Forty years ago America celebrated its bicentennial on July 4, 1976. At the same time, the world was hearing and reading about the daring Israeli commando raid in Uganda to rescue Jewish hostages.
But in 1976, the Bird was the Word. The Tigers had finished dead last the season before. At the end of the year, the Tigers traded Mickey Lolich, who had notched 12 of the team’s 57 victories, to the Mets for outfielder Rusty Staub.
Staub quickly became a fan and media favorite in Detroit, but was soon overshadowed by Mark Fidrych.
The long-haired, skinny, six-foot-three rookie pitcher was nicknamed “The Bird.” Partly because he looked like Big Bird on television’s “Sesame Street,” and partly because of the way he pitched.
Fidrych used his whole body. His arms flailed, his body shook, he rocked back and forth, and he aimed the ball at the plate like a dart. And he talked to the ball while he was getting ready to throw it.
The Bird’s shtick included running to congratulate a teammate who’d just made a good defensive play. He would start each inning by getting on his hands and knees and patting down the dirt on the pitching mound.
On June 28, 1976, about six hours before the nationally televised Monday night game featuring Fidrych against Ken Holtzman of the Yankees, I met broadcasters Warner Wolf and Bob Uecker in the lobby of a downtown hotel.
I filled the duo in on the Bird craze that had overtaken Detroit. Ken Holtzman came down to the lobby to meet with Wolf and Uecker. They decided to take a cab to Tigers Stadium and invited me along. A crowd of almost 50,000 filled the old green seats and bleacher spaces. Many carried signs reading “Go Bird Go” and “The Bird is the Word.”
A quick one hour and 51 minutes later the game was over. Fidrych had scattered seven hits to defeat the Yankees, 5-1, to raise his record to 8-1. The frenzied crowd stood cheering. “We want the Bird,” they screamed and shouted, and The Bird flew out of the dugout for a curtain call.
Fast forward to the All-Star break. The Bird got the nod to start the mid-summer classic. His record was nine wins and two losses, with an ERA of only 1.78.
The Bird and yours truly flew together to Philadelphia, the National League city hosting the game.
We shared a car to the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, where players, management, and writers were stationed. Fidrych checked in behind me unrecognized and we went up to our respective floors.
The Bird was soon the center of everyone’s attention and reporters who couldn’t get near him implored me to intercede on their behalf. They saw that The Bird and I were friendly and knew I was from Detroit.
“I’ll tell you what,” I told them. “If you don’t get a chance to speak to him, you can ask me about him.”
They asked me about him for so long that I didn’t get a chance to interview or take any pictures of players.
Most of the questions dealt with the intelligence of The Bird.
“Very high,” I said. “I felt all along that Fidrych was smart, maybe not the book-learning smart, but sensible smart.” He always had an answer that made sense, to me at least.
When I once asked him what baseball meant to him, he replied: “It’s very simple – either I get them out or they get me out.”
The Bird was out after two innings in the All-Star game as he allowed two runs and four hits.
Fidrych ended the ’76 season with a 19-9 record and a 2.34 ERA, and won the American League Rookie of the Year award.
The 1977 baseball season began seven weeks late for Fidrych, who’d injured his arm in spring training. After losing his first two games, The Bird won six straight and was flying high. However, on July 12 he was forced to leave the game after throwing just 15 pitches because of pain in his right shoulder. Fidrych managed to pitch in only 11 games in 1977, posting a 6-4 record.
But The Bird looked dominant in his 1978 season-opening win before an excited crowd of 52,000 Bird watchers. It looked like 1976 all over again.
Detroit smiled as Fidrych won his second complete game. However, the smile quickly disappeared as arm problems forced an early departure in his third start. He would make one more appearance that season and finish with a 2-0 record and a 2.89 ERA.
Arm problems would continue to plague The Bird’s wing. His 1979 record was 0-3 with a whopping ERA of 10.43. 1980 saw a bit of improvement with a 2-3 record and 5.68 ERA.
Out of baseball, Fidrych returned to his Northborough, Mass. roots and puttered around doing some farming and driving his ten-wheel dump truck hauling gravel.
Happier than ever with his wife Ann (married in 1986) and daughter Jessica, The Bird was enjoying life. The end came on April 13, 2009. He was working under his truck when his clothing became entangled with a spinning power shaft, suffocating the most popular player in Detroit Tigers history.