April 28, 2017

Forty Years Ago The Bird Had His Coming Out Party on a Monday Night

June 22, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Forty years. Does it seem that long? Not to those who witnessed it. They can remember the emotion–and fun–just like it was yesterday. June 28, 1976 Mark Fidrych, aka The Bird, had the biggest coming out party in the history of Monday Night Baseball. Fidrych was a local phenom in Detroit, but the rest of the country hadn’t seen him yet. When the national audience tuned in that night, they were treated to a two-hour party, the likes of which had never been seen in a baseball stadium, and would never be repeated. By the next morning, the small town rookie pitcher would be the most famous man in America.

The following is an excerpt from The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych:

They had never seen anything like it.

For a month stories had been leaking out of Detroit of a curious phenomenon—a 21-year-old rookie pitcher, who seemingly came out of nowhere, who was as wildly popular and flaky as he was talented. He not only filled stadiums and won games, he manicured the mound on his hands and knees and talked to the ball before pitching. His name was Mark Fidrych but he was known as The Bird because he looked like Big Bird, that large yellow curly-headed muppet that was all the rage at the time on the kid’s show Sesame Street.

Baseball in 1976 was in dire straights. The reserve clause had been struck down and the Pandora ’s Box of free agency had been opened. A large number of players were openly talking of playing out their options at the end of the season and defecting—abandoning their teams for the highest bidder. The owners had locked out the players in spring training due to squabbles over the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Fans, disheartened by the greed which had taken over the game, were sick of hearing about lawyers, agents and astronomical salaries.

In the seventies, baseball fans got to see two, and only two, nationally televised games each week: the traditional Saturday Afternoon Game of the Week and the newer Monday Night Game. There was no cable; no ESPN. That was it—two games a week. And everybody watched them. Some smart network guy decided that the late June match up in Detroit between the division-leading Yankees and the Tigers would be a good game to put on. This young bird guy was scheduled to pitch; might be interesting television. Interesting television indeed. That night the country was treated to nothing short of a cultural iconic event. Witnesses would forever remember it as part of the times–the baseball equivalent of the Beatles on the Sullivan show.

The powerful Yankees would go to the World Series that October for the first of three consecutive years, but on this night, they were merely straight men: Washington Generals to The Bird’s Globetrotters. The 18 million viewers across the country were treated to The Bird’s full array of antics. They saw him hopping excitedly out of the dugout to congratulate teammate Rusty Staub after a first-inning home run. They saw him sprinting on and off the field between innings, like he couldn’t wait to get there, then couldn’t wait to get back and tell everyone how much fun he had. They saw him rush over to shake hands with fielders after routine plays. Twice the cameras showed him patting down the mound, carefully arranging the dirt. “That’s not a member of theDetroit ground crew you see,” said the announcer the first time. “That’s Mark Fidrych.”

The Bird’s exuberance and joy were plainly evident. This guy was actually enjoying himself—having fun playing baseball, like we all used to when we were kids. And, what’s more, the camera repeatedly caught him between pitches, standing on the mound, his hands together with the ball in his glove held out in front of his face—with his lips moving. He was talking. Talking to the ball. The total package was just too much. The unexpected pleasure of it all mesmerized both the television audience at home and the announcers in the booth and they were swept up in the emotion of the night as it built to the finish.

When the Yankees came to the plate in the top of the ninth, down 5-1 with The Bird still on the mound, the fans were delirious. The atmosphere was electric. “I’ve seen a lot of ball games played and I’ve caught a few,” the announcer said, “but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pitcher this keyed up in the ninth inning of a ball game, or all through the ball game. You’d think this guy would be running out of gas by now, but he is just starting to heat it up.”

“He’s giving me duck bumps,” said the other announcer.

With the fans on their feet, screaming, “Let’s go Mark,” the kid mowed down the Yankees in the final inning. After the last out, an easy ground ball to second, Fidrych ran all over the field, shaking his teammates’ hands. He grabbed the umpire’s hand and pumped it. Who shakes hands with an umpire? “And the Tigers act like Fidrych has just won the seventh game of the World Series,” the announcer intoned.

And then, the most remarkable thing of the whole evening occurred: nobody went home. Even after the players had filed through the dugout into the clubhouse and the field was empty, nobody went home. The fans remained standing, screaming, “We want The Bird, We want The Bird.” Five, ten minutes after the game had ended, the camera panned through the stadium and it was still completely filled with standing, screaming fans. In 1976, the curtain call was not in vogue in baseball—but it was about to make a dramatic comeback.

Fidrych was pushed out of the dugout by his teammates and the stadium exploded. He stood in his socks, shrugging, smiling and flapping his arms. He waved to the crowd, tipped his cap, then covered his head with both hands like an embarrassed third grader who has just realized everyone is looking at him. With incredible, unmistakable joy on his face, he shook hands with his teammates and tried to get them to come out with him, but they stayed in the dugout, understanding that the moment belonged to Mark.

He leaned over the roof of the dugout and shook hands with fans. He shook hands with the cop standing next to the dugout. Who shakes hands with a cop? Announcer Bob Uecker grabbed the kid for an interview and introduced him to the nation. Mark’s face glowed. He radiated enthusiasm and happiness. As he talked about the game he sounded like a ten year old describing his first trip to Disney World. “You’ve got a home here,” said Uecker nodding to the fans who were still cheering madly. “I love it,” the kid gushed. And the best part of it all was that it was real. It wasn’t an act.

This one evening would ignite an unprecedented frenzy which would play out over the next three months. The nation would fall in love with The Bird’s enthusiasm, spontaneity, genuineness, celebrated goofiness and the fact that he was happy doing it all for the major league minimum of $16,500 a year. Fans and the media simply would not be able to get enough of him. He would achieve a level of cross-over popularity which has not been approached by a baseball player since. He would appear on the covers of Sport, Sports Illustrated, Baseball Digest, The Sporting News,The New York Times Saturday Magazine, Parade Magazine and would become the first team-sport athlete ever to grace the cover of Rolling Stone.

He would be the starting pitcher in the All-Star game and dominate the media coverage of that event like few ever had before. He would bring almost a million people to stadiums around the country in his 29 starts that season (single-handedly outdrawing three teams) and, more importantly, would cause millions more, young and old, to become baseball fans. He would be held up as an example of all that was right with baseball, the savior of the game, the answer to the greed which had threatened the national pastime.

A rival manager would state, “Babe Ruth never created this much attention on his best day,” and no one would doubt him. The commissioner of baseball would coin the term “The Mark Fidrych Syndrome” as a symbol of hope for future generations of baseball fans. In his meteoric streak across the consciousness of America, Mark ‘The Bird’ Fidrych would become as much of a 1970s pop cultural icon as Evil Knieval, Saturday Night Fever, Jaws, the Six-million dollar man, and, dare we say it, Fonzie before he jumped the shark.

That would all come later, however. On this night, as the fans and The Bird celebrated the moment, the announcers, try as they might, seemed at a loss to find the correct words to sum up what they were seeing. But they all agreed on one thing: they had never seen anything like it.

 

Doug Wilson is the author of The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych, along with biographies of Fred Hutchinson, Brooks Robinson and Carlton Fisk. Visit him at http://dougwilsonbaseball.blogspot.com/

 

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