The year was 1976; “Frampton Comes Alive” was gaining in music popularity, a former football player was still patrolling the White House, and yours truly had just received a driver’s license. Baseball season started with my next-door-neighbor, Al–a HUGE Detroit fan–telling me about this eccentric, young kid who had made the Tigers’ pitching staff. “They call him ‘The Bird,'” Al told me, “because he looks like ‘Big Bird’ from Sesame Street.” Mark Steven Fidrych was his given name and after his first start–a complete game, two-hitter vs. Cleveland–I recall thinking to myself, ‘Gee, this may be a fun summer.’ It turned out to be EXTREMELY fun.
Detroit had just come off two seasons in which the team’s combined record was 129-192–a pair of last-place finishes. Attendance at Tiger Stadium had declined; Al and other Tigers fans prepared for another rough year in ’76. “The Bird” proceeded to win seven of his first eight decisions while demonstrating pinpoint control. He was hyper; he talked to the baseball, manicured the mound, high-fived teammates after great plays–yes, flaky and goofy, to say the least–and refreshing in its naivete. As the season progressed, I remember asking Al on occasion who would be pitching for Detroit on a particular day. He’d often answer “Ray Bare” or “Vern Rule” with very little excitement in his voice. But when it was Fidrych’s turn, his face would literally light up. You see, “The Bird” was making baseball MATTER in Detroit once again–in a manner which no one could imagine. He’d go 11 innings during a victory over Cleveland in late May; he beat the mighty Yankees in a nationally-televised Monday night game and would start the All-Star game at the age of 21. Fans (or “Bird Watchers”), who jam-packed Tiger Stadium for each of his starts, demanded curtain calls after his victories–and were rarely disappointed. “Big Bird” outfits were everywhere at Tiger Stadium–so appropriate as Fidrych’s raw, youthful exuberance truly rendered him as nothing more than a “big kid”–6’3″, in fact–who wanted NOTHING more than to pitch. And to please.
Fast forward: The Tigers would finish in 5th place that year–24 games game behind New York–but baseball was alive again in the Motor City because of “The Bird.” In fact, attendance at Tiger Stadium was up a whopping 400,000 from the previous year–mostly due to Fidrych’s drawing power. He’d finished 19-9 (with an amazing 24 complete games) and lead MLB with a sparkling 2.34 ERA. He won the AL Rookie of the Year Award and would finish second to the great Jim Palmer in the Cy Young balloting. I guess what I’ll always remember about Mark Fidrych was the unmatched freshness that he brought to the game; he reminded all of us that it is just that–A GAME. Here was a curly-haired kid making the league’s minimum salary and thrilling TONS of fans both at home AND on the road; he had no agent and preferred blue jeans most of the time–just ecstatic that he wasn’t pumping gas back in his home state of Massachusetts. I know– refreshing, huh? Mark Fidrych, at 21, seemed to be in awe of his short-lived fame–almost overcome by it all as witnessed by the often wide-eyed look gracing his countenance when exposed to adoring fans. Hell, he was a “blue-collar kid” living a dream in ’76. Former Yankees PR man Marty Appel told me recently about “The Bird’s” first experience in New York as a big leaguer: “His first trip to NYC came shortly after he became a big sensation; naturally, the Children’s Television Workshop had ‘Big Bird’ at Yankee Stadium for a photo-op. Mark was terrific and the photos were great–and the legend continued.” I also asked legendary Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell about “The Bird’s” legacy: “He came out with the best malapropisms–and it was all real,” said Harwell. “A sweet kid–and his rise was meteoric.” Finally, on WFAN last weekend, Ed Randall referred to Fidrych’s time in the game as “the last vestige of innocence” in baseball.
We lost Mark Fidrych last week at the age of 54–the victim of a truck accident at his Northborough, MA farm. Sadly, arm/knee injuries limited him to parts of just five big league seasons and a lifetime record of 29-19; ahhh, what could have been. In recent weeks, I had been planning to inquire about his availability to appear on my local cable TV show–perhaps to talk about the simple, New England-based life he maintained since his meteoric baseball rise and subsequent quick exit from the game. No, I’ll never get that chance–but it won’t dim the memories of a 21-year old gawky kid who once thrilled baseball fans like few others have–even if for just one single, unforgettable summer. Finally, I guess it’s no secret that he was considered a “regular guy” long after his playing days ended; no, not surprising. Those closest to him will be quick to point out that he always kept the fun-loving ways and down-to-earth persona–even WITHOUT a huge, adoring audience surrounding him. Yeah, I’d venture to say that the only difference between the Fidrych of ’76 and the one working under the truck on that fateful day last week was just a few gray hairs dotting the old curls.
Yes, whenever Fidrych’s name comes up from this day forward, I’ll most likely smile and chuckle a bit; heck, maybe I’ll even talk to the baseball the next time I’m throwing batting practice to some middle-school youngsters that I coach. Yeah, I’m sure Mark would appreciate that. Certainly, I’ll never forget one “Bird” that truly flew high in ’76; rest in peace, Mark Fidrych.