30-year migration of `The Bird'

OTHER VOICES

The Kickoff

July 26, 2006|By MICHAEL ROSENBERG | MICHAEL ROSENBERG,DETROIT FREE PRESS

When Mark Fidrych comes back to Michigan, as he did twice this month, he immediately becomes The Bird. He is still famous here, 30 years after he did anything fame-worthy. When people recognize Fidrych, what do they ask about?

"The season," he said.

It needs no clarification. He really only had one.

The year was 1976, which was perfect. If Mark Fidrych had come along 15 years earlier or 15 years later, he wouldn't have had such universal appeal. In 1961, many would have been appalled by his showmanship; in 1991, they would have figured he was a phony.

But 1976 was just right for the pitcher they called The Bird. In 1976 a man could be different without being an outcast; he could have long hair and talk to the baseball before he pitched without too much backlash. And ballplayers still were part of the working class. (He made the major league minimum of $16,500.)

Fidrych didn't just talk to the ball. When somebody got a hit off him, he spit out his gum and refused to use that ball again. He jumped over the white lines on his way to the mound. He got his nickname, The Bird, because minor league manager Jeff Hogan said he walked like Big Bird.

He was famously unsophisticated. The stories abounded: He didn't know who Yankees star Thurman Munson was. He always checked pay phones for loose change. His wardrobe was so raggedy, general manager Jim Campbell had to buy him a suit.

Fidrych had to be seen to be believed. This explains why Tiger Stadium attendance shot up every time he pitched.

Did he see himself as eccentric?

"No," he said last week in his thick Massachusetts accent. "I saw myself as a ballplayah."

So why do people remember him so well?

"Ah," he said, "I was a winnah."

And this leads to the next question people ask Fidrych:

"What happened to your arm?"

In 1976, Fidrych was 19-9 with a big league-best 2.34 ERA. He started the All-Star Game ... at 22.

But after one season, Fidrych's major league career was more than half over. He injured his knee in spring training in 1977, came back healthy, and then ...

"I was playing Baltimore in Baltimore and about the fifth inning something happened," Fidrych said. "The arm just went dead."

He had torn his rotator cuff. He was about to live every pitcher's nightmare, except he didn't know why. Nobody diagnosed the torn rotator cuff until 1985.

By that time, Fidrych had been out of the majors for five years. He started only 27 games after 1976, compared to 29 that year. (Of those 29, he completed 24, which might explain the rotator cuff injury.)

Fidrych thought about buying an auto repair shop with the money he made in baseball, but by the mid-1980s, cars were becoming more high-tech, and that didn't appeal to him. He bought a dump truck instead.

He has been driving it ever since in his native Massachusetts. On some jobs he helps lay sewer pipe. Once a week, he helps out at his mother-in-law's restaurant, Chet's Diner in Northborough, Mass.

Fidrych likes driving the truck but, at 51, he'd like to scale back and do more promotional work.

Through it all, Fidrych is always the innocent. He did his own grocery shopping after games. He lived in Michigan year-round.

"I had the sunrise in my bedroom and the sunset on my porch," he said of his Belleville home. "You couldn't beat it."

The sun set quickly on Fidrych -- of course that's as much of his story as his success. So much of sports' appeal lies in the known. We find out, definitively, who has the best team each year, and almost every athlete's contribution is quantifiable.

Maybe that's why Fidrych's story endures: We never found out how good he would have been -- whether he was a one-year wonder or a Hall of Famer.

After The Season and the arm, people ask Fidrych about himself. It's as though life ended for him in 1976. (In fact, he got married and has a daughter and seems quite happy.)

They ask: Is everything OK?

"And you go, `Yah,'" Fidrych said. " `Everything is.' They show concern. I'm a lucky guy to have that."

Michael Rosenberg writes for the Detroit Free Press.

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