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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Throwback Thursday: In 1976, the Bird was the Word

Two golden boys.

He flashed like a yellow-curled beacon across the baseball sky, a brief blip of innocence and fun before free agency and million-dollar contracts changed the game forever. 

Mark Fidrych. Just saying the name still makes me smile. The Pride of Northborough, Mass., debuted for the Tigers this week in 1976, and died this week in 2009. His sore-armed career in the majors lasted only 58 games, but he's still right up there with Dwight Evans, Luis Tiant, and Pedro Martinez in my pantheon of all-time favorite players.

Maybe it's because I was a rookie too in '76, also playing for the Tigers as a 9-year-old in the Newton Central Little League. I could barely throw the ball straight, but in my genuine woolen uniform -- I think the league phased them out after that spring -- I could stand in front of the mirror and pretend I was The Bird. 

Rookie on the rise.

Forty springs on, I can still recite his rookie stats from memory: 19-9, 2.34 ERA, 250.1 innings, 24 complete games in 29 starts. But numbers only begin to tell the story.

Fidrych, then a wide-eyed 21-year-old with parts of just two seasons in the minors, didn't start his first game for the Tigers until May 15 because manager Ralph Houk wanted to work the youngster in slowly. But The Bird -- named after Big Bird on Sesame Street, of course -- only knew one speed: full-tilt. 

Beginning with a two-hitter against Cleveland, he went 8-1 over his first two months, including back-to-back 11-inning complete games and a dismantling of the mighty Yankees on ABC's "Monday Night Baseball" that made him a national phenomenon. Teammates and fans loved watching him pitch, because he did so with precision (just 53 walks), passion, and a train to catch after the ninth. 

He was a man on a mission -- to win and have fun doing it.

Man at work.

The Bird appreciated every second of his time on the field. If a teammate made a great play, he ran over and shook his hand. If the mound needed some tending, he got down on his knees and did it himself. He claimed he didn't talk to the ball, but the fact we all thought he was when he jabbered to himself was good enough.

Red Sox manager Darrell Johnson let the lanky, 6-foot-3 rookie start for the American League in the All-Star Game over the likes of Catfish Hunter, Jim Palmer, and his own ace Luis Tiant, and it was the natural choice. When it came to pleasing fans, nobody did it better; Fidrych packed ballparks wherever he went, and Tigers attendance rose 39 percent from the previous season despite the team's lackluster 74-87 record. 

The Bird was the Word. Girls dug his locks, scooping them up after his haircuts. Rolling Stone put him on the cover. He even got to meet Frank Sinatra, which didn't mean much to him but delighted his mother.  

Bill Lee never got this gig.

Fidrych finished second in the AL Cy Young race to Palmer (he was robbed), and had a limitless future and a new three-year contract for $50,000 a year. Then, in the blink of a slip on the outfield grass while shagging flies in spring training, it was all but over. He injured his knee, requiring surgery, and then after coming back with a string of seven complete games in eight starts mid-way through 1977 suffered a dead arm from which he never recovered. 

Shoulder woes plagued him from this point on, robbing him of his control and his glory. By 1983, after umpteenth comebacks with the Tigers and a last-ditch effort for the Red Sox at Triple A Pawtucket, Fidrych called it quits at the ripe old age of 28. 

Last gas.

He went back to Northboro and became a commercial truck driver and farmer. He later had his own trucking business, mostly doing construction, and hung around the local diner. A working stiff with a wife, daughter, and no regrets he let folks know about.

Occasional "Where Are They Now?" articles appeared to catch us up on The Bird, but the first time Fidrych made real headlines after his retirement was on April 20, 2009, when word spread that he had died at 54 in a freak accident -- apparently crushed after his truck fell on him while he was working on it. 

I dug out my old 1976 Tigers team photo. There I was in the front row, with a Timex and Bill Lee glove on my wrist and a grin on my face.

The future limitless. 

Birds at rest.


  1. Thanks, one of the more bittersweet posts I've ever done. The Bird made me smile, and then he made me cry, and now he makes me smile all over again.