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Fidrych file

Mark Fidrych's career statistics

In '76, Bird was the word
By Nick Acocella
Special to

"He's like the little boy that's thrown into a pile of horse manure and he's bobbin' up and down and they say how can you be so happy and he says there has to be a pony in here somewhere. His glass is always half full," says former Boston Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee about Mark Fidrych, the darling of baseball in 1976 on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

It was over almost before it began. The phenomenon that was Mark Fidrych lasted only one year. But what a season 1976 was for the charismatic Detroit Tigers pitcher known as "The Bird."

Mark Fidrych
Fidrych was the 1976 AL Rookie of the Year.

Andy Messersmith's challenge to the reserve clause had led to a spring-training lockout and the end of the traditional structure of teams' contractual relationships with their players. The future was uncertain. Fans were confused. But along came Fidrych -- wiggling and jiggling on the mound, talking to the ball, discarding balls with which opposing batters had managed a hit, chasing away groundskeepers so he could landscape and groom the mound himself, shaking hands with teammates after outstanding plays. And winning.

The Tigers were the worst team in the majors in 1975, going 57-102. Fidrych, a non-roster player, made the team the next spring training even though he lost his only decision and his ERA was 4.66. With Fidrych's wardrobe consisting of T-shirts and cutoff jeans, general manager Jim Campbell bought his 21-year-old pitcher several suits.

For the first five weeks of the season, Fidrych languished in the bullpen, being called to relieve only twice. Then on May 15, manager Ralph Houk gave the 6-foot-3, 175-pound righthander his first major league start -- but only because Fidrych's roommate, pitcher Joe Coleman, had to be scratched because he had the flu.

Fidrych responded brilliantly, retiring the first 14 Cleveland Indians and flirting with a no-hitter until the seventh inning. He finished with a two-hitter and a 2-1 victory.

After losing to the Boston Red Sox, 2-0, 10 days later, he reeled off eight straight wins, including back-to-back 11-inning complete games. (He added another 11-inning game later in the season.) The Tigers responded admirably, winning four of Fidrych's first five starts in their last at-bat, while the rest of the American League scratched its collective head.

At the end of the season, Fidrych had a 19-9 record, league-leading figures in ERA (2.34) and complete games (24), a Rookie of the Year award, and the uncommon distinction of having started the All-Star Game as a rookie.

The Tigers, who finished fifth with a 74-87 record (.460), were 55-78 (.413) in games in which Fidrych wasn't involved in the decision. If Fidrych's 250 innings were removed, the team ERA of 3.87 would have soared to 4.19. And, perhaps most gratifying of all to the front office, "The Bird" was a financial godsend
Fidrych, in his 18 pitching starts at Tiger Stadium, drew 605,677 paying customers, more than 40 percent of the year's total.
for a franchise that was otherwise hard put to persuade fans that climbing out of the cellar was an endeavor worth watching first-hand.

In his 29 starts, Fidrych drew 901,239 fans. At Tiger Stadium, his 18 pitching turns drew 605,677 paying customers, more than 40 percent of the year's total. According to one Wall Street Journal analyst, Fidrych was personally responsible for $1 million of team revenue. And he was fully aware of his impact, posting on his locker a running total of the crowds that attended when he pitched.

But, for the fans, it was his style that was most appealing. The stories are innumerable. At first, no one knew what to make of his antics. Initially resentful over what they thought was an effort to show them up, opposing batters came to realize there was nothing false or calculating about Fidrych. (The best response came from Cleveland outfielder John Lowenstein who said that the next time Fidrych talked to the ball, he was going to ask the umpire to confiscate it and find out what the pitcher had said.)

And it wasn't just his on-field antics that appealed. He habitually stuck his finger in the coin return slot of the pay phone in the clubhouse just in case someone had neglected to retrieve his dime. He spit tobacco juice all over his uniform to show he was one of the boys. When he forgot his own and needed identification so he could buy a drink, he borrowed teammates' IDs, whether he shared even a remote physical likeness with the lender.

He shared a hometown friend's affection for a dance called the Fried Egg, in which he would lay down on the dance floor and roll around. He worried aloud that his major league minimum salary ($16,500) wouldn't be enough for him to buy stamps to answer his fan mail. He reminded everyone that, if he weren't in the majors, he would be pumping gas back in Northboro, Mass.

Despite his protestations to the contrary, most people simply described the manic, lanky righthander with the Harpo Marx haircut as a bona-fide flake.

Fidrych was born on Aug. 14, 1954, in Worcester, Mass. Trained by his father Paul, an assistant school principal, Fidrych was a pitcher in the pickup games among his friends but a shortstop in his first year of American Legion ball. It wasn't until his second season, when a friend took his position away, that he asked his coach, Ted Rolfe, if he could pitch.

Amazed at the boy's skill and poise on the mound, Rolfe asked why he hadn't said he was a pitcher.

"Because you didn't ask," Fidrych replied.

At Algonquin Regional High and Worcester Academy, where he spent his senior year in 1974, Fidrych pitched and played first and the outfield, but neither Rolfe nor Worcester coach Tom Blackburn viewed him as a major league prospect. On weekends during the school year, Fidrych pumped gas at a Sunoco station.

His break came when the Tigers selected him in the 10th round of the draft following his senior season. Signed by Detroit scout Joe Cusick for a $3,000 bonus, which he spent on car payments and unpaid tuition, Fidrych reported to Bristol of the Rookie Appalachian League. In 23 games, all in relief, he went 3-0 with a 2.38 ERA and struck out 40 in 34 innings.

In 1975, he mostly started and worked his way through three teams in three classifications - Lakeland in the Class A Florida State League (5-9, 3.77), Montgomery of the Double-A Southern League (2-0, 3.21 as a closer), and Evansville of the Triple-A American Association (4-1, 1.59) -- and improved at each level. It was Lakeland coach Jeff Hogan who nicknamed Fidrych "Bird," because he reminded him of Big Bird on Sesame Street.

Then it was off to the majors, where everything his father had taught him paid off in 1976, when his fastball and slider tamed American League hitters. After this phenomenal season, the Tigers gave Fidrych a $25,000 bonus and signed him to a three-year deal worth $225,000.

About his antics, Fidrych said he wasn't talking to the baseball; he was actually talking to himself, reminding himself of what he wanted to do with each pitch.

And then, before you really got to know The Bird, his career was over.

Fidrych went 19-9 and was named an All-Star in his rookie season of 1976.
During spring training in 1977, he tore cartilage in his knee and went on the disabled list until May 24. Then in July he tore something in his shoulder because he had altered his pitching motion. He went on the DL for the rest of the season with his 6-4 record and 2.89 ERA.

Over the next three years, Fidrych appeared in only 16 games, going 4-6. His major league career ended in 1980 with a record of 29-19 and a 3.10 ERA.

He tried a comeback with the Red Sox's top farm club in Pawtucket in 1982 and 1983; it didn't work out. He had his rotator cuff operated on in 1985 by Dr. James Andrews. But while his enthusiasm never waned, the 93-mile-an-hour fastball never returned.

Fidrych lives with his wife Ann, whom he married in 1986, and their 13-year-old daughter Jessica on a 107-acre farm in Northboro. Aside from fixing up his farmhouse, he works as a contractor hauling gravel and asphalt in a ten-wheeler.

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