Mark Fidrych died today at the age of 54. That news brings out a lot of different emotions: sadness and sympathy for his family and friends; nostalgia for the time his memory evokes (and my own lost youth); surprise at the fact that he was 54, although since I’m 43, it shouldn’t have surprised me. In my mind’s eye he will always be 21, all arms, legs, flying blond hair, and at-the-knees fastballs. He’s one of those guys who you never could imagine as being old.

For those of us in Michigan, maybe it was hard to imagine him anywhere but on that mound, in that magical year. That’s why the news of his death is so jarring.

I was ten years old when he had his great season, and while I idolized him like all the other ten-year-olds did, he always seemed like he’d be just as comfortable playing whiffle ball with us kids as he seemed to be on the mound at Tiger Stadium. And he probably would have had just as much fun.

Besides his phenomenal talent, that was his biggest appeal: the pure joy he brought to the game. The free agent era was just beginning. The Tigers had just come off a dismal 1975 season in which they lost 102 games (and 19 in a row at one point). Most of the 1968 stars were gone. He represented the hope of the future. But most of all, he reminded everyone of the joy the game of baseball can provide.

That’s what I’ll remember most. And that’s the emotion I choose to feel now, because I got to witness it the first time around.