in the bottom of the eighth and Ralph told me just try to get on base. I was thinking maybe I would be bunting. But the first pitch was right down the middle and I really got a hold of it. Little did I know that it would be the only homer of my major league career. I was of course very excited and Mark was happy for me and I told him you gotta win this one for me. They ended up with two runners on in the ninth but Mark closed them out.”
BD: What are some of the things that stand out for you as Fidrych became such a phenomenon?
BK: “The reporters and fans were all over him of course but he was still so nice to everyone. I remember reading that people were naming babies after him and that beauticians were even keeping locks of his hair for fans. I never went out with Mark on the road because he was single and I was married but everybody was his friend.”
BD: There have been different rumors on how he got hurt during Spring training in 1977, what do you know about it?
BK: “I never saw it happen because I might have been on another field but I heard he hurt his leg when he was shagging balls in the outfield which was an activity that a lot of pitchers did back then.”
BD: So what happened to his arm during the 1977 season?
BK: “He missed part of the season because of the leg injury and I didn’t catch him for his first two starts, but his stuff looked pretty good. I then started catching him again and I think he had four straight victories. Then in Baltimore I remember Eddie Murray hitting an opposite field home run, but that happens, I mean he was a future hall of famer. But then all of a sudden he couldn’t get anybody out. I didn’t notice his stuff changing that much but I did notice his ball was flatter. The next start against Milwaukee it was the first time ever that he didn’t have his good stuff. He wasn’t that fast and I thought something had to be wrong. In the clubhouse he said, ‘Bruce, my arm is killing me,’ and I told him, ‘Mark, you can’t pitch with a sore arm you gotta tell them.’ He then started against Toronto, faced one batter and that was it.”
BD: I believe when you were with the White Sox you faced him during his final comeback attempt with the Tigers in 1980?
BK: “Yes and when I came up to the plate, he tipped his cap, and had a big smile on his face. He lay one right down the middle for me, but like I usually did, I popped it up. He tried to let me get a hit. It was like, ‘let me take care of my brother.’”
BD: Some people say that maybe Houk used him too much and let him pitch too many games and innings at such a young age. What are your thoughts?
BK: “It would be pure speculation on my part on why it happened but it was such a shame for baseball and Mark. Just think if he hadn’t gotten hurt and had gone on to pitch for 15 years. But I think his pitch counts were actually way down and I know at least for a couple of complete games he had counts in the low 80’s. Back then pitchers were geared to throw more pitches unlike today.”
BD: How did you find out that Mark had died?
BK: “I had been turkey hunting and had turned off my cell phone. My wife and I were going to a birthday party and I heard a cell phone message from my sister who said that he had passed away. I couldn’t believe it and my very first thought was, ‘the good really do die young.’ Mark was just a really really good guy who treated everyone great. But boy when he was on the mound he was a competitor. It’s just hard to believe that he’s gone.”
Copyright © 2009 by Bill Dow. All Rights Reserved.
* Bill Dow is a freelance writer based in Birmingham, Michigan and a frequent contributor to the Detroit Free Press sports page.