Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Mark Fidrych Makes His First Start: 39 Years Ago This Week The Bird Took the First Step to the Most Electrifying Season in Baseball History

May 15 marked the 39th anniversary of the start of one of the wildest, craziest, funnest rides baseball fans have ever had. I'm talking about The Bird, Mark Fidrych; a 21-year old, impossibly energetic, magnetic, charismatic rookie pitcher for the 1976 Detroit Tigers. In those days before ESPN and full-time blanket sports coverage, Fidrych was a relative unknown to the baseball world when he made the team in spring training. But that changed very quickly.

Contrary to popular myth that said Mark Fidrych only got a start because another pitcher had a cold, manager Ralph Houk had been planning to put him in the rotation all along. Houk had been impressed by Fidrych in the Fall Instructional League and in spring training. But he wanted to bring him along slowly, letting him get used to major league baseball. Fidrych had pitched in two short relief appearances and had started an early May exhibition game against the Reds. He had been scheduled to start a week earlier, but a rainout caused a rotation shuffle that forced him to miss the turn.

May 15, 1976 started out cold and dreary in Detroit. It rained on and off and there was some question that the game would be played. After a delay, however, the game went off in front of barely 14,000 fans--die-hards who showed up to watch a miserable team going nowhere.

Fidrych breezed through the Cleveland Indian lineup, working very quickly, using his darting, sinking fastball and quick-breaking slider. He demonstrated impressive control for a youngster and everything was at the knees.

Sure, he was getting guys out, but it wasn't the quality of his stuff that attracted attention. Fans, teammates and opponents soon became aware that some strange things were happening out there on the mound. Fidrych was a nonstop twitching, shrugging, arm-flapping mass of movement. At the beginning of each inning, he sprinted from the dugout to the mound and dropped to his knees, removed his glove and carefully arranged the dirt with his hands, then patted it in place. He actually chased the grounds crew off the mound one inning, preferring to do it himself.

Wearing a huge smile, he raced around the infield shaking his fist at teammates whenever they made even a routine play behind him. He windmilled his arm and pointed the ball at the plate like a dart-thrower. Cleveland slugger Rico Carty complained that Fidrych was trying to hypnotize him.

The biggest wonder of all was that before every pitch, he stood on the mound, with the ball held in front of his face as he looked toward home plate and he talked--he was talking to the ball. And apparently the ball was listening! He continued to throw blanks at the Indians--no-hitting them for six innings.

Fans and players weren't the only ones to notice. After a few innings, Tiger announcer George Kell drawled to his partner Al Kaline, "You know, Al, that guy is kind of goofy out there."

But it wasn't just what he was doing that electrified fans. It was how he did it. With his huge smile, expressive face, and constant energy, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that this guy was obviously having a blast out there. It was fun to watch somebody who enjoyed the game so much.

When the Indians finally broke through and scratched out a run to make it 2-1, instead of panicking, the rookie reached back and closed the game out. It was a complete game, two hitter.

After the game, reporters flocked to the Tiger clubhouse to meet this phenom. And what they got was just a taste of things to come. There were no shy rookie mumblings. No need to work to pry loose a usable quote. Actually, the problem was you couldn't shut the guy up. He bubbled forth a constant verbal barrage about everything from how impressed he was with his teammates ("They're doing all the work") to what a great job the goundskeepers did keeping the weeds off the field. He filled their notebooks, then some.

For baseball fans, it was the start of an unbelievable summer. Fidrych would go on to compile a 19-9 record with a league-leading 2.34 ERA and 24 complete games on his way to the Rookie of the Year Award. As impressive as his on-field performance was, it was his impact on fans that would leave the greatest legacy. He mesmerized the nation. Attendance for Fidrych's starts would soon spike to 40 to 50,000 every time he went out--at home or on the road. Rival general managers would ask Houk to shuffle his rotation so Fidrych could pitch in, and fill up, their stadiums. Fidrych would become the greatest box-office attraction baseball had ever seen.

Fidrych would take fans on an fantastic ride as he lit up the baseball world that summer.

The first start was only the beginning. No one could possibly know how much bigger and better it would get each week. They couldn't possibly know, because there was nothing like it to compare it to. Nothing like it ever before.

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