The Bird is the Word

The Core Belief

I got the voice message from my mother very early Tuesday morning.  The news she conveyed in a quick, short burst was heartbreaking: Mark ‘The Bird’ Fidrych was dead at the age 54.  My eyes got moist and there was a knot in my gut.  “The Bird”, the Detroit Tigers right-handed pitcher who won the 1976 Rookie of the Year Award was gone.

Most of you will remember the man as a true eccentric: he talked to the ball, filled in holes on the mound on his hands and knees in between innings and ran out to congratulate his fielders when they made a great play; baseball’s version of a 1970’s fad, kind of like a pet rock.  However, Mark was more than that as a pitcher, possessing pinpoint control and a fastball with heavy sinking action.  Fidrych’s true calling card was his wide-eyed naïveté, the passion for the game of baseball and his joy of just being able to pitch in the major leagues.

1976 was a horrible time for the Tigers; just the year before they had finished with the worst record in baseball and the city was in a dire state that rivals it’s 2009’s version.  The major difference being there were still over a million people living in the city back then.  On May 15 of that year, ‘The Bird’ a non-roster invitee to spring training who was the very last man to make the team when before they came north, was handed the ball for an emergency start.  He promptly beat the Cleveland Indians 2-1 in a complete game thriller.

By June of that year, the only times the Tiger’s seemed to win was when Mark Fidrych got the ball.  Nicknamed ‘The Bird’ because his gangly body and blonde curls reminded several sports writers of Sesame Street’s Big Bird, he made the cover of Sport Illustrated and was the featured starter on ABC’s short lived Monday Night Baseball.  By the end of the season, he was 19-9 with a 2.34 ERA, as well as a full-fledged cultural phenomenon.

My brother’s and I made a large banner out of a white sheet in hopes to get noticed by the national media when the Seattle Mariner’s came to town in July of that year.  The Old Man didn’t quite understand what all the fuss was about “Some schmuck talks to a baseball?  Who gives a shit,” he mumbled.  Nonetheless, he made sure we had primo box seats on the first baseline and attempted to influence a cameraman to film his boys.  Of course it didn’t work, the game was the event after all, but I was struck by just how many people had crowed into Tiger Stadium.  The announced attendance was (I believe) 42,000 but it was probably closer to 50,000 and the Kitties lost.  I don’t remember the score but the headline in the next day’s Free Press was worthy of the Post: ‘Seattle Slew The Bird’ it read.

The next year ‘The Bird’ blew out his knee and by 1980, he was out of baseball.   

I understand that those of you who grew up anywhere else in the country may not understand just how important this self-described hick from Massachusetts was to the 8 million residents of the state of Michigan and metropolitan Detroit area.   We followed Fidrych’s meteoric rise and quick burnout and then rooted for a comeback that wasn’t to be.  Through it all, the man never changed.  The sheer energy, optimism and joy he was able to project remained.  For those of us of that era, he embodied what President Obama called “The Audacity of Hope.”  And hope is something Detroit and Michigan need desperately right now.

So, if the Great Magnet decided to take this man in a farm accident long before his time, hope must be something that is in very short supply all over.

Good luck, my friend.  We’ll see you again on Judgment Day.  Oh yeah, DON’T PISS OFF TY COBB!  He’s been known to go after his own as well as the opponent.





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Every Friday, get 2 for 1 movie tickets when you use your Visa Signature card.

Recent Comments