No player in Tiger history had as big an impact for such a short career as Mark Fidrych. The Bird came from nowhere to dominate the baseball world in the summer of 1976. Then, injury stole him from the fans. Fidrych was an inoffensive free spirit. He was a young boy in a man’s body. The “Year of the Bird” endures in memory and Fidrych in our hearts.
The Tigers invited Fidrych to spring training without a guaranteed roster spot. The non-roster invitee made the most of his tryout and made the big club. He began the season in the bullpen and got his chance to start on May 15 because the scheduled starter had the flu. Fidrych defeated the Indians with a 2-hit complete game. During the contest, the pitcher talked to the ball and patted down the mound each inning. These antics continued throughout the season.
People did not take offense to Fidrych’s antics. He was not showing anyone up and fans and players realized the right hander’s eccentricities derived from his inner child. Indeed, Fidrych was only 21 years old. His tall, lanky appearance and bushy hair drew comparisons to Sesame Street’s Big Bird. As a result, fans dubbed him the "Bird.”
Fidrych kept winning in 1976. His antics and talent drew large crowds to Tiger Stadium. ABC’s Monday Night Baseball exposed the country to Birdmania on June 28. Fidrych started against the eventual American League Champion New York Yankees on national television. The game lasted less than two hours, the Bird displayed his full set of theatrics, and Detroit won. The nearly 48,000 in attendance refused to leave at game’s end. They demanded Fidrych take a curtain call.
Birdmania led to the All Star Game. He started the contest and took the loss as the National League drubbed the AL 7-1. However, the game had no impact on the season. The Bird kept winning. He finished his rookie campaign 19-9 and led the league in ERA (2.34) and complete games (24). Fidrych tossed 250.1 innings, struck out 97, and had a solid 1.079 WHIP. The righty won the Rookie of the Year and finished second to Hall of Famer Jim Palmer in the Cy Young ballot.
Fidrych never experienced 1976’s success again. The Rookie of the Year tore knee cartilage fooling around in the outfield in spring training. Unfortunately, he probably returned from the injury too soon. He tore his rotator cuff in a game against Baltimore. Fidrych altered his approach to compensate for the knee injury. The change led to a catastrophic injury. The rotator cuff tear was not detected until 1985.
The Bird pitched in 31 games in 1976. He appeared in 27 from 1977-80. The injury and lack of modern medical detection ended his career prematurely. Fidrych remained a fan favorite for the rest of his life. In 1999, he led the parade of former players at Tiger Stadium’s closing ceremony. Ten years later, he died in a freak accident at his home. Fidrych was working on his dump truck when his clothing got caught in the vehicle’s power takeoff shaft and suffocated. In the end, his life ended as prematurely as his baseball career.
Mark Fidrych remains one of Detroit’s most beloved athletes. The pitcher starred for only one season, but had an amazing impact. Players that remain with teams for a decade sometimes do not have the same legacy or impact. In 1976, he won the Rookie of the Year, started the All Star Game, and launched Birdmania. A few months later, it ended.