By John Council
During the 1976 Major League baseball season there were any number of Hall of Fame bound players to become obsessed with --- take your pick from the rosters of the New York Yankees or the Cincinnati Reds. Nevertheless, America spent its Bicentennial Celebration year in love with a rookie pitcher for the woeful Detroit Tigers who'd really only have one good year.
His name was Mark "The Bird" Fidrych. And he was possibly the weirdest guy ever to play the game.
Selected by Detroit in the 10th round of the draft in 1974, Fidrych got his nickname from coaches in the minor leagues because his lanky 6 foot 2 inch frame and mop of yellow curly hair made him a dead ringer for the lovable (insufferable?) Big Bird from PBS's Sesame Street.
Fidrych made the Tigers as a non-roster invitee to the 1976 spring training camp and on May 15 of that year, major baseball got a load of what Fidrych was all about during his first start. In an effort to psych himself into striking out batters, Fidrych would talk to the baseball with words of encouragement. He strutted around the mound after every out and patted the dirt refusing the groundkeepers attempts to sweep it. And he drove umpires crazy with his rejection of baseballs, refusing to use one if an opposing player got a hit and even fresh ones if he thought they had dents.
Fidrych's methods were "weeeuhhd" as he'd say in his Boston accent, but they worked. In that first start, he held the Cleveland Indians hitless through six innings and wound up with a two hit, 2-1 complete game win.
Fidrych kept repeating that performance, racking up numerous complete game victories before the All-Star break including a June 28th appearance on ABC's Monday Night Baseball in which he mowed down the Yankees in a 5-1 victory before an audience of millions that made him a national celebrity. That was the game in which the crowd of 47,855 fans at Tigers Stadium would not leave until The Bird came out of the dugout for a curtain call.
All of the sudden, Fidrych was everywhere. He made the cover of The Sporting News, Sports Illustrated (twice, including the memorable cover of him mugging with Sesame Street's Big Bird) and Rolling Stone (the only baseball player ever to appear on front of the rock publication.) He did an Aqua Velva TV commercial. And teams starting asking the Tigers if they wouldn't mind changing the pitching rotation so Fidrych could appear at their ballparks.
Fidrych made the All-Star Team (he was the starting pitcher for the AL) won the AL Rookie of the Year Award and led the MLB in ERA at 2.34.
At the end of his spectacular rookie season, Detroit handed Fidrych a $25,000 bonus and signed him to a three-year contract worth $255,000. He spent most of those earnings buying a 121 acre plot of land outside his hometown.
But as happens with young pitchers who pitched complete games in the era before managers watched pitch counts, Fidrych's arm didn't last much longer. After injuring his knee messing around in the outfield during 1977 spring training,
Fidrych came back to the majors only to feel his arm "go dead" in his words during a July 4th game against Baltimore after Eddie Murray smacked a two-run homer off him.
He wouldn't learn until years later that he'd suffered a torn rotator cuff. Fidrych finished that year 6-4 and attempted many comebacks until he was finally released by the Tigers in 1980.
Fidrych attempted doing baseball color commentary on television for awhile, but it didn't work out because he had a habit of saying "bullshit" on the air. He eventually headed back to his plot of land in central Massachusetts, bought a dump truck and became a licensed commercial truck driver when he wasn't tending to his farm.
"No, I'm not a farmer," Fidrych told Sport Illustrated after he retired from baseball. "You don't make any money doing this. You do it because it's something to do. You do it because it keeps you going. I'm in love with my land. I got it all from playing ball. It gives me prestige. Someone says, 'What you got?' I say, 'One hundred and twenty-one acres of nice land.' "
Fidrych died on his land on April 13, 2009 at age 54. He was working under his dump truck when his clothes apparently got stuck in a spinning drive shaft and suffocated him. The state medical examiner's office ruled Fidrych's death accidental.