Monday, December 22, 2014

When the word was 'Bird'

Photo by Tom Hagerty

Mark Fidrych's magical summer of '76 lives on

By Dave Mesrey

There was nothing like him.

A mop-topped, tongue-tied rookie from parts unknown, Mark "The Bird" Fidrych took the baseball world by storm in the summer of '76. 

He was just 21 years old. 

The lanky right-hander, who barely even made the team out of spring training that year, had started the season in the Tigers' bullpen. But in his first start against the Indians on May 15, The Bird nearly threw a no-no.
"He really messes up your concentration," said Indians third baseman (and future Tigers manager) Buddy Bell, who got the first hit off Fidrych leading off the seventh inning. "He's always talking to himself. ... All you could hear was, 'OK, ball, we're going to do this.'"
"This kid is different," said home plate umpire Marty Springstead. "He's a strange boy."

Indians designated hitter Rico Carty, then a grizzled 36-year-old veteran, had never seen anything like Fidrych.
"He just psyched us out with all the stuff he did on the mound," Carty said. "It was like he was trying to hypnotize us. Sometimes I was almost laughing. How can you hit when you're laughing?"

Detroit Historical Museum marketing director Bob Sadler, then an 8-year-old Indians fan living in Ohio, watched the Bird's first start that day on Cleveland's Channel 8.
"I remember my dad and I thinking, 'Who is this guy?'"
Before long, everyone would know just who Mark Fidrych was. The Bird (who got his nickname because of his resemblance to Sesame Street's Big Bird) soon became a household name, a cultural phenomenon not just in Detroit, but all across America. By midseason, he was starting in the All-Star game and women were flocking to his barber shop just for a lock of his hair.

Everyone, it seemed, loved The Bird. 
Men, women, and, especially, children.
Fellow rookie Jason Thompson, who started at first base that day, remembers 1976 fondly.
“Every time I think about the Bird,” he says, “I think about fun. We were all just young kids at that time.
"What I remember about that year is that it was like a traveling rock show with Mark. Birdmania was crazy. They’d have to fly him in ahead of time to do his interviews before we even got to town."
Just a few weeks later, on June 28, Fidrych and the Tigers took on the vaunted New York Yankees at Tiger Stadium. But Fidrych wasn't fazed at all. Before a national TV audience on Monday Night Baseball, he went the distance again, electrifying the crowd with his childlike exuberance and 93-mile-an-hour slider, mowing down Billy Martin's bombers, 5-1.
After the game, with 48,000 fans chanting "We want The Bird!" the reluctant rookie emerged from the dugout to a standing ovation, covering his head with his arms, grinning from ear to ear. Teenage girls shrieked with glee, old ladies shouted for joy, police officers scrambled to shake his hand.
All summer long, The Bird revealed himself to be a genuine character. From his tiny hometown of Northborough, Massachusetts, he brought with him innocence, spontaneity, and unadulterated joy back to baseball — and never more so than on this night.
"He's givin' me duck bumps!" shouted ABC broadcaster Bob Prince. "I've watched over 8,000 ballgames. I have never in my life ever seen anything to equal this. He is some kind of unbelievable!" 
Fidrych went on to win Rookie of the Year, gracing the covers of both Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone. And despite a career cut far too short by injuries, he remains perhaps the most beloved Detroit Tiger of all time. 
"He was just so genuine,” Thompson says. “There was nothing fake about him.” 

For Thompson and Tigers fans everywhere, 1976 indeed was the Year of the Bird.

Dave Mesrey is a member of the Navin Field Grounds Crew and founder of the Bird Bash, the annual birthday party celebrating the life and times of Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, held every August in Corktown at Nemo's Bar & Grill. 

A version of this article first appeared in the Detroit Metro Times.


  1. Never anything like him before or after. 1976 was a magical year, it is as simple as that, a true privilege to be a boy growing up in Windsor. I've seen multiple World Series, All-Star Games, the Olympics, but nothing raises the hair on my neck beyond the electricity of Tiger Stadium when Fidrych took the ball. The stadium felt like it could collapse any minute, and if it had, we'd at least have died happy. When I showed my children this video of Fidrych taking down the Yankees, my little girl Mia asked me, "Dad, are you crying?" Of course I was. The Bird's uniqueness, exuberance, passion, and genuine energy jacked up 50,000 people for two-and-a-half-hours that allowed them to truly escape whatever troubles life was bringing them that day and would be awaiting them when they walked out of Michigan & Trumbull. Other than seeing my own kids excel in sport and culture and school, watching Mark Fidrych live will remain as the most exhilarating experience on Earth in my lifetime.

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