Mark Fidrych, nicknamed “The Bird” due to his resemblance to a famous Sesame Street character, took the baseball world by storm in 1976. After getting his first start in mid-May, Fidrych went on to compile a 19-9 record, with a 2.34 E.R.A. and 24 complete games. He was selected as the American League’s starting All-Star Game pitcher, was named A.L. Rookie of the Year, and finished 2nd in Cy Young Award balloting. Capturing the imagination of the country with his appearance, simple lifestyle, and on-field antics, Fidrych earned cover appearances on Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News, and Rolling Stone magazine. After winning his first six starts the following season, Fidrych fell victim to a “dead arm” and managed only 10 victories over the next four years. He retired in 1981 at age 29, four years before it was determined that his arm problems were the result of an undiagnosed and untreated torn rotator cuff.
MARK ‘THE BIRD’ FIDRYCH
One of A Kind
By: Dan Ewald
Former Detroit Tigers Public Relations Director
The fabric of baseball is a patchwork of precious memories that remind us we are never too old to dream. In that magical season of 1976 when Mark Fidrych created so many memories for several generations to share, the 21-year-old rookie still holds on to one special memory of his own.
It occurred on Polish-American Night at Tiger Stadium on the humid evening of August 17. The California Angels were in town with a marquee match-up between the two “Polish Pitching Princes” of baseball – Mark “The Bird” Fidrych against Detroit native Frank Tanana.
With a 74-87 record, the Tigers were only ordinary in 1976. Except for whenever The Bird was on the mound to spike the city into a warm-up for New Year’s Eve.
Playing before a season-high home crowd of 51,822, Fidrych and Tanana each pitched nine innings with The Bird finishing on top with a classic 3-2 comeback victory.
While victory was sweet for Fidrych, he was more elated for Bruce Kimm who caught every game Fidrych started that season. Kimm connected on a Tanana fastball for a two-run homer in the last of the eighth to deliver the victory.
“I remember after warming up in the ninth, Bruce walked the ball back to me on the mound,” Fidrych said. “Bruce said: ‘We’re not going to lose this game. This is the only game-winning hit I’ve ever had.’”
Fidrych still smiles at the memory.
“I told Bruce to trust me,” Fidrych said. “I got everything under control. He was firing the ball back to me harder than I was throwing it. It’s a great memory. I felt so good for Bruce.”
Fidrych was a master creating so many memories for so many people. His numbers are amazing. After a pair of relief appearances, he got his first start on May 15 and responded with a two-hitter in a 2-1 complete game victory over the Cleveland Indians. From that day he never left the starting rotation and finished with a 19-9 won-lost record and a league-leading 2.34 ERA. Fidrych also led the league with 24 complete games out of 29 starts. In 250 innings pitched, he allowed only 217 hits. He also led all pitchers with a 1.000 fielding percentage. For all his accomplishments, he was named American League Rookie of the Year.
“People still ask me if we had a pitch count back then,” he said. “We had a limit of 100 or maybe 120. But we’d get that for nine innings, not five or six like you see now.”
One of the numbers for which Fidrych went unchallenged does not appear in a box score. That was the 901,239 people who packed into ballparks to watch him weave his magic. Without question, he remains one of the single hottest drawing cards the game has ever seen.
Fidrych was tagged with the nickname of “The Bird” for his striking resemblance to the Big Bird character on the popular children’s TV show Sesame Street. With his tight blond curls and gangly physique that featured an arm span that seemed to reach from first to third base, he was a refreshing natural. He regularly talked to the baseball while peering in for the sign from the catcher. He personally manicured the mound before each half inning. And his genuine zest for life has yet to be matched in any sport since his early departure from the game.
Injuries ended his career long before he had a chance to reach his prime.
“Sure, I wish I could have pitched longer,” he said. “But I’m a lucky guy. Look at all the people that maybe felt a little better watching me pitch. Michigan sports fans are so great. Even today when I come back for some charity event, they still say, ‘Hey Bird, how you doin’?’ Kids who went to the park with their fathers, now pass the stories down to their own kids. I love all these people.”
Fidrych also recognizes the honor of being elected to the Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame.
“It’s a tremendous honor,” he said. “I’m proud of my heritage. My father’s father came straight from Poland. I wonder what he would have thought about all the good things that happened to me because of baseball.”
Perhaps some think Fidrych should feel bad for missing what could have been had he remained healthy. The Bird wants no sympathy.
“Look at all the great people I had in Detroit,” he said. “Mr. (Jim) Campbell (former Tiger president) made sure I was taken care of. Dr. Livingood (team physician) did so many things for me. All my teammates and especially all the fans…they’re the ones who made everything so special for me.”
Fidrych is appreciative for everything he has.
“I have a beautiful family, my farm, my 10-wheel truck,” he said. “I’m not complaining.”
Still he dreams.
“Even at my age, I dream about having one more chance in the big leagues,” he said. “But then I realize all the good things I have. I’ll never forget those.”
And neither will fans forget about him. Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. He still remains, truly, one of a kind.