For Detroit Tigers fans entering the 1976 season, they knew there was little chance of the team being a contender for the American League pennant. Even in the AL East, the reigning champion Boston Red Sox had the pieces for a repeat. Earl Weaver had plenty of pitchers and bats in Baltimore to challenge them. They even traded for Reggie Jackson, who the next season would join the New York Yankees. Jackson, in self promotion, said, “I didn’t come to New York to be a star; I brought my star with me.” The Yankees themselves were looking to rebound after a failed 1975 season.
While Reggie was a star, an established superstar, the Tigers found a diamond in the rough in a gawky right-handed starter. For Mark Fidrych, he became baseball’s most unlikely star of 1976. He became the Motor City’s folk hero for a lost year. Fidrych came into the baseball spotlight with little hype and fanfare and shortly after that left the same way. While it lasted, it was a fun ride for the man called “The Bird.”
The 1976 Tigers were well removed from their 1968 World Series team. Most of the key players from the 1972 squad that made a run in the ALCS were either no longer on the team or in the twilight of their careers. This was a team relying on Joe Coleman to be the team’s ace.
Fidrych began the season as a seldom-used reliever. The Tigers were hosting the Cleveland Indians on May 15. Coleman was the intended starter for that night, but was not feeling well, ill with the flu. Tigers manager Ralph Houk gave Coleman the night off. Fidrych, who had not pitched in ten days, was given the nod. Not overly dominant, but solid, Fidrych pitched Detroit to a 2-1 complete game win. He surrendered two hits and struck out five.
Despite a win in his first start, Fidrych did not make his next start until ten days later. At Boston, the Massachusetts native pitched well. In a complete game loss, Fidrych was done in by no run support and a two-run home run to Carl Yastrzemski. That performance was enough to give him a spot in the rotation.
The New England native was not a highly touted prospect in high school. In fact, the Tigers were the only team, besides his home state Red Sox, who seriously considered him. Fidrych was drafted in the 10th round of the 1974 MLB Draft. Detroit made Fidrych a non-roster invitee for the 1976 spring training. He proved enough to make the team that season and from the Red Sox loss, so much more.
Fidrych would go on to win eight straight games, going the distance in seven of them. During that eight start span, he struck out 34, held hitters to a .222 batting average, and had an ERA of 1.94. He turned himself into a national phenomenon with his June 28 start against the New York Yankees.
The game, televised on ABC’s Monday Night Baseball, introduced the nation to not only his amazing stuff on the mound, but also his character. The man they called “The Bird” was tying up Yankee hitters, to a huge vocal crowd at Tiger Stadium.
Fidrych was a character in every sense of the word. His lanky 6-foot-3 frame with the long arms and curly blonde hairy coming out of the cap. He was part Norman Rockwell, part cartoon character. His overall attitude to his growing fanbase was the of the approach that he was “just happy to be here.”
His mannerisms really set him apart. He would move the dirt on the mound, not knowing the grounds crew could do it for him. He’d walk around, talking to the ball, then to himself, as if to give the ball direction. While some would argue it was part of an act, Fidrych explained that it was a coping mechanism to help him focus.
Off the field, he was as approachable as he appeared on the mound. Very down to earth, he relished but did not grab at his new found celebrity. He lived modestly, especially on a rookie contract, driving a seasoned compact car. In a decade where celebrities like Reggie Jackson were “look at me,” it was different with Fidrych. He attracted attention not so he could improve his contract or his social standing, but because he was an honest player who made baseball fun. His sincere and genuine personality endeared him to not just Tiger fans but to baseball fans.
Fans responded by voting Fidrych to the All-Star Game, where he was the American League’s starting pitcher. Tiger fans would flock to home games, dubbing themselves “Bird Watchers.” On home games Fidrych pitched, Tiger Stadium attendance went up by 39%. He would garner a photo op with Sesame Street’s Big Bird. He pitched Aqua Velva. Rolling Stone made him baseball’s first player to garner a cover story.
As all of this transpired, Fidrych went out and pitched. Houk had him pitching every fourth day, in an era where most clubs were using a four-man rotation. Fidrych was pitching complete game after complete game. He finished every game but five. That includes five ballgames that went into extra innings. He helped a Tigers team slated for last place to a 74-87 record.
For Fidrych, he had a year filled with promise for the future. He compiled a 19-9 record with a league leading 2.34 ERA, 1.079 WHIP and secured the AL Rookie of the Year Award. He would finish second to Jim Palmer for the AL Cy Young Award.
The 1976 season would be his pinnacle. A knee injury in 1977 spring training, while shagging fly balls, required surgery. He did not make his first start until late May. By the July 4, it was a shoulder injury that ended his season. That same injury would flare up again in 1978, shortening his year for the Tigers.
By that point, Fidrych was nowhere close to the pitcher he was in 1976. He would be dropped by the Tigers following the 1981 season. The Boston Red Sox gave him a second chance, but Fidrych never made it out of the minor leagues. It was not until after his playing career that Fidrych learned he had torn his rotator cuff. Despite the efforts of Dr. James Andrews, there was no hope of his ever reviving his pitching career.
Fidrych went back home, to Northborough, Massachusetts, retired at age 28. He got married and bought a 107-acre farm where he raised a daughter. Between working on the farm, doing road construction, and helping out at his mother-in-law’s diner, he was able to accept his baseball career ending.
While making appearances at baseball card shows and interactions at Tigers alumni events, he never showed bitterness towards his brief celebrity status. He was still the same person he was at 21 years of age. He was always “The Bird.”
Houk took the brunt for Fidrych’s sudden career demise. Forcing a young kid to throw so many innings and pitches over a short span did not help him. Some also argued that his 1977 knee injury led to a change in mechanics which led to the rotator cuff injury. Either way, Fidrych was a ray of sunshine to a dreary season.
Fidrych never harbored resentment towards how short his career was. He always felt lucky. Fidrych was happy with his life following baseball. Tragically, Fidrych died April 13, 2009, in an accident while working on a truck. The Tigers, baseball, and the fans lost a great character.
It was not long before Detroit saw a turnaround following 1976. The 1977 Tigers featured a group of players who would be the anchor to their 1984 World Series team. Jack Morris, Lance Parrish, Lou Whitaker, and Alan Trammell were all fighting for starting time on that team. Even noted rookie Steve Kemp would be dealt to the Chicago White Sox for Chet Lemon, to sure up the outfield in 1981.
The Tigers would go on to be one of the winningest teams of that decade. Many Tiger fans of the era still probably wonder if Fidrych had been a part of the franchise longer, would they have won more titles? While one could wonder, it was more than a thrill to just have Mark Fidrych for one dismal season.