Mark Fidrych of the Detroit Tigers, for one season, was the most exciting …
… athlete in America. The Bird … Mark Fidrych was one of the most fascinating, intriguing, and just plain great players in baseball history, starring in a pretty bad Tiger club during the rebuilding phase of the mid-1970s.
What made the Bird a master of the show, who could pack stadiums from coast to coast, was the fact that he didn’t even know … or care … that he was performing and it was all natural. That’s what those great crowds came to see!
Talking to the ball … getting on his knees to fix the mound … shaking hands with teammates after they made big plays … his dizzy, goofy, everyone’s friend attitude – it was all 100% real and that’s what made him a fan favorite
The Bird was goofing around in Massachusetts, playing ball in high school when the Tigers drafted him 232nd in 1974 … their No. 1 pick was Lance Parrish, so they did well that year, better than in a lot of those drafts – with 2 big stars, but with very different careers.
… and while the Tigers really struggled at ’75, Fidrych was moving up the minor league ladder: first at “A” Lakeland, going just 5-11, then AA Montgomery and finally reaching Triple A Evansville in late summer. … pitching very well and turning heads, an entire minor league coaching career in a single season. Many thought he had a chance to make the Major League team in ’76.
… and he did! The Tigers kept him when camp was broken, dropping Dave Lemanezyk, who had pitched in the bigs in ’75. Manager Ralph Houk liked what he saw in the Florida Winter League and was convinced the boy was a Major League Baseball player.
But they left him on the back burner … all the way to May 15, when his first start was against the fighting Cleveland Tribe … and it was an immediate hit and sensation … the antics: aiming the ball to its intended path, circling the mound, rejecting the outfield team’s help and setting up the hill himself – that was all different, but more importantly, it kept the Indians hitless until the 6th and finished with a 2-1 win. Even the Indians were amused and distracted by their antics. Veteran Rico Carty put it best: “The more he does, the more you want to hit him and the more you want to hit him, the worse you get.” How can you hit when you laugh? A crowd of just over 14,000 people were lucky enough to say they were there for their first “W” in the majors.
But they put him on the shelf again, he didn’t pitch again for 10 days until he started in Boston, losing to the Red Sox, but he only allowed 2 runs and 6 hits at Fenway happy batters … but by then Houk and the Tigers got started to know that they had something special and The Bird entered the initial rotation. After Boston’s loss, he pitched again on a Monday night May 31st at the stadium and beat the Brewers 5-4 … pitching 11 full innings in a thrilling comeback won on a single by Tom Veryzer. … his record held at 2-1 and the conversation was heating up throughout baseball about this guy.
… and surprisingly another complete 11-inning victory followed at Texas, allowing the Rangers just 2 runs and 7 hits. It’s hard to imagine a man filling 11 these days, much less twice in a row!
Birdmania really first appeared on a Friday night at the old ballpark … June 11 brought in 36,377 fans to see two teams with records below .500, well not really … all They came to see the Bird … and Fidrych didn’t let them down. Once again, he goes the distance, giving up just 1 earned run for his fourth win in a row. Another stadium thriller followed when old pro Mickey Stanley hit a run-winning single in the last inning for another full game win – the bird has now won 5 in a row! … and it was no luck, not according to many guys who really knew baseball. Baltimore head coach Jim Frey said: “He doesn’t pitch at all like a kid … he knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s dumb as a fox.”
A couple of road wins in Minnesota and Boston made him the hottest pitcher in the majors and ready for the big nationally televised game against the American League champs in Detroit … and this one was special! A crowd of 47,855 showed up to see the new sensation in action and, again, it did not disappoint. It was an absolutely electric atmosphere as Bird dominated the Bombers in a 5-1 victory. The huge crowd called after the victory to cheers of “We want Fidrych” and he was the first player to be called that since McLain won # 30 in 68. Now he was, not just the talk of baseball, but the talk of almost everyone, everywhere. It seemed like it was going to last forever, but the baseball gods had other plans …
… but that was for later. A Saturday night shutout of Baltimore in Detroit followed before over 50,000 and another full house saw his next start … his streak was finally snapped, but he pitched another complete game and certainly well enough to win when the Tigers they lost 1-0, bringing their record to 9-2. But he atoned for that mistake by beating Oakland in his next start, after the all-star game, 1-0, another 11-inning complete game in front of another big turnout … the kid was turning into a money machine for the losers. Tigers, paying bigger than any gate attraction in team history.
Almost unheard of, a rookie was chosen to be the starting pitcher at this year’s All-Star Game in Philadelphia … a strong Michigan connection with 3 Tigers and Grand Rapids President Gerald Ford … Fidrych wanted to meet the son Ford, Steve and get the lowdown on his dates with tennis star Chris Evert as Ford joked, “Don’t talk to those guys … talk to the old man.” That strange reunion was the All Star climax for Bird as he allowed 2 runs in 2 innings and was marked with defeat, but it was still a thrill for Fidrych: “In my entire life I never played in an all-star game. Before. Not in the minor leagues, not in high school, not in the minors, not anywhere else. “
But if Fidrych weren’t a major league star, he would be just another kid in a small town, probably working at a gas station, looking for girls, and living in a basic apartment … even now, he admits. ” the plates pile up, but they don’t get too high … I only have four plates. ” With only the minimum wage of $ 16,000, he felt the need to live somewhat frugally, driving a subcompact car instead of a pickup … “That’s me … I’m a trucker guy.”
He got the nickname on rookie ball back in ’74 from one of his teammates who noticed that Fidrych looked a lot like the Sesame Street character “Big Bird.” The name stuck: it came naturally, although no one seems to remember the exact person who came up with it.
… and a book was being prepared for the printers … “Go, Bird, Go!”, will be on the shelves in the middle of the summer … He advised that the Yankee catcher Thurman Munson had called it “bush”, replied Fidrych, “You can call me bush or you can call me turkey … but my teammates don’t and they’re the ones that count.”
It was turning out to be one of the greatest attractions of all time, drawing 5 times more than what the Tigers would normally get … no one in team history had ever packed them up like The Bird … maybe no one in the history of Major League Baseball had done it. that kind of door appeal in the summer of ’76 … his first 13 starts averaged over 42,000 per game (and that includes the first two before BirdMainia really caught on) … veteran baseball player and manager of the White Sox Paul Richards said “Babe Ruth didn’t cause as much excitement on his brightest day.”
Bird’s “personal catcher” Bruce Kimm was enjoying the ride … called in April to replace the injured Milt May, Kimm caught Fidrych’s first game and continued from there – the manager knew a good thing when he saw it!
… and in late 1976, he finished with a stellar record of 19 wins to just 9 losses with a 2.34 ERA that led all American League starters … Rookie of the Year … imagine what he would have done if it had started in April instead of May. He drew 605,677 fans to Tiger Stadium in just 19 starts … an average of more than 30,000, which was extraordinary in those days!
After all that, many thought that he would hire an agent, it would demand a lot of money, but not The Bird … he got a 3-year contract and was very happy with it. He could have signed a one-year deal for a lot of money, but what if he died next year? was his prophetic comment. He actually ended up doing quite well as a rookie: endorsements and a $ 34,500 bonus that was awarded to him in September. The Tigers are nice people, ”he said. They took care of me. I wouldn’t be here if they didn’t. “
… but if it all seemed too good to be true, maybe it was. Spring training ’77 brought high hopes, but little good news … he injured his knee in early March while running in the outfield and was immediately sent to Detroit for surgery to repair torn cartilage … even to the minus June … how many wins and $$ would that cost the team?
He came back in June and pitched some good games … he was 6-4 with a good 2.89 ERA, but hurt his arm on July 12 and was shut down for the season … at that point, the Tigers and their Doctors did not think it was a career-threatening injury.
But he never actually came back.
Always claiming he wasn’t in any pain and was a bit far from his return to form, Fidrych remained optimistic, but it was always one thing after another … he kept trying to get back for a few more years in Detroit before Boston. he gave him a chance … he scared all of us Tigers fans that he would come back in a big way with Boston, but we all supported him.
We loved seeing him from time to time … he seems to have done well, running a small business, driving a truck and doing most of the work himself … he came back for the last Tiger Stadium game, stroked the mound and performed a little … and we loved it.
I do not want to dwell on the negative side of his too short career … I prefer to focus on that great year of 1976 when he turned the world upside down.