What sad, sad news. I remember The Bird’s ’76 season. Rooting for the Tigers in the 1970s wasn’t easy, especially for a kid who came of age during the Ralph Houk “rebuilding” years after the ’68 World Series Championship season. The stars of the ’68 team were at the end of their careers or already retired, and one of the Tigers best players was a young man who had done time in Jackson Prison (for burglary I think) – Ron LeFlore. Keep in mind that the hiring of Sparky Anderson as Manager and the rise of the players who would become the core of the ’84 Championship team would not happen for several more years….
The Bird was a real treat, and put fun back into the game whenever he was on the mound.
Excerpted from The Detroit News: Monday, April 13, 2009
Mark Fidrych: 1954-2009
Lynn Henning / The Detroit News
Mark Fidrych, a Detroit baseball icon who colorfully and forcefully burst upon the baseball scene in 1976, died Monday, according to the Worcester (Mass.) District Attorney’s office.
Fidrych, 54, was reportedly found dead beneath his pick-up truck at 2:30 p.m. The cause of death was not immediately announced.
Fidrych was known as “The Bird” when he arrived with the Tigers in 1976 as a 21-year-old right-hander with a zany streak. He often talked to the baseball before throwing a pitch, exhorting it to “flow” as he delivered, generally, a series of strikes at the knees of hitters who were confounded by his sinking fastball.
He broke into the starting rotation in May of 1976 and was so quickly successful that he earned a spot on the American League All-Star team. He finished the season with a 19-9 record and league-leading 2.34 earned-run average. He was named American League rookie of the year.
His pitching skill as a rookie was extraordinary, but it was his curly hair and non-stop antics that made him a national baseball darling. Along with talking to the baseball, Fidrych endeared fans at the start of each inning as, sprawled on his hands and knees, he smoothed the mound to his satisfaction.
And then he would win another baseball game.
The Bird created a mania in Detroit, and throughout all of baseball, and seemed poised to become a fixture as a pitcher and entertainer of unprecedented color. Tiger Stadium was home to sellout crowds during the wild summer of 1976, when The Bird was the word among Tigers fans.
But he suffered a knee injury during spring training in 1977, which required surgery. He returned later that season but soon ran into arm trouble from which he never recovered.
UPDATE: Bob Wojnowski’s Detroit News column today offers more about The Bird. Here’s an excerpt:
Detroit — It seemed like he was talking to the baseball, but really, he was talking to himself. And when you think about it, he was talking to us.
Mark “The Bird” Fidrych arrived during a dull time in Detroit sports and immediately enlivened it, made it richer and wilder and more accessible. He was a rookie pitcher for the Tigers in 1976 who went 19-9 and started in the All-Star Game, and on one magical Monday night in Tiger Stadium, he shut down the Yankees and elicited postgame cheers that still echo, 30-plus years later.
“We want Bird! We want Bird!”
And there came Fidrych, in his stocking feet and floppy mop of hair, bounding out of the dugout to greet the sellout crowd in his simple, shoulder-shrugging manner. It was a scene unlike anything ever witnessed, and as a teenager growing up around here, I was mesmerized. We all were.
His everyman appeal had an everyman ending, nothing grand about it, and perhaps that was fitting. It only seemed natural that such magic had to be short-lived. And with so much joy spread in such a short time, “The Bird” became even more unforgettable.
Fidrych, 54, was the truest original I can recall, unpretentious and giddy and still, somehow, a riveting major league pitcher until arm troubles felled him. Fans related to him because of how he talked while he pitched, and how when he ran to the mound, he’d drop to his knees and groom the dirt with his bare hands, like a kid on a sandlot.
He was called “The Bird” because his gangly motions reminded people of Big Bird on Sesame Street, and also because he was flighty and fun, untouched and unpredictable. He gushed that he’d be just as happy pumping gas back home as throwing pitches. No mania in baseball since has matched his singular appeal, reflected in the massive crowds he would draw in the Tigers’ otherwise unremarkable season.
I’ll always remember that broadcast on Monday Night Baseball against the Yankees in 1976, when he pitched the Tigers to a 5-1 victory and then took a curtain call that shook the old ballpark, as a national TV audience watched. Fidrych made such an impact here, it’s hard to believe he only pitched parts of five seasons with the Tigers and was never the same, done in 1980 with a career record of 29-19.