Like much of the nation, I first experienced the wonder of Mark “The Bird” Fidrych on a Monday night in June of 1976. Prior to that game, I had seen only snippets of Fidrych’s antics on local sportscasts and read tidbits about him in the New York newspapers. Beyond that, I didn’t know much about the rookie right-hander. There was no ESPN or MLB Network around to provide continuous highlights or in-depth analysis about what this strange-looking character was doing during his whirlwind tour of American League cities.
On June 28, ABC chose to broadcast the Tigers-Yankees matchup as its featured game on “Monday Night Baseball.” With the old Tiger Stadium providing the backdrop, Fidrych put on a show like few fans had ever seen. He “manicured” the mound by combing over the dirt with his hands, fixing cleat marks along the way. When one of his infielders made a great defensive play behind him, Fidrych applauded loudly, congratulating his teammate. After recording the third out of each inning, Fidrych didn’t walk off the mound, but ran as if he were in the midst of a 40-yard dash, usually engaging in a full sprint before coming to a sudden halt at the Tigers’ dugout. There was also an element of superstition in his running. On the way back to the dugout, he jumped over the chalk baselines so as to avoid stepping on the lines. The way this big, gangly right-hander acted, it was little wonder that they called him The Bird.
And, oh by the way, Fidrych talked to the baseball. He felt that by conversing with the ball he could better control the pitch and make it move in the way that he wanted. Fidrych felt every baseball possessed a kind of karma. Once a batter reached safely with a hit, Fidrych asked the umpire to throw out the ball and give him another. He felt the old ball still had hits in it and needed to mix with other baseballs so that it would “right itself.”
Prior to Fidrych’s arrival on the major league scene in 1976, pitchers usually showed little emotion on the mound. They restrained themselves from exhibiting much body language, instead approaching the job of pitching in a businesslike manner. Clearly, Fidrych had a different way of doing things. And the country loved every minute of it.
As a Yankee fan, I didn’t like the fact that Fidrych beat my team, 5-1, that night in Detroit. Granted, the Yankees didn’t field a vintage lineup that night. Thurman Munson and Lou Piniella sat out the game, Jim Mason played shortstop, and Reggie Jackson had not yet arrived. But as a baseball fan, I could appreciate Fidrych as a developing sensation. Fidrych had talent, too. He threw a 93-mile-per-hour fastball with great sinking action. Intentionally or not, he pitched to the strength of his defense. In 1976, the Tigers had a decent defensive infield, but their outfield defense was somewhere between adventurous and atrocious, with Alex Johnson in left, Ron LeFlore in center, and Rusty Staub in right field. In retrospect, some critics of Fidrych (like Bill James) have pointed to his inability to collect strikeouts, but I can’t remember a single person mentioning that in 1976. No one cared. All Fidrych did was collect outs—and fans—while entertaining the hell out of the entire nation.