The Bird who saved baseball for me!
It must have been back in 1974 or 75 when I became a flake. I was just a short, skinny kid with glasses pitching for my high school baseball team in addition to being one who threw with an unorthodox cross between sidearm and submarine delivery. Now, you must remember that this was before anyone ever heard of Dan Quisenberry or Kent Tekulve. So most people thought I was weird. On top of that, many of my teammates and/or coaches didn’t understand why I liked reading a book for relaxation between innings. Or couldn’t understand my warming up underhand during the later innings…
The simple reason was I was saving my arm for the game.
Around that time, there was a guy who pitched in the major leagues named Bill “Spaceman” Lee. He quickly became my hero. Of course, some of my teammates felt that he was more of a role model. The Spaceman might not have been the original “flake” but he did seem to take the responsibility seriously. As for me, I liked him because he was a good pitcher and competitor. Plus everything that he said or did made sense, at least to me. What was wrong with that?
Then it eventually happened! Upon graduating high school, baseball didn’t seem important anymore. I cared more about Bruce Springsteen than what teams played in the World Series. I was more concerned with how much it would cost to fill up my gas tank instead of who was voted NL MVP…
Is this what getting older was like?
“Well, everybody knows that the bird is the word
A-well a bird, bird, b-bird’s the word…” - The Trash men (1963)
During the fall of 1975, Detroit’s Ralph Houk was visiting the Florida Instructional League. Looking out on the diamond he spotted this tall, skinny kid with frizzy hair. The Tiger’s manager thought,
“He’s really something…”
Houk’s Tigers finished 57-102 in 1975, so almost anything seemed like something ! His team also owned the second highest ERA in the American League. His two best pitchers finished second to the leader with the most losses, one of them even led the league in wild pitches and other in hit batsmen. So who could blame him for getting excited by some kid pitching in the instructional league?
To prove that Ralph was impressed, he decided to take a chance on the kid during on the kid bypassing Dave Lemanczyk, Bill Slayback and Fernando Arroyo after spring training. The kid who caught the former Yankee manager and Army major, was Mark Fidrych or the “Bird.” He was bestowed that nickname by an old teammate at Bristol in the Appalachian League. The teammate noticed that Fidrych bore an uncanny resemblance to Big Bird on Sesame Street. The player also informed him that if he ever made it to the majors, the nickname would follow…
“Never refer to me as an item. I’m a bird.” -Big Bird (Sesame Street)
The young pitcher from Northborough was eccentric, he did things like crouching down to smooth away his cleat marks on the mound. This became known as his way of “manicuring the mound.” Mark explained that he filled up the hole so he could make his own and not try to adjust to someone else’s. Another explanation was:
“That’s just my way of concentrating and keeping my head in the game.”
Mark had conversations with the ball. Although he claimed that it was more like talking to himself, reminding himself what he did wrong with a certain pitch.
Sometimes he aimed the ball like a dart. He threw back balls that felt like they had hits in them. In fact, during his first major league game on May 15, 1976, Rico Carty thought he was trying to hypnotize the Cleveland team. Judging from the end results of that game, he successively psyched the Cleveland team out whether intentionally or unintentionally.
During one game the Bird refused to let the grounds crew fix the mound in the 6th inning. Instead he helped himself to a handful of dirt from the wheelbarrow and patted it in place.
“Why should I let them mess up the mound when I had a no-hitter going?”
Fidrych retired the first fourteen Indians batters. He had a no-hitter going into the seventh inning.
The following are some of the conversations that Mark had with his self:
“When I walked a batter in the fifth, I said, there goes my perfect game!”
“Then when I gave up the hit in the seventh, ‘Well, you lost that too, but you’ve still got the shut out, but when I lost that…’Now all you got left is the win, and you’d better get that!’”
Which he did 2-1 with a two hitter!
Well, that game was all over the news the next day. At the time, I was working at a Tenneco Chemicals vinyl factory at the time, life was great, had my own apartment and hung out in gin mills and played pool for money. Although hearing about the game was entertaining, but one game wasn’t enough to get me back into baseball again.
“ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ. If I ever find out what this word can mean, I’ll be the smartest bird that the world has ever seen!” -Big Bird
It wouldn’t be until be June 28th that I saw the “Bird” pitch for the first time. He beat the Yankees on a nationally televised game. I vaguely remember turning on the television at my parent’s house. It was Monday Night Baseball on ABC. The announcers were Bob Prince and Warner Wolf. I finally got to watch this young Tiger’s pitcher that everyone was making such a fuss about!
“Mark Fidrych is the most exciting thing to happen to Detroit since Denny McLain pulled his gun.” -Dick Young
I can remember hoping that he make it past the third inning. Since there was so much hoopla surrounding the kid,I was sure that the hype would end sometime.
Then this tall, skinny kid with frizzy hair, wearing number 20 for the Detroit Tigers goes out to the mound showered by a tremendous applause! When he began to warm up, the fans cheered. After he Bruce Kimm tossed the ball back to him for the start of the game, the Bird got down on his right knee to put the dirt in place with his left hand, which of course was followed by another thunderous ovation. Later he talks to the ball and another ovation.
“One guy I pitched to pointed to his bat and then pointed to right field. That was funny. I can’t remember who it was but he popped up. I think he was trying some kind of psych or something.” -Mark Fidrych
Fidrych shuts down the Yankees in the first. The ageless, Rusty Staub supplies all the runs that the Bird needed that night with a two run homer during the bottom half of the inning.
Mickey Rivers, who had a 20 game hitting streak severed when Mark Fidrych collared him on four infield groundouts. It was the longest hitting streak by a Yankee player since 1942. (Buddy Hassett)
Elrod Hendricks connected with a solo, his third homerun of the year at the top of the second. Aurelio Rodriguez hit a homer in the seventh, and then Detroit pushed two more across in the eighth. The fans greet the young pitcher after the last out of the final three innings with an ear rattling applause!
After the game, Thurman Munson called him “bush.”
Mark ran off of the mound to disappear in the dugout. The crowd called for him to reappear. Which he did minus his shoes to acknowledge the curtain call. Bob Uecker interviewed him for the national television audience.
Seemingly overwhelmed, “I didn’t bring all these people here.” -Mark Fidrych
In the booth, Bob Prince said the ovation was the closest think he ever saw since the day Dale Long hit his seventh homer in seven consecutive games.
Yes, 1976 was a magical year. It reacquainted me with the game that I love. And what a year Mark “The Bird” Fidrych would have:
19-9, 2.34 (second in the league), the first rookie pitcher to start an All-Star game and voted the Rookie of the Year!
Everything seemed to continue well for the Bird in 1977…then he tore some cartilage in his knee fooling around in the outfield during spring training.
His first start (May 27th) resulted in a 2-1 lost to the Seattle Mariners. Some miscues cost him the game but he defended his teammates like. Concerning Tito Fuentes’ he observed, “It almost took his head off!” Mark would win his first game (June 6th) of the season with an 8-0 shutout over the Angels. His arm would go dead and although he was selected for the All-Star game, he declined. Mark finished the year at 6-4, 2.89.
In 1978 he only pitched in 3 games but won two. His last major league game was on October 1, 1980. He would retire after 1983. His career numbers were 29-19, 3.10. The Bird started 56 games and completed 34. It was an amazing ride!
“Them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye. And singing, this will be the day that I die. This will be the day that I die!” – Don McLean
Mark Steven “Bird” Fidrych died on April 13, 2009.
“He was a humble man, who was loved by all.” The Reverend Judith E. Wright eulogized at the funeral. They sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” There was a ceremonial first pitch thrown by Mark’s brother in-law Rich Duda and their nephew Charles Grogan.
“He was a trailblazer. Everyone playing in the major leagues owes him a debt of gratitude to Mark Fidrych. He brought baseball back to the people. He made it popular again. He helped save the game.” -Willie Horton
I for one am thankful to him for reacquainting me with the game I love. Thank you Bird!