April 14th, 2009
01:20 PM ET

For Motown, The Bird was the word

Mark 'The Bird' Fidrych #20 of the Detroit Tigers prepares to pitch to the Minnesota Twins during a regular season game on June 20, 1976 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Mark 'The Bird' Fidrych #20 of the Detroit Tigers prepares to pitch to the Minnesota Twins during a regular season game on June 20, 1976 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Paul Caron
CNN Producer

There was another time in Detroit history when a bailout was needed. In the mid-1970s, the Big 3 American automakers were humming along in a heyday never to be seen by them again, but the Motor City’s baseball team was old and stinky.

In 1975, they were the worst team in baseball, with 102 losses and a roster filled with many players well past their prime. But along came Mark Fidrych, a 21-year-old goofball lanky kid with a heavy Massachusetts accent, who won over a city in just a few months. And uncommon back then, the athlete morphed into a celebrity, for one brief, albeit magical season.

He made the Tiger regular season roster after only two seasons drafted out of high school, not projected to be much of an impact player immediately. He was making the major league minimum salary at the time, $16,500, probably a player’s weekly per diem these days. One of his minor league coaches called him “The Bird,” as his blond curly locks that protruded from his baseball hat looked a little like the coat of Sesame Street’s “Big Bird.”

His first pitching appearance that year he actually gave up the winning hit in the 9th inning to the A’s, in front of only 3,000 fans in Oakland. The Tiger bad luck continued with catcher Milt May breaking his ankle in that game.

Fidrych didn’t get his first start until a month later, May 15, in Detroit, and he pitched a beauty, two-hitting the Cleveland Indians in a complete-game, a 2-1 win in front of 14,000 Detroit fans.

They watched him for the first time, like someone who had too much coffee: He was always flapping his arms, motioning to home, seemingly talking to the ball (his way of self-coaching, telling the ball what do to, he would later explain), and he would start each inning on his hands and knees, manicuring the pitching mound, filling in the hole in front of the pitching rubber. He didn’t do it for show, he just never liked how other pitchers left that rut. He needed a flat launching pad.

But it became part of the show. The Bird’s show. Fidrych would bounce off the mound and shake an infielder’s hand after a successful fielding play….every fielding play. He was a fist pumper. He was exciting. He was just what the Tigers and Detroit’s baseball fans needed. As a Tiger fan, you counted down the days until his next start, making sure to listen to it on the radio or watch the local TV broadcast. Even on the wiffle ball field (or parking lot), we all tried to impersonate his long, quirky, lanky delivery, and yes, we even talked to the ball too.

Fidrych became a part of the starting rotation and dominated like no other rookie ever did and none ever since. He threw 24 complete games that season, including pitching back-to-back 11-inning games. He may have looked goofy, but he was a serious competitor. One time, the A’s Claudell Washington tried to throw off Fidrych’s fast pace by constantly stepping out of the batter’s box. The Bird drilled a fastball at Washington’s knees to remind him he was out there to pitch and win. Off the field, The Tigers started gearing for the future, traded one of those older players, starting pitcher Joe Coleman to the Cubs. At Tiger Stadium, Bird Mania was gearing up into a new hysteria, that Tiger broadcaster Ernie Harwell likened to The Beatles, and rightly so. If Fidrych was the starting pitcher, attendance shot up by 20,000. Attendance would increase by 400,000 by the end of the year.

And it was more than baseball fans. Girls, and lots of them, would be at the games, outside the gates, with banners and T-shirts. “The Bird is the Word,” was the most popular theme. He was the Word and more. The local TV stations were doing half-hour specials on him. The newspapers printed up special sections and T-shirt iron-ons, which you would see worn at school the next day.

In the pre-cable TV era, there were only two national broadcasts of baseball games in a week, Saturday afternoon on NBC and Monday night on ABC. ABC came to Detroit in mid-June for a Fidrych start against the New York Yankees, and he didn’t disappoint. He pitched another complete game, and Detroit won it in the bottom of the ninth inning, in front of a near sellout at Tiger Stadium. His next two home starts were in front of sellout crowds of over 50,000 and he was then named the starting pitcher for the American League All-Star team. And Fidrych games were always quick. You could count on a game being less than two hours; games now average close to three hours. He worked quickly, and usually worked to get a ground ball, which helped keep his game pitch count down.

He was morphing into a rock star. How many athletes today would dominate the trifecta of these magazine covers: Sports Illustrated, Sport Magazine and Rolling Stone? He told Sport that having sex on a game day was his best form of pre-game preparation. If he wasn’t already off the charts in the cool department, that statement would send him off those charts then.

In mid September, Detroit was more than 20 games out of first place, but, over 50,000 Detroit fans watched Fidrych beat the Yankees for his 16th win. Only 3,000 would show up for non-Fidrych games after that. You don’t hear of pitchers throwing anywhere near 24 complete games, especially in a rookie season. He won 19 games, and easily should have won 20 or more, as he kept a bad team in many close games. Tiger fans would later wonder if the Tigers pushed The Bird into flight too soon, and too much, to cash in on that magical ’76 season.

He would be the big off-season celebrity, including on Sports Illustrated’s 1977 preview editon’s cover, with Sesame Street’s Big Bird. But that spring, while shagging fly balls, a usual harmless ritual for bored pitchers at spring training, he was warned by retired Tigers outfielder Al Kaline to calm down before someone got hurt. Fidrych tore ligaments in his knee diving after a ball a short time later. He would come back from that injury, but a shoulder injury followed, possibly brought on by coming back too soon from the knee injury. Or maybe that shoulder was worn out by pitching too many innings the previous season. One urban myth had him injuring the shoulder trying to hop a wall, to make team curfew one night. He did have a party boy reputation, and he loved to be the center of the party.

I tried to see him pitch again when he was the scheduled starter in a 1978 game against the Texas Rangers. He would be scratched from the lineup and a young pitcher named Jack Morris started in his place. Morris ended up winning more games than any other pitcher in baseball in the 1980s. Tiger fans dream of the powerhouse Detroit could have had if Fidrych had stayed healthy and in the rotation with Morris and the 1977 Rookie Pitcher of the Year, Dave Rozema (whose career also would be shortened by injury). Most of the 1984 World Series champion Detroit team came up through the Tiger farm system about the same time as Fidrych.

After a few more seasons on the Tiger roster, battling that shoulder injury, pitching here and there, Fidrych was finally released from the team. He had a brief but failed comeback attempt with the Boston Red Sox in the early ‘80s.

But that one season, 1976, bought Fidrych a lifetime of good will in Detroit. He was always welcomed, and mobbed, at baseball card signing shows. He never showed a fraction of bitterness at a career lost to injury. He was happily married with a daughter, living and working on his own farm, back in his home state, where he was found dead Monday. He was never involved in a police report, and he was what we would all call “a good guy.”
Baseball statistics guru Bill James writes in one of his books a great tale from that ’76 season. As the Yankees’ Graig Nettles cam to bat, Fidrych was talking to the ball as usual. Nettles spoke to his bat: "Never mind what he says to the ball,” he said. “Hit it over the fence!" Nettles struck out. "Damn Japanese bat," he said, according to James. "Doesn't understand a word of English."

soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. Lisa in CA

    It would do all professional athletes good to go back and watch/read listen to the players of those days and earlier. It was an era when players (in any sport) signed autographs for free – just thankful that fans were in the stands to watch (Detoit had the Bird; SF had The Count). It was a time when the game was fun and players were loyal to the team - not to the highest bidder.

    I wonder if there will ever be players again like the Bird, The Count who were characters as well as athletes ... and who enjoyed the game for what it was - a game.

    April 14, 2009 at 6:00 pm |
  2. Joanne Pacicca, Solvay, NY

    My sincere condolences to his family. God Bless him.

    April 14, 2009 at 4:24 pm |
  3. Kris

    As a teen I remember watching the Bird and wondering to myself, what is he saying to that baseball? . . .

    April 14, 2009 at 3:45 pm |
  4. Harvey Buckledorf

    Great story. And a great loss.

    April 14, 2009 at 3:33 pm |
  5. Milton smith

    I knew I was getting a stimulas package for easter, I just knew it!

    April 14, 2009 at 2:33 pm |
  6. margaret s bowen

    bird was a hoot to watch on the mound.....i wonder if mlb would accept his antics in today's game....

    April 14, 2009 at 2:16 pm |