While we’re on the subject of birds, I have to say I was bummed to learn of the passing of Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. As an eleven-year-old Tigers’ fan, I was at ground zero for the Bird-mania that swept the nation in 1976. Fidrych was a rookie Tigers’ pitcher, who, out of nowhere, won 19 games, was rookie of the year and runner up for the Cy Young award. But more than just winning a bunch of games, his on-the-mound antics were utterly weird, bizarre and down right charming. He would talk to the ball, pace the mound nervously, smooth the dirt on the mound until things were to his liking, and then he’d throw strikes. Fidrych was a light on an otherwise bleak sports landscape in the mid-70s Motor City. The Tigers were a year removed from a league-worst 100 loss season, the Wings were settling into their “Dead Wings” era and the Lions were a guaranteed 7-7 or 6-8 team. The Pistons were the only team likely to be playoff bound, anchored by Bob Lanier and current Detroit Mayoral candidate Dave Bing, but you could count on them getting bounced in the first round by Lew Alcindor’s Milwaukee Bucks. So for an eleven year old who only knew from crappy sports teams, the Bird was a godsend. Whenever he pitched you turned on the radio and listened to Ernie Harwell do the play-by-play and after a called third strike (likely when Fidrych was pitching) he’d say stuff like “He stood there like a house by the side of the road and watched that one go by.” The Tigers were probably averaging 10,000 a game in ’74 and ‘75, but when Bird pitched, Tiger Stadium was filled to its 40,000 + capacity. When Bird pitched, the Tigers were national news, being regularly featured on the national games of the week. All of that was novel and exciting for an eleven year old. When we’d play ball at each other’s houses we all pretended to be Mark Fidrych. It beat pretending to be Joe Coleman, Aurelio Rodriguez or Tom Veryzer.
Fidrych was one of those guys that everyone seemed to love. Not just Tigers’ fans. Everyone in the game loved the guy. There was something about his charm, his innocence and his down hominess that clicked. There was no affectation, no put on. He was just this fun, lovable weirdo who did his job really, really well. Better than anyone could have imagined. In a day and age when no one comes out of nowhere, where athletes are groomed from high school to be superstars, where rookies command millions and have image consultants, it’s nice to be reminded of an era when someone could take the world by storm just by being themselves.