Mark Fidrych died this week. Sports fans know his name, although memories have grown dim; non-fans may never have heard of him. He was a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers who came to the big leagues in 1976. He had an odd pitching motion, a mop of curly hair that stuck out from under his cap, and was nicknamed “the Bird.” He had some strange habits on the pitcher’s mound, grooming it with his hands and talking to the baseball. He was clearly thrilled with being a major-leaguer, like a kid who had been plucked off a playground at random and put in uniform. And for the last four months of the baseball season that year, nobody in American popular culture was more famous.
The Fidrych legend grew to the proportions it achieved because there was relatively little coverage of baseball then compared to now. Readers of box scores knew he was something special, but you had to see him to fully appreciate him. That wasn’t as easy then as it is today, when every big-league game is on TV somewhere, and anything unusual that happens is on SportsCenter and YouTube within hours. In 1976, if you didn’t live in Detroit or another American League city, you probably weren’t going to see more than a few highlights of Fidrych in action. Baseball teams put some games on local TV or regional networks, but in 1976, there were only two nationally televised baseball games each week, and only one in prime-time. On June 28, 1976, ABC’s Monday Night Baseball was the focus of sports fans the country over as we watched Fidrych beat the New York Yankees 5-to-1. After the game, roaring Detroit fans refused to leave Tiger Stadium until he came out for a curtain call. In the middle of our Bicentennial summer, the Bird became more famous than any of the Founding Fathers. (The next spring, he made the cover of Rolling Stone, with a profile by rock journalist Dave Marsh.)
Just after Fidrych beat the Yankees, he was named starting pitcher for the American League in the All-Star Game. The Tigers won only 74 games all year; Fidrych won 19 of them. He would be named American League Rookie of the Year and finish second in the Cy Young award balloting for best pitcher in the AL. He led the majors in earned-run average. But he hurt his knee in spring training during 1977 and his arm shortly thereafter. His injury, a torn rotator cuff, would be routinely fixed today; in the 70s, it ended careers. Over the next four seasons, Fidrych would pitch in only 27 more games. His last big-league game was in 1980; his career record, 29-and-19.
I was sorry to hear of Fidrych’s accidental death on Monday at age 54 because we had something in common, the Bird and me—1976 was the best year he ever had, too.
I haven’t got an appropriate song to go with this post. “Hot Stuff” by the Stones comes to mind, since it was on the radio the week of that famous Monday night game, but it’s too easy. Any suggestions?