Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Mark “The Bird” Fidrych


AP Photo - Mark Fidrych was the American League Rookie of
the Year in 1976 when he went 19-9 with a 2.34 ERA
and 24 complete games in 29 starts.

Courtesy of thebaseballpage.com

As a virtually unknown rookie in 1976, Mark Fidrych posted a league leading 2.34 ERA and won 19 games despite spending the first month of the season in the minor leagues. "The Bird" became a media darling because of his crazy antics, such as talking to himself and aiming the ball, insisting that balls that had "hits in them" be taken out of the game, and smoothing cleat marks on the mound. He began the 1977 season where he left off, but injured his arm when he continued to pitch with a knee problem. For seven years he tried to make a comeback but he never could regain his old form. In 1985, it was revealed that he had torn his rotator cuff nearly all the way through.

"The Bird," because of his resemblance to "Big Bird" of Sesame Street.

Played For
Detroit Tigers (1976-1980)


World Champion?

All-Star 1976-1977; American League Rookie of the Year 1976

Go to baseball-reference.com

Similar Players
Dontrelle Willis

Players Linked
Jack Morris

Starting pitcher (all but two games)

Major League Debut
April 20, 1976; Fidrych relieved with the winning run on third base against the A's. Facing his first major league batter, Fidrych allowed a single to Don Baylor, as the Tigers lost, 6-5. His celebrated first start came on May 15, against the Indians at Tiger Stadium. Baffling hitters with his low fastball and antics on the mound, Fidrych took a perfect game into the 5th inning, and allowed his first hit to Buddy Bell to lead off the 7th frame. He finished with a two-hit, 2-1 win and the phenomenon was born.

Full Bio
On June 28, 1976, Mark Fidrych came to the attention of baseball fans worldwide. For the first three months of the '76 season, Fidrych was pretty much a local phenomenon, even though he was 8-1 with eight complete games. But Fidrych's performance against the New York Yankees on June 28 changed all that.

For the first time, a national television audience got to see Fidrych fidget around the mound, chatter to himself, congratulate teammates after outstanding plays — and pitch superbly. He took only an hour and 51 minutes in defeating the Yankees, 5-1, before 47,855 fans in Detroit. He allowed seven hits, with New York's lone run coming on Elrod Hendrick's home run. In stopping the Yankees' five-game winning streak, Fidrych struck out two and walked none in out-dueling Ken Holtzman. The festivities didn't end with the final out. The fans wouldn't leave. They kept clamoring for Fidrych, who insisted the rest of the team join him in a curtain call. Teammate Rusty Staub coaxed Fidrych out onto the field — in his stocking feet — to thunderous applause. "The Bird" had arrived.

As Fidrych racked up wins, his low salary ($16,500) caught the attention of appreciative fans. Many sent him money, which he returned. A Michigan state legislator submitted a resolution recommending that the Tigers give Fidrych a raise. Tigers GM Jim Campbell eventually increased Fidrych's salary; thanking him for the packed crowds he produced each time he pitched. Opposing teams requested that the Tigers juggle their rotation so Fidrych could pitch in front of their fans in their stadium. Campbell was so worried about the carefree pitcher's attitude that he gave Fidrych an allowance, fearful that the young flake would waste the money or give it away.

Fidrych threw a blazing fastball and a wicked slider and kept the ball low, but probably his greatest asset was his concentration. Centerfielder Mickey Stanley compared him favorably with Denny McLain, one of the game's most intense pitchers. In Fidrych's 1976 All-Star Game start, Pete Rose's single, Steve Garvey's triple, and George Foster's groundout produced two runs in the first inning, enough to make "The Bird" the loser in the National League's 7-1 victory in 1976.

Commissioner Bowie Kuhn fined Fidrych $250 for using an obscenity on television after being asked if he was about to cry in a losing performance. To break his phenomenal run, the Minnesota Twins released 13 pigeons on the field on Fidrych's 13th start, on July 20. It didn't deter him, as he won 8-3 to boost his record to 11-2.

Though he was behind the plate for only 61 games in 1976, Bruce Kimm, like Fidrych a rookie, caught all 29 of The Bird's starts that season. Kimm hit one home run in his four-year major league career, and, of course, it won a game for Fidrych, 3-2 over the California Angels on August 17, 1976. Fidrych finished with a 19-9 record and a league-leading 2.34 ERA in 29 starts. He completed 24 of his starts (most in the AL) and threw four shutouts.

Prior to the 1977 season, Fidrych appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the second time, this time joined by Sesame Street's Big Bird. The 1977 season held big promise for the young pitcher, but everything changed in spring training. Shagging flies in the outfield in Lakeland, teammate Staub warned Fidrych to stop risking his safety by fooling and jumping around. On the next ball hit, Fidrych leaped and tore the cartilage in his knee when he landed.

Fidrych returned in late May and started 11 games, completing seven starts and going 6-4 with a 2.89 ERA. His abbreviated performance was enough to earn him an All-Star nod, but he did not go to the game as he was recuperating from knee surgery. In 1978, he announced in spring training that he felt fine and started three games and won two in dominating fashion (2.45 ERA). But in his April 17th start, his arm bothered him again, and he spent the rest of the season on the disabled list and rehabbing.

In 1979, still just 24 years old, Fidrych suffered his worst season at the major league level. After missing the first month on the DL recovering from surgery, Fidrych pitched less than 15 innings in May and was bombed to the tune of a 10.43 ERA and an 0-3 record, before being shelved for the rest of the season. He tried to fix his arm again, consulting specialists and having yet more surgery that caused him to miss the first four months of the 1980 season, but that season proved to be his swan song. In The Bird's last hurrah, he went 2-3 with a 5.68 ERA in nine starts for the Tigers in '80. He was released after the season and caught on with the Red Sox, for whom he struggled in the minor leagues for several years.

During one of his Red Sox attempts at a comeback, Fidrych faced Dave Righetti on July 1, 1982 in AAA action. The game set a record attendance of 9,389 at McCoy Field in Pawtucket. Fidrych finally gave up on a comeback in 1983, ending his career at the age of 29, when he should have been in his prime.

It wasn't until 1985 — after he had seen chiropractors, psychologists, and hypnotists as well as numerous doctors — that Dr. James Andrews discovered that Fidrych had torn his rotator cuff. Andrews operated and cleaned out his shoulder but it was too late for another comeback. Fidrych retired to New England and turned to farming, living a simple life except for the occasional old-timers game (or the The Last Game at Tiger Stadium).

In his brief career, Fidrych started 56 games, and completed 34 of them (61%). Five times he pitched into extra innings, winning games that he pitched into the 11th inning three times. Fidrych pitched a two-hitter, one three-hitter, one four-hitter, and seven five-hitters, among his 34 career complete games.

Uniform #'s
#20 (1976-1980)

Transaction Data (courtesy Retrosheet.org)
June 5, 1974: Drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the 10th round of the 1974 amateur draft; October 5, 1981: Released by the Detroit Tigers;
February 25, 1982: Signed as a Free Agent with the Boston Red Sox.

Best Season, 1976
He went 19-9 with a league-leading 2.34 ERA. Three times he pitched six straight complete games, and he won eight straight games at one point. He was chosen to start the All-Star Game, which he lost. He hurled a two-hitter, a four-hitter, and five five-hitters. Fidrych was a distant second to Jim Palmer in Cy Young voting, but was named AL Rookie of the Year.

Bird Fever
Fidrych so captured the imagination of Detroit fans in 1976 that at least one baby was named after him. Another manifestation of the mania Fidrych created in the city was that female fans raided barbershops he frequented in an effort to obtain souvenir locks of his curly hair. Other girls asked their hairdressers to make their coifs look like his. Even a model copied his hairdo, calling it her "Fidrych Frizzies."

No Frills
Fidrych was a simple man. Even at the height of his popularity he wore blue jeans, drove a beat-up old pickup truck, and claimed he had three dishes: a plate, a knife, and a fork.

Tigers' Rookies
In 1976 Fidrych became the second Tiger to be named Rookie of the Year (Harvey Kuenn, 1953). In 1977 Detroit added another fine rookie pitcher in Dave Rozema (who finished 4th in ROY voting). In '78 Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, and Lance Parrish formed a rookie trio, with "Sweet Lou" taking the AL Rookie of the Year honor.

Lerrin LaGrow

Replaced By
Jack Morris was given a chance in the Tigers' 1977 rotation due to Fidrych's injury.

Best Strength as a Player
Control, and crowd-appeal.

Largest Weakness as a Player

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