Thursday, April 23, 2009

Three decades later, the Bird's flight still dazzles

Stan McNeal
Three decades later, the Bird's flight still dazzles
April 13, 2009

I was watching the MLB Network the other day and on came an ABC Monday night game from 1976 between the Tigers and Yankees. A game worth watching for one reason: Mark Fidrych was pitching for the Tigers.

Two days later, I'm at my desk watching MLB Network and on comes news that Mark Fidrych has died. First Nick Adenhart, then Harry Kalas and Fidrych. As Todd Jones often reminds us, what happens in baseball mirrors what happens in real life. We have found out in the past week how true that is.

I lived in Lakeland, Fla., in 1977, and when driving around town that spring training would be on the lookout for Fidrych sightings. Honk and he would wave. I remember seeing him cross Memorial Boulevard one evening, and sure enough, he waved. The Bird and his teammates also could be found fairly regularly at Zimmerman's bar on Florida Avenue. A regular guy, except he was on top of the baseball world at the time.

He went 19-9 with a 2.34 ERA in 1976, started the All-Star Game as a 21-year-old rookie, won the AL Rookie of the Year award and finished second in the AL Cy Young voting. He pitched 250 1/3 innings that season, including 24 complete games in 29 starts.

His pitching was great, but what made him the Bird was the way he was. He was tall and gangly with long, straggly hair. When he finished an inning, he was the first one back in the dugout. He patted the rubber. If a teammate made an error, Fidrych sometimes would saunter over on the spot and pat him on the back.

He talked to the baseball, often pointing to where he wanted it to go. If someone today acted like the Bird did 33 years ago, they would be accused of trying to show up the opposition.

But Fidrych got away with it. He was as popular as any player in the game that magical summer. The Tigers averaged 18,224 in attendance but more than doubled that for most of Fidrych's starts. There were 47,000-plus at Tiger Stadium for the Monday night game against the Yankees that MLB Network just aired. (Fidrych beat New York, 5-1, on a seven-hitter.)

As a 22-year-old rookie first baseman for the Tigers, Jason Thompson had better than a front-row seat for the Bird's performance. Thompson, known as Roof Top for hitting balls over the roof of Tiger Stadium, played in Detroit for all five of Fidrych's seasons, then played six more seasons in the majors, mostly with the Pirates. He was a three-time All-Star with two 30-homer, 100-RBI seasons. Ask him his favorite season and he doesn't hesitate.

"For me, 1976 was the most fun I ever had playing baseball, and it wasn't even close. What made it so special was that he wasn't an act," Thompson said. "He was so genuine. We used to be out there just watching him. We enjoyed watching him just like you guys."

Thompson likens traveling with Fidrych that summer to being with a rock band. "He had to fly into places before the team to do all the media," Thompson said. "We weren't any good that year and we didn't draw but when he pitched, every place was rocking. I remember going to the old park in Minneapolis and the place was shaking so much I thought it was going to fall down."

After games, the young Tigers would hang out together. "We were all just kids playing baseball, not making a lot of money. We'd all hang out after games."

Thompson had played in the instructional league with Fidrych the previous fall and remembers him being good but "nobody thought he was going to be the next Roger Clemens or anything." Fidrych made the Tigers as a non-roster player in spring training but didn't get his first start until May 15. He beat the Indians, 2-1, with a two-hitter. The show was on.

Unfortunately, the show didn't last but that one season because injuries derailed Fidrych's career in 1977. He started only 27 games over the next four years before his big-league days were done. He soon would make it back to his Massachusetts home, seemingly content to work on his farm in Northborough.

"I've seen him a few times over the years," Thompson said. "He would come to Detroit a time or two a year, and I saw him at Tiger fantasy camps. He seemed happy, a family guy who stayed on his farm."

Thompson operates a baseball academy in the Detroit area and was giving a hitting lesson when his wife came out to tell him that Fidrych had died.

"I said, 'You've got to be kidding me,'" Thompson said. "This is big Tiger country. I talk to people every day about Mark Fidrych. Everybody knows who he is. It hasn't even hit how big a loss this is."

Stan McNeal is a staff writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at

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