In 1976, the Detroit Tigers gave the baseball world The Bird.
Before FernandoMania in 1981, or the arrival of Stephen Strasburg in 2010, there was Mark Fidrych [FID-rich], a 21-year-old pitcher for the Detroit Tigers. With a shock of blond curls stuffed beneath his ball cap, the lanky right-hander took the country by storm in the summer of 1976, appearing out of nowhere to win 19 games, lead the majors in earned run average and become a phenomenon. Dubbed “The Bird” because of his resemblance to the Big Bird character on television’s Sesame Street, the 6’3”, 175-pound rookie captured the imagination of baseball fans with his antics on the field.
Fidrych crouched on the mound to fix cleat marks, an act that came to be known as “manicuring” the dirt. He talked to the baseball — and to himself. The quirky Fidrych would aim the ball like a dart before delivering a pitch, strut around the mound after every out, and throw back balls that “had hits in them.” The son of a high school principal would high-five a teammate for making a good play and shake everyone’s hand after the game.
Born 35 miles west of Boston in Northborough, Massachusetts, August 14, 1954, Mark Stephen Fidrych attended Algonquin Regional High School and Worcester Academy, a boarding school in central Massachusetts. He was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the tenth round of the 1974 amateur draft, then made the big league roster coming out of spring training in 1976. Fidrych made his debut April 20, but had only pitched one inning by the middle of May. His first start came May 15, when he threw six no-hit innings in a complete-game win over Cleveland. After the game, Indians slugger Rico Carty said he thought Fidrych was “trying to hypnotize them.” The Bird won seven of his first eight decisions and was the AL starter in the All-Star Game.
Motown was abuzz over Fidrych in the summer of 1976. Fans – called “Birdwatchers” — packed Tiger Stadium every time the rookie pitched. The energy was palpable. At the end of home victories, fans chanted “We want the Bird!” until the curly-locked New Englander came out of the dugout to acknowledge them, inventing the now-common curtain call. The Bird was a cult-like figure. His first start in Tiger Stadium drew 14,583. The following month, 47,855 showed up to see him face the New York Yankees in a game televised nationally on Monday Night Baseball. Three times, more than 50,000 jammed into Tiger Stadium to see The Bird pitch. In his 18 appearances at Tiger Stadium, Fidrych drew half of the entire season’s 81-home-game total.
Graig Nettles led the American League in home runs in 1976. While facing Fidrych, who was talking to the baseball, Nettles stepped out of the batter’s box and started talking to his bat. “Never mind what he says to the ball,” said Nettles. “You just hit it over the fence.” Nettles struck out. “Damn,” said the two-time All-Star. “Japanese bat. Doesn’t understand a word of English.”
Despite the mania swirling around him, the affable Fidrych remained humble. Earning the league-minimum $ 16,500, he drove a sub-compact car and lived in a small downtown apartment. “If I weren’t pitching I’d be pumping gas in Northborough,” said The Bird. He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News in the same week, and became the only baseball player even to make the cover of Rolling Stone. To help keep him focused, the Tigers assigned Fidrych his own personal catcher, rookie Bruce Kimm.
Not everyone was a fan. After holding the eventual league-champion Yankees to one run on national TV, Thurman Munson quipped, “If he pulls that stuff in New York, we’ll blow his ass out of town.” Yanks second baseman Willie Randolph, who admitted Fidrych’s antics were distracting, said, “You want to send a line drive right through his head.” Tigers right-fielder Rusty Staub said of Fidrych, “It’s no act. There’s nothing contrived about him and that’s what makes him a beautiful person. He has an inner youth, an exuberance.”
The Bird was not overpowering. With exceptional control, his pitches had good late movement. He kept the ball down, inducing ground balls. Fidrych played five years, but only pitched in one full major league season. Despite pitching in hitter-friendly Tiger Stadium, Fidrych only allowed 23 home runs in just over 412 innings of work [0.5 per nine innings]. Injuries piled up after his rookie year – he tore knee cartilage during spring training in 1977 and a rotator cuff that July — and his career ended prematurely. In 1976, he threw 24 complete games in 29 starts, including five extra-inning complete games, and went 19-9. After his rookie season, The Bird went 10-10. He attempted comebacks with Boston in 1982 and 1983 with Triple-A Pawtucket, but never pitched in the big leagues again after 1980.
Mark Fidrych went 29-19 in 56 starts over five MLB seasons. He posted a career ERA of 3.10 and struck out 170 batters. The two-time All-Star made his last appearance 37 years ago yesterday, giving up four earned runs in five innings of work against the Blue Jays in Toronto to notch the final win of his meteoric career.
On April 13, 2009, Fidyrch suffocated and died while repairing his ten-wheel dump truck at his Northborough home. He was 54. Two months later, Jessica Fidrych honored her father at Comerica Park in Detroit by throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. Prior to her throw, Jessica manicured the mound just like her father.
The Shrine of the Eternals at the Baseball Reliquary is dedicated to fostering an appreciation of American art and culture through the context of baseball history. Conceptually similar to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Shrine of the Eternals differs philosophically in that statistics are not the criteria for election. Rather, the shrine is comprised of individuals who have altered the baseball world in ways that supersede stats. The Shrine of the Eternals has welcomed several greats shunned by Cooperstown, including Roger Maris, Minnie Minoso, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, and Bill “Spaceman” Lee. Mark Fidrych was inducted in 2002.
On this date in 1976, Mark Fidrych earned his 19th and final win of the season, tossing a complete-game 4-1 victory over the Brewers. In the span of one hour and forty-six minutes, The Bird scattered five hits and allowed one earned run [in the bottom of the ninth] at County Stadium in Milwaukee. Talk about classics from yesteryear. How about complete game gems, contests that last less than two hours, and Mark Fidrych?