40 years after: the season ‘The Bird’ transfixed baseball fans

Mark Fidrych burst on the scene in 1976 with the Detroit Tigers.
A record player
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Photo: National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, N.Y.

I never saw Mark “The Bird” Fidrych in person. I’m not even sure I saw him pitch on television much beyond his breakout performance on ABC’s “Monday Night Baseball” on June 28, 1976.

That night was all I needed to know that he was one of a kind.

I was part of the nationwide audience that tuned in that night, most of us knowing little or nothing about the curly haired Detroit Tigers pitcher who was said to resemble Big Bird from “Sesame Street.”

It wasn’t just that Fidrych dominated the hated New York Yankees, it was the way in which he did it. I don’t mean his pitch assortment but rather his mannerisms: talking to the ball or himself, running off the mound to the dugout, manicuring the mound on his hands and knees.

Fitting for the bicentennial, Fidrych was a true American original.

I turned 9 four days after my first glimpse of Fidrych. I soon had his poster above my bed. The Boston Red Sox have always been my team, but Fidrych will always be my favorite player.

‘Giving me duckbumps’

“I’ve gotta tell you,” said Bob Uecker, one of the “Monday Night Baseball” broadcasters that June night 40 years ago. “I’ve seen a lot of ballgames played, and I’ve caught a few. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pitcher this keyed up in the ninth inning of a ballgame, or all through the ballgame. You’d think this guy would be running out of gas by now or starting to get down a bit, but he’s just starting to heat it up.”

Bob Prince, the legendary Pittsburgh Pirates broadcaster, also was part of the “Monday Night Baseball” team.

“What’s getting me is he’s giving me duckbumps,” he said, “and I’ve watched over 8,000 ballgames.“ In 35 years in baseball, he said, he had never seen anything like it.

To witness Fidrych’s unbridled joy when the final Yankee grounded out, you might think the Tigers had just won the World Series. He shook the hands of an umpire, a police officer, and fans near the dugout.

The huge crowd stood and cheered, unwilling to leave and willing Fidrych to come back out on the field. He sheepishly obliged, clearly in disbelief at what he himself was creating, conducting a post-game interview on the field in his stocking feet.

A rock star

Fidrych beat the Yankees, 5-1, en route to a 19-9 record and a league-best 2.34 earned-run average. He completed a league-high 24 games,  including back-to-back 11-inning starts.

He won the American League rookie of the year award, started the all-star game, and finished second in voting for the Cy Young Award, which recognizes the best pitcher.

It was nothing short of incredible, particularly given that he had been a non-roster invitee to spring training, didn’t make his debut until April 20, and didn’t get his first start until May 15.

He turned 22 that season.

Fidrych was a rock star. In fact, to this day he is the only baseball player to have graced the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. A Fidrych start was good for an extra 17,180 fans in attendance at Tigers home games. He was a big attraction on the road, too.

But Fidrych also was a one-hit wonder, a knee injury in spring training 1977 then succeeded by a shoulder injury that summer. He pitched in only 27 more Major League games across the next four seasons before the Tigers released him.

He signed with the Boston Red Sox, struggling through two seasons with the club’s top minor-league affiliate before calling it quits at 28.

After baseball, Fidrych lived in Northborough, Mass., where he operated a dump truck, hauling gravel and asphalt.

On the afternoon of April 13, 2009, I was on the phone with my brother. We were discussing the death only hours earlier of Philadelphia Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas when another online story caught my attention.

Fidrych apparently was trying to work on something beneath his truck when his clothing became entangled in spinning part. He died from suffocation at age 54.

Some years before he died, after I had read about his family connections to Chet’s Diner in Northborough, I called there and an engaging woman confirmed that Fidrych helped out there, making corn beef hash. She told me there was a baseball field by the diner, too.

So on one of my return trips from Maine, I stopped at Chet’s. I had a baseball with me and a hope of tracking down Fidrych to sign it. But for whatever reason, I didn’t have the gumption to ask how I could find him.

I shared that anecdote last spring with Steve Wynn, who wrote a song for his band The Baseball Project about Fidrych. It’s called “1976” and includes these lines:

What does it say for the rest of us
When our heroes die and leave us alone?
What does it say for the rest of us
When we wake up and find this bird has flown?

I love baseball as much as I ever have, but today’s players seem so cookie cutter: big metal necklaces, tattoos covering their arms, skyward motions at every possible opportunity.

They all pale in comparison with Fidrych. Then again, he was in a league by himself.

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