Maybe baseball just seems a touch more magical when you’re 9 years old. It just so happened that I was 9 the year that Mark Fidrych came on the scene. And, even now, it seems to me that was a time for magical young pitchers. They called John Montefusco “The Count,” and he would guarantee victories before he pitched. They called Randy Jones “The Junkman,” and he baffled hitters with a fastball that, Pete Rose said, wouldn’t be caught speeding in a school zone. If you wanted hard fastballs, well, you had J.R. Richard and Frank Tanana and Nolan Ryan. They threw so hard, you could hear their pitches buzz.
None of them, though, were as magical as Fidrych. The Bird. There have been many theories how he got the name The Bird. Some say it was because he looked so much like Big Bird on Sesame Street — in the classic Sports Illustrated cover that featured both birds it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Some say it’s because of the way Fidrych flapped his arms on the mound sometimes. The most likely story is that he got the name on his first day of professional baseball, in Bristol, Va., when a coach named Jeff Hogan caught him shrieking “Gawk! Gawk!”
“You’re a bird,” Hogan said. And it was just right. Fidrych was some kind of bird.
The Bird showed up as a non-roster invitee for the Detroit Tigers in 1976 and he somehow made the club. “I couldn’t stand up,” he would say. “You married? Like when you get married. That’s a rush.”
His first time out, Fidrych faced one batter. He came on in the ninth inning with the score tied and runners on first and third. The outfield and infield was in, and Don Baylor hit a fly ball over everyone’s head for a single. The game was over. It was an odd way to start an odd career.
The Bird made his first start in Cleveland almost a month after his goofy debut. He threw a no-hitter for six innings. He finished off a complete game, two-hitter. He had arrived.
The love affair with Detroit began almost immediately. Fidrych was unlike anyone else. He talked to the baseball. Later, he would say that he was talking to himself … but, no, it seemed pretty clear that he talked to the baseball. He got on his knees and smoothed out pitching mounds with his hands. He said hilarious things. He sprinted out to congratulate fielders who made nice plays. He never took any of it for granted. “It’s either this,” he often said, “or working at the gas station back home.”
And he did not pitch like any 21-year-old anyone had ever seen. He had impeccable, almost freakish, control. He hardly ever walked anyone. He walked one batter in an 11-inning victory at Texas on the fifth of June, and followed it up by walking nobody his next time out against the California Angels. He won nine of his 10 first decisions. He allowed just one run against the New York Yankees on Monday Night Baseball. He threw an 11-inning shutout against Oakland on July 16.
By then, he was a national sensation.
It’s impossible to look back at Fidrych’s remarkable 1976 — knowing what we know now about pitch counts and such things — and not cringe at the way manager Ralph Houk abused him. Of course, nobody was counting pitches in 1976, but even so it’s hard to believe a manager would allow a rookie to throw five extra-inning games. Five! Or how about this stretch: From July 29th to August 29th, The Bird threw a nine-inning game, a seven-inning game, a nine-inning game, another nine-inning game, another nine-inning game, a 10-inning game, a nine-inning game and an 11 1/3 inning game — each one on three-days rest. Imagine that: Fidrych threw 73 1/3 innings and seven complete games in a month.
To give you a comparison, K-Rod threw 68 1/3 innings all last year.
To give you a comparison, Johan Santana has thrown nine complete games in his career.
But then, nobody was thinking about the future. To a 9-year-old kid in Cleveland, Fidrych was simply the coolest guy in the entire world.
I remember begging my father to take me to see Fidrych pitch. There was a big crowd that day in Cleveland — well, 37,405, which passed for a big crowd in Cleveland back then — and the only two things I really remember is that we had to park what seemed like miles away from the stadium and I got to see Fidrych get on his hands and knees and manicure the pitching mound. As it turned out, he did not pitch well that day — the aging Boog Powell got him for three hits — but I left the stadium feeling like I had seen a star.
My parents had Elvis. I had Mark Fidrych.
Fidrych lost four of five starts in late August and early September, and it seems like maybe the spell was wearing off. But then he threw a shutout at Yankee Stadium, and he won his last three starts (all complete games) and he finished 19-9, and he led the league with a 2.34 ERA, and he threw a league-leading 24-complete games, and he started the All-Star Game, and he was the biggest baseball star in America. And of course, looking back, he was an icon in Detroit when times were tough, when the sports teams were lousy, when unemployment was up, when America was down.
“Go Bird Go!” the fans would shout when he pitched. “Go Bird Go!”
I didn’t think about any of that. All I knew was that there was a pitcher who looked like Big Bird and talked to baseballs and got out the best hitters in the world. I taped black and white newspaper photos of Fidrych on my bedroom wall — the only non-hometown player I would allow on my Wall of Fame. Like I say, I was 9 years old. And, like every other 9 year old I knew, The Bird had set my imagination soaring.
Everyone knows how it ended for Fidrych. He hurt his leg, then his shoulder, and though he did pitch well at times, he never quite felt right again. He only started 27 games in the big leagues after his rookie season. He tried to hang on, and at times toward the end it was sad to watch. I remember the game he started in Cleveland in 1980, when he was 26 years old, going on 40. He pitched to two Indians batters. Miguel Dilone singled and stole second. The Bird hit Dell Alston with a pitch. And The Bird was taken out of the game.
Two weeks later, in front of 12,000 or so in Toronto, The Bird pitched his final game. In the fifth inning he gave up a three-run homer to Ernie Whitt. Then he got Lloyd Moseby to ground back to him. And the career was over.
In many ways, time has reduced Fidrych to one of the 1970s fads — like Evel Knievel, bell-bottom jeans, disco and the guy who said “You doesn’t have to call me Johnson.” But Fidrych was more than that. He was what’s possible. He was an overgrown kid living his dream. He was magical. Monday was a sad, sad day in baseball. First we heard that Harry Kalas, the Philadelphia Phillies announcer with the voice that sounded like it should crack the clouds, died.
And then we heard that Mark Fidrych was found on his Massachusetts farm, dead at 54. There are a lot of things to remember, but I mostly recall watching him kneel on the pitchers’ mound and smooth out the rough Cleveland dirt that day when I was a kid. All these people around us laughed and pointed and yelled insults. The Bird did not seem to mind at all. He just kept on working the dirt. He knew the score. He was exactly where every 9-year-old boy in America wanted to be.