Mark Fidrych passed away Monday. You may know him better by his full name — that includes his nickname: Mark "The Bird" Fidrych.
His playing career with the Detroit Tigers was brief: one great season, followed by a handful of years marked more by injury than by time on the mound. But baseball fans in the Motor City and elsewhere still talk about the amazing year Fidrych had back in 1976.
The mid-'70s were tough years to be a fan of the Detroit Tigers. In 1975 they lost 102 games; 1976 promised little relief. But then, in May, a young prospect came up from the minor leagues to make his major league debut.
It was a game against the Cleveland Indians.
The newest Detroit Tiger, a kid with a mop of curly blond hair that stuck out from his ball cap on all sides, took the mound.
He pitched brilliantly. He kept the ball low and threw a devastating sinkerball that defied hitters.
Mark Fidrych, 21, threw a no-hitter through six innings, finally giving up a hit, a single, in the seventh. The Tigers won 2-1. It was the first of 24 complete games he would pitch that year.
His nickname, a result of his strong resemblance to Big Bird from Sesame Street, became a household word around Michigan. "Did you see Bird pitch last night?" "Are we going to see The Bird pitch Saturday?" What time does Bird pitch?" All common questions that summer in the Motor City. And it wasn't just baseball fans. As that old rock 'n' roll song by The Trashmen said,
About the Bird
The Bird, the Bird,
The Bird is the word."
The wins started piling up. Detroit Tigers play-by-play announcer Dan Dickerson was a 17-year-old fanatical Tiger fan living in Detroit's suburbs when Fidrych joined the team. "By midsummer it was a phenomenon," Dickerson recalls. "The whole state was in the grip of this kid."
But it was a national phenomenon as well. Wherever Fidrych pitched, the ballpark would sell out.
When he beat a very tough New York Yankees team on a nationally televised Monday night baseball game in late June, the ratings went through the roof for a midseason baseball broadcast.
Fidrych's skills on the mound were only part of the attraction. To say The Bird was an eccentric is an understatement.
He was a free spirit, and it showed on the ball diamond. He'd sprint out from the dugout at the start of an inning, leaping over the chalk on the third-base line. At the end of innings, he'd sprint back off the field. He'd talk to the baseball. Between pitches he'd drop down to his hands and knees and groom the mound. He'd take his time filling in holes until it felt just right. He said he was saving everyone time by not calling out the groundskeepers.
Dickerson recalls that, at first, some teams thought Fidrych's antics were a result of hot-dogging — that he was trying to show up his opponents. But they quickly realized that was not the case, says Dickerson. "It was genuine," he says. "It was who he was."
Dickerson recalled another of Fidrych's charming eccentricities: "He shook the hands of his infielders during an inning — not just at the end of the inning. It was him."
But most of all, The Bird could pitch. His honors from the year tell the tale. He was the starting pitcher for the American League in the 1976 All-Star Game. He racked up 19 wins, was named Rookie of the Year, and finished second in balloting for the American Cy Young Award. His 2.34 ERA led the league. He pitched a league-best 24 complete games. All of this on a rookie salary of $16,500.
But it all ended too soon.
Fidrych got hurt the following spring — a leg injury, suffered while fooling around during drills in the outfield. He came back, pitched well. Then came a shoulder injury. He said his arm felt "dead."
A decade later, the injury was officially diagnosed as a torn rotator cuff — easily fixed these days. But back in 1977, the surgery, now common, hadn't been developed yet.
Comeback after comeback failed.
The Bird retired in 1980. His final career record was 29 wins, 19 losses. All but 10 of those wins came during that amazing rookie season.
Fidrych returned to his native Massachusetts, bought a farm and a truck and made a living. He'd show up at the ballpark on occasion, in Boston and in Detroit. Always a hit at autograph shows, he'd also play in old timers games.
He always seemed to have the best time of anybody out there.
Mark Fidrych was 54 years old when he died Monday, the victim of an apparent accident while working underneath a truck on his farm.
As a Tiger fan, I've wondered over the years what it must be like to be Fidrych, to live with the disappointment of a career cut short, of brilliance only barely fulfilled.
A friend said to me that it's like a movie, or a novel, or an opera. I agree. But even with its sad ending yesterday, it would not be a tragedy, because Mark Fidrych never gave any indication that he saw it as such.
He always seemed pleased that so many of us still remember that amazing year when everybody was talking about The Bird.