Remembering when The Bird mesmerized baseball — and the baseball – Detroit Free Press

Six days before Americans gathered to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial, attention was drawn to Detroit where 18 million viewers watching ABC’s “Monday Night Baseball” were first introduced to Tigers rookie pitcher Mark (The Bird) Fidrych when he faced the first-place New York Yankees.

Though the game — Tuesday marks 40 years ago to the day — was blacked out in Detroit, 48,000 fans who packed into Tiger Stadium were treated to an experience they would never forget.

For just that one remarkable season in the summer of 1976, the lanky 21-year-old Fidrych, nicknamed for television’s Big Bird of “Sesame Street” because of his flowing curly blond locks, quickly became one of the most endearing figures in baseball and Detroit. He also created renewed interest in a sport that had suffered through labor pains and lower attendance.

Fans were enthralled by his schoolboy enthusiasm and field antics that included manicuring the mound on one knee before every inning, talking to himself out loud, aiming the ball like a dart, nervously strutting between outs, and thanking teammates, umpires and whoever was around after every victory that typically included a curtain call in Detroit.

“I talked to older guys who knew the Babe Ruth era and they said there was more excitement that summer than ever because Fid brought fun back to the game,” former teammate John Wockenfuss said.

Fidrych, whose promising career was shortened by injuries and who died in 2009 on his Massachusetts farm at age 54, is now the subject of a MLB Network documentary that will air in July.

When The Bird stepped onto the mound and the national stage on June 28, 1976, he was supported by an intriguing script that had developed in just a two-month period.

Twenty months after graduating from high school and then rising from Class-A minor league ball to Triple-A within a four-month period, Fidrych was a non-roster invitee at the 1976 Tigers spring training camp but made the major league roster thanks to Tigers manager Ralph Houk, who was impressed with the young pitcher.

After just two brief relief appearances in which he faced six batters in the first month of the season, Fidrych was given his first major league start on May 15 against Cleveland at Tiger Stadium in front of 14,853 fans that was a regional TV broadcast described by George Kell and Al Kaline.

Mesmerized by his quirky antics and childlike exuberance, the Detroit love affair for Fidrych started when the rookie took a no-hitter into the seventh inning before a complete-game 2-1 victory allowing just two hits.

Even though he lost his second start in a complete-game 2-0 loss to Boston’s Luis Tiant, Fidrych reeled off six consecutive complete-game victories and soon fans were buying buttons that said “The Bird is the Word.”

The excitement surrounding the highly promoted “Monday Night Baseball” game on ABC was evident when fans descended upon Tiger Stadium to grab remaining seats more than an hour before game time only to learn from the masses walking away from the ballpark that it was a sellout.

Fans weren’t there to see the Yankees face the 32-35 Tigers. It was to see the rookie sensation with a 7-1 record and a 2.18 ERA now being whispered as a candidate for the All-Star Game and AL Rookie of the Year honors.

Mike Cramer, a Chicago attorney who grew up in Grosse Pointe Woods, fondly remembers as a 12-year-old watching The Bird’s magic that evening while sitting in the lower leftfield grandstands.

“I saw the Cubs win two playoff games at Wrigley Field last year and it was fun and electric, but it wasn’t nearly at the fever pitch that night as the game progressed,” Cramer said.

Bob Uecker, who along with Bob Prince and Warner Wolf called the action for ABC, warned the new Bird watchers.

“He’s one of the funniest guys I have seen come along in baseball in a long time. He has outstanding stuff and you’re going to see a lot of antics from this young right-hander tonight.”

As noted in his 2013 biography, “The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych,” author Doug Wilson wrote: “Mark seemed to be all Prince, Uecker and Wolf were able to talk about on the air as they only occasionally interrupted their discussions of The Bird to inject minor details such as the batter, score and inning. The actual game seemed secondary.”

At one point Prince declared, “he’s giving me duck bumps and I’ve watched over 8,000 games. He’s some kind of unbelievable.”

The cameras were almost always focused on Fidrych as he sprinted to the dugout after a third out, worked on his mound landscaping and pointed the ball toward home plate while seemingly talking to the ball.

With a 5-1 Tigers lead in the ninth inning, thanks mainly to home runs by Rusty Staub and Aurelio Rodriguez, Tigers fans were on their feet yelling support for Fidrych when Elrod Hendricks hit a weak grounder to second baseman Pedro Garcia for the third out in a game that took only 1 hour and 51 minutes.

“It’s over!” Wolf yelled into his ABC microphone. “The Tigers act like Fidrych has just won the seventh game of the World Series” while later declaring, “he has won this town.”

After shaking hands with his teammates, umpires and a policeman standing on top of the Tigers dugout, Fidrych ran into the locker room where he would remain for several minutes before teammates convinced him to go back to the field for a curtain call.

The crowd would not leave.

“I’ve been in baseball 35 years and I have never in my life seen anything to equal this,” Prince said.

“Someone started the chant ‘We Want The Bird’ and soon everyone in the stands joined in. It was extremely loud,” said Cramer, who in 2009 wrote and produced an independent historical fiction film “Dear Mr. Fidrych” that pays homage to his hero.

“It was like cheering for an encore at a rock concert with a long delay as we wondered if he would ever come out.”

Finally, Wolf yelled into his microphone, “Here he comes! Here he comes! This is unbelievable!”

“When he emerged from the dugout everybody went absolutely berserk,” Cramer said. “I of course couldn’t drink beer at 12, but I can tell you I was hung over the next day from the excitement.”

After his June 28 national debut, Fidrych became the darling of baseball, graced the covers of magazines, started the All-Star Game in Philadelphia along with teammates Ron LeFlore and Staub, and was selected the American League Rookie of the Year after posting a record of 19-9 record while leading the AL in complete games (24 out of 29 starts) and the majors with a 2.34 ERA.

LeFlore, Detroit’s centerfielder, loved playing behind The Bird, like his other teammates.

“We liked that he threw strikes and worked fast and we knew it would not be a long game,” LeFlore said from his home in Florida. “Because of that we were always on our toes and wanted to make plays for him.”

Mickey Stanley played in left field that magical night.

“He was so great for baseball, the biggest draw there was, and the amazing thing is he filled the stadiums when we were on the road,” Stanley said. “He challenged the hitters, even though he didn’t know who they were. It was ‘Either I beat him or he beats me.’ But more importantly to me, Mark was simply a great human being, honest and sincere. He was such a good kid.”

In his next start, Fidrych threw a complete game four-hitter to defeat the Baltimore Orioles, 4-0, at Tiger Stadium in front of 51,032 fans.

Baltimore slugger and Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson went 0-4 against The Bird.

“His antics never really bothered me because I looked at as a great show,” Jackson said Sunday. “His success was at such a high level that you had to respect what he was doing. I did enjoy how he got excited when guys made great plays behind him. That was cool and part of him being a kid while he was playing the game. He refused to grow up, which was super. He threw hard, kept the ball down and it had really good movement. He had an unhittable slider, what we call an electric slider, and had great control with it. Mark created a great deal of excitement that was special and unique and it was very sad for him and baseball when he had the arm trouble.”

According to Wilson, Fidrych’s biographer, Fidrych drew 901,239 fans in his 29 starts and almost single-handedly outdrew the Twins, A’s, White Sox and Indians. The Tigers averaged 18,338 fans per game during the 1976 season but drew 33,649 per game when Fidrych pitched.

Despite his success, his fame never went to his head.

“He was the same guy I met as a non-roster invitee in spring training as he was all through the season,” former locker mate John Hiller said. “I was so impressed with everything he did, how he handled himself, his work ethic and how he had time for everyone. He was so great with the fans.”

In recognition for his efforts, the Tigers gave Fidrych an estimated $34,500 bonus on top of his $19,000 salary and signed him to a three-year contract totaling an estimated $270,000.

Recognized as one of the game’s best pitchers with a personality that invigorated the game, Fidrych’s career looked promising.

But then the superstar fell as quickly as he had risen.

While playfully shagging balls in the outfield at spring training the next season he injured his knee. Although he returned to mound on May 27 to great fanfare and had an impressive 6-2 start, in the July 4 game the Baltimore Orioles, his arm went dead.

He would never be the same.

For the next seven years, Fidrych struggled to come back from his arm injury, which included a Triple-A stint in Evansville, Ind., under then-manager Jim Leyland.

Fidrych would have only 19 more major league starts through the 1980 season, posting a record of 4-8. He did win his final major league start at Torontoon Oct. 1, 1980, but was pulled after five innings.

Leyland will never forget Fidrych’s last game at Evansville in 1980 before being called up to Detroit.

“Mark was such a great kid and we tried everything we could to get him back to the big leagues,” Leyland said. “Even in the minors he would fill stadiums because everyone wanted to see him. The day he got called up he walked into our locker room with grease all over him because he changed the oil in our catcher’s car. After he pitched that night he went around and shook everyone’s hands.”

Fidrych returned to Evansville for all of the 1981 season before being released by the Tigers. Signed by the Boston Red Sox, he played for Triple-A Pawtucket in 1982 and 1983 until finally quitting at 28.

After his retirement, Fidrych returned to his hometown of Northborough, Mass., where he purchased a farm, became a licensed commercial truck driver and married in 1986. A year later, Fidrych’s only child, Jessica, was born. Over the years, he made countless appearances for charity groups and continued to make himself accessible to his fans.

On April 13, 2009, he died in an accident while working underneath his truck on the farm.

Former Tigers great Willie Horton was one of the eulogists at Fidrych’s funeral service.

“I told everyone that Mark was a beautiful young man, a special human being who loved life and people,” Horton said. “He is one of my heroes. Mark really helped baseball by bringing attention back to the game, and I think he should be recognized in some way at Cooperstown.”

With tears welling up in people’s eyes, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was played near the end of The Bird’s funeral.

Watch a replay

Mark Fidrych’s breakout performance on ABC’s “Monday Night Baseball” against the Yankees on June 28, 1976, will be shown at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Cinema Detroit, 4126 Third St. The Navin Field Grounds Crew is collaborating on the free event. The theater holds 90 people. Doors open at 6 p.m.

‘The Bird’ film

A new documentary about Fidrych will air on the MLB Network in July. More details are expected to be released this week. A private screening will take place Wednesday at Sound Board inside MotorCity Casino.

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