- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Undoubtedly, The Bird was a strange duck. Emerging unbidden from his shell in the late spring of 1976, Mark Fidrych soared sensationally for one golden season with the Detroit Tigers. On the mound, he talked to the baseball and to himself, often stalking frantically about to no apparent purpose. When he finally flung the ball, it usually mesmerized batters and enchanted onlookers.

The 21-year-old right-hander gained his nickname because his ungainly gait and mop of blond curls resembled those of Big Bird on “Sesame Street.” Whatever the reason, he became a hero to tons of teenagers - most of them female - who filled Tiger Stadium when he pitched there.

“Go Bird go!” they shrieked. “Go Bird go!”

And Fidrych did, unbelievably. Although manager Ralph Houk didn’t give the untested kid a real chance until May 15, he won nine of his first 10 decisions, started the All-Star Game, finished with a 19-9 record, a 2.34 ERA and 24 complete games and was named American League rookie of the year.

Then it was over.

Just like that.

The following season, Fidrych injured a knee in spring training, a shoulder later in the season and had merely a 6-4 record. Like Dizzy Dean with the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1930s, the injuries forced him to change his pitching motion and produced a sore arm. By 1980, at 25, he was back in Northborough, Mass., earning his living as a pig farmer.

Fidrych’s life ended just as suddenly. He was working under a truck on that farm April 13 when the vehicle fell on him, bringing instant death at 54. But memories of The Bird and his captivating antics during his one super season survive him.

Flaky pitchers abound through baseball history: Dean, Rube Waddell, “Spaceman” Bill Lee, et al. But no such flame flared and faded as quickly as Fidrych.

Though most ballplayers scoff at nonconformist types, nobody seemed to get mad at The Bird. Cleveland outfielder John Lowenstein, something of a nut case himself, said the next time Fidrych talked to the ball, Lowenstein would ask the umpire to confiscate it and find out what the pitcher had said.

Lee later described Fidrych this way on ESPN Classic’s “SportsCentury” series: “He’s like the little boy who’s thrown into a pile of horse manure. … He says there has to be a pony in there somewhere.”

Apparently Fidrych was born wacky. During his American Legion days in Massachusetts, he languished as a shortstop until he finally asked to pitch and easily mowed down the opposition.

“Why didn’t you tell me you could pitch?” his surprised coach asked.

“Because you didn’t ask me,” The Bird replied.

Fidrych was pumping gas for a living when the Tigers selected him in the 10th round of the 1974 draft. Over the next 1 1/2 seasons, he sparkled at four minor league levels to earn an invitation to spring training from the last-place Tigers. For making his nickname a household name in Detroit and drawing hundreds of thousands through the turnstiles in 1976, he was paid $16,500.

There is ample evidence that Houk, a baseball traditionalist in every sense of the word, might have hastened Fidrych’s subsequent flameout by drastically overworking him. Nobody kept pitch counts back then, and The Bird worked 250 1/3 innings over five months, often hurling on three days’ rest. His 24 complete games were more than most staffs have today, and five were extra-inning affairs. Ouch!

Ultimately, the Tigers paid for Houk’s poor judgment. The club, which gave Fidrych a $25,000 bonus after the season and signed him to a three-year contract for $225,000, got just 10 more wins out of his aching body through 1980.

Was his magical mystery tour through the American League in 1976 a fluke? Possibly, but The Bird never complained after it ended.

“I just think I was in exactly the right place at exactly the right time,” he told Sports Illustrated decades later. “I really didn’t know how big it was until the season was over.”

Very big.

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