... a young, 21-year-old, unsophisticated rookie exploded upon the world of baseball with such a genuine, boyish enthusiasm for the game that he became, for one brief, shining season, its biggest star and its number one gate attraction.
1976 will be remembered by some as the year of America's bicentennial when the Queen of England visited Boston. Others will recall it as the year a peanut farmer from Georgia, former Gov. Jimmy Carter, confounded the pundits by getting elected president.
But many will always cherish '76 as the Year of the Bird.
It was the year that a young, 21-year-old, unsophisticated rookie exploded upon the world of baseball with such a genuine, boyish enthusiasm for the game that he became, for one brief, shining season, its biggest star and its number one gate attraction.
Mark Fidrych of Northborough, Massachusetts, was at the Detroit Tigers's spring training camp that year as a non-roster invitee, someone not expected to make the team, but who the Detroit brass wanted to get a look at before assigning him to a minor league club. But he impressed them enough that it was decided to keep him.
Manager Ralph Houk got his first taste of what an unvarnished jewel he had when he called the kid into his office to tell him he was going north with the team. Fidrych immediately excused himself and bolted from the office, leaving Houk sitting alone, wondering what was going on. After a few minutes he returned, explaining that he'd called his father to tell him he'd made the team. The kid wanted his dad to be the first to know.
For the first five weeks of the season, he sat in the bullpen, virtually unnoticed. He was used only two times, both brief relief appearances. On May 15, however, with the Tigers' rotation crippled with injuries, he was given a chance to start against the Cleveland Indians. There were less than 15,000 in the stands at Tiger Stadium, about normal for that year, when the team would finish at 74-87, second worst in the American League.
The Bird -- he'd been given the nickname by a minor league coach who thought that, with his shock of curly, sandy-colored hair, he looked like Sesame Street's Big Bird -- came through with a two-hit, two to one complete game victory. It was the way that he did it, though, that totally captivated those who saw him. He appeared to talk to the ball between pitches; at the beginning of each inning, he would crouch down and, with his bare hands, manicure the mound to his liking; he applauded his teammates when they made good plays; he marched around the mound in triumph after recording each out. He energized the other players on his team, captured the imaginations of the writers covering the game, and excited the fans in the stands. And it was all spontaneous and unrehearsed. He was a kid who simply loved playing, and it showed.
People began coming to Tiger Stadium in droves on nights he was pitching. But the baseball world at large had yet to discover him. Then, on June 28, the Tigers were at home against the Yankees for ABC-TV's Monday Night Game of the Week, and America got its first look at him on television. More than 47,000 fans packed the ballpark and another 10,000 were turned away because it was Fidrych's turn to pitch.
Words cannot adequately describe what happened that night. It looks in the boxscore like an impressive, complete game five-to-one win for Fidrych and the Tigers, but that doesn't begin to tell the story of the excitement in the stands and on the field that he created, just by being himself. The announcers kept repeating variations of the phrase, "I've never seen anything like this!" Neither had anyone else -- and neither has anyone since then. When the final out was recorded, Fidrych ran around the field, shaking the hands of his teammates, plus the umpire! When all the players had gone from the field, the crowd refused to leave the stadium, chanting, "We want the Bird! We want the Bird," until right fielder Rusty Staub went into the clubhouse and convinced him to put his shirt back on and go back out there.
None of this is hyperbole. Do yourself a favor and Google Fidrych's name. There's a lot of video of that game available, and it's all wondrous to behold.
The Bird became an overnight sensation. Houk got calls from opposing teams asking if he could adjust his pitching rotation so that Fidrych would make a start in their stadiums, thus guaranteeing a sold-out game. His picture was on the covers of national magazines. Through it all, he remained totally unspoiled and seemingly unaware of his celebrity.
Of course, none of it would have mattered much if he couldn't pitch. But he could, and he was terrific at it. He had a good fastball and slider, and he developed a changeup to keep hitters off balance. Added to that he had pinpoint control, walking fewer than two batters a game. On the season, he had 19 wins against nine losses pitching for a bad team. He led the major leagues with an ERA of 2.34, and was the runaway winner for Rookie of the Year.
It all seemed too good to last. And it was.
The following year, he hurt his knee in spring training and was out until the end of May. Then, in early July, he felt his arm go dead, and was shut down for the season. He had suffered a torn rotator cuff, an injury that was not diagnosed until 1985, too late to save his career. He soldiered on for several seasons before being released by the Tigers in 1981. The Red Sox signed him, but he was unable to make it beyond Pawtucket.
Still in his 20s, he was forced to retire. He returned to his hometown, happily married, and fathered a daughter. He bought a farm and a 10-wheel truck, and remained the unspoiled, free spirit he'd always been.
In 2009, he died in a tragic accident while doing maintenance work on his truck.
He never showed any bitterness or rancor over having his career cut so short. He always expressed gratitude for what he had been given. As he said it, "I got a family, I got a farm, I got a dog. I would have liked my career to have been longer, but you can't look back."
Those of us who love baseball will always be grateful to him and to his memory for the one magical season he gave us -- the Year of the Bird.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.
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