Sunday, 2 August 2015

THE LAST GREAT BASEBALL SHOWMAN

In the same year as America’s bicentennial birthday, I saw my first major league baseball game: Chicago White Sox vs Detroit Tigers, Mothers’ Day, May 9, 1976 at old Tiger Stadium. It was my only live game of the year. And I’ve regretted to this day. I should have gone to more because I missed out on seeing live the greatest rookie pitching sensation since Bob Feller 40 years before. For that one season, this mound artist was the toast of Detroit and the biggest drawing card in the American League. His name: Mark “The Bird” Fidrych.

So, what exactly did I miss out on? Well…

Mark "The Bird" Fidrych (US Public Domain)
Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, August 14, 1954, Fidrych was a 10th round amateur draft pick by the Detroit in 1974. Pitching only 25 games in the minors spread over two years, the gangly right-hander was called up to the Tigers to stay following spring training in 1976. A mere two years out of high school, he made his big league debut on April 20, throwing one inning of mop-up relief. He made another relief appearance May 5, before starting his first game on May 15, six days after my own big league start, you might say. In front of 14,500 fans at Tiger Stadium, Fidrych went out and beat the Cleveland Indians 2-1, throwing a complete game, striking out five batters, walking one, and giving up two hits, after a no-hitter in his first six innings. It was only the beginning of better things to come.

Following a 2-0 loss to Boston’s Luis Tiant at Fenway Park, Boston on May 25, Fidrych whipped off eight straight victories to bring his record to 9 wins with only one loss. Right from the start, Detroit loved him and his antics. They had never seen anyone quite like this curly-haired, six-foot-three, skinny drink of water. Fidrych sprinted to and from the mound. He got down on his hands and knees to manicure the mound with his bare hand between innings. He talked to the ball. He clapped his hands or shook hands with his infielders when they made great plays. It turned out that the infielders liked playing behind him because he worked fast and threw strikes. The average complete-game time for his starts was two hours and 11 minutes, about 15 minutes faster than the league average.

Fans at home and on the road flocked to see “Mark the Bird,” named after Big Bird of Sesame Street fame. Fidrych’s reputation really took off during a June 28 nationally televised game at Tiger Stadium against the front-running New York Yankees, whom he beat 5-1. Fans chanted, “Bird! Bird! Bird!” for a non-stop 10 minutes after the game, which forced Fidrych to appear and acknowledge the crowd with a tip of his cap. Doing that, the chant only continued.

Now The Bird was a national folk hero.

On July 9 in Detroit, he pulled in 51,041 fans for a start against Royals Dennis Leonard who won 1-0. That month, Fidrych started the All-Star Game for the American League at Philadelphia. On August 11, he drew another 51,000-plus Detroit crowd when he won 3-2, giving him a 14-4 record on the year. Two weeks later, 40,000 fans turned out for one of his night-time starts, a game that he won 3-1 over Chicago in only one hour and 48 minutes. By the end of July, Fidrych’s starts had packed over 334,000 fans into American League ball parks around the country.

Tigers announcer George Kell was a huge fan of the hurler as the season continued. “Nobody ever pulled them in the way he does—nobody,” Kell said at the time. “Not Feller, Newhouser, not McLain, not any of them. Everywhere we go, they ask one thing: ‘Is The Bird going to pitch? And when he isn’t, they get mad!” Tigers manager Ralph Houk added: “In all my years in baseball, I’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t think even the great Walter Johnson started this fast.”

By the end of the 1976 season, “The Bird” drew 901,239 fans or 31,077 per game. The Tigers saw over 600,000 fans at Tiger Stadium in his 18 starts there, averaging 33,649 fans per game: keep in mind that the Tigers attendance was 1.46 million in total on the year for its entire 77 home games, up 39 percent from 1975. All season long, he signed autographs galore and received more fan mail than any other Tiger: such as gifts, letters, greeting cards, and sweets. He also appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated twice and The Sporting News. The next year, he made front cover of the coveted Street and Smith’s baseball yearbook. I know because I have a copy. Off-field, the cool, casual Fidrych was just a regular guy: a bachelor who liked to wear T-shirts with blue jeans. He lived in a small Detroit apartment, and loved to chew and pop bubble gum, on the field and off.

Fidrych finished 1976 with a 19-9 record, a league-leading 24 complete games in 29 starts, as well as an MLB-best 2.34 ERA. His 19 wins were more than any Tiger rookie in 68 years. He beat every American League team at least once, five of them twice, and he was 4-0 against Cleveland. He threw four shutouts and walked only 53 batters in 250 innings, while striking out 97. Not to jinx a good thing while it was hot, management gave Fidrych his personal catcher for the entire season: rookie Bruce Kimm caught all of Fidrych’s starts.

A packed Tiger Stadium in 1961, the same park Mark "The Bird" filled 15 years later. Detroit Free Press photo taken by Tony Spina  (US Public Domain)

The Bird won the American League Rookie of the Year award, taking 22 of 24 votes, and was runner-up to Baltimore Orioles Jim Palmer in the Cy Young voting. Strange thing, the 1976 Detroit Tigers closed out the season fifth-best in the American League East with a 74-87 record. For Fidrych’s superb efforts--not to mention how he filled opposition ball parks--the Tigers gave him a $25,000 bonus and signed him to a three-year contract at $255,000: pretty good after starting the year at the minimum $16,500 and reaching $30,000 at season end due to a new player agreement taking affect.

Then the fun all came crashing down in spring training the next year when he ripped knee cartilage, followed by a torn rotator cuff once he returned to the lineup, although the latter wasn’t diagnosed as such until almost a decade later. Over the next four seasons, Fidrych threw only 27 games, winning 10 and losing 10. Released by Detroit after pitching Triple A for Evansville in 1981, he signed as a free agent with the Boston Red Sox and pitched for their Triple A affiliate in Pawtucket for a season and a half. At 29 in mid-1983, he retired from the game. He later bought a 107-acre farm in Northborough, Massachusetts, and settled down to country living with his wife, Ann, whom he had married in 1986. They had a daughter named Jessica.

On April 13, 2009, Fidrych was found dead under a dump truck that he had apparently been working on. Authorities ruled that his clothes had tangled around the spinning power takeoff shaft, suffocating him to death. A sad way for an icon of the game to go. He was 54.


Two days later, the Detroit Tigers paid tribute to the much-loved Mark “The Bird” Fidrych with a moment of silence and a scoreboard video presentation at Detroit’s Comerica Park before a game with the Chicago White Sox: quite a sendoff for someone who had pitched only 58 major league games. 

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