Forget all the analysis, breakdown and capsulizing. The recap for the Detroit Tigers' 1976 season can be summed up in one word: Bird.
Bird was the word, in 1976---and not just in Detroit.
Mark "The Bird" Fidrych captured the hearts of baseball fans---and even non-fans---everywhere in 1976.
Fidrych, a 21-year-old right-hander from Massachusetts, made the Tigers' roster near the end of spring training, just about the 25th man on a 25-man roster. He was a 10th-round draft choice by the team in 1974, before his 20th birthday.
Fidrych didn't make his first start until mid-May, but what a start it was. He shut the Cleveland Indians down on two hits. Ten days later, in Boston no less, Fidrych limited the Red Sox to two runs. Six days after that, Fidrych pitched an incredible 11 innings against the Brewers, surrendering just four runs.
But it wasn't just how Fidrych pitched---with precision control and total efficiency---it was how he acted on the mound. With golden curly locks flowing from beneath his cap, Fidrych talked to himself (people erroneously thought he was talking to the baseball), manicured the mound with his hands, and with his tall, lanky figure he looked like the "Bird" that he was nicknamed after---Big Bird from "Sesame Street."
Fidrych's legacy grew rapidly. The more he pitched, the more he won. And the more he won, the more his antics caught the fancy of the national media. The peak of this was on "Monday Night Baseball" in late-June, in Detroit against the Yankees.
Fidrych mowed the powerful Yankees down as the ABC announcers and audience ate it up. The Bird threw a gem---a complete-game, seven hitter as the Tigers won, 5-1 before nearly 48.000 giddy fans at Tiger Stadium. The win moved Fidrych's record to 8-1.
Fidrych started the All-Star Game in Philadelphia, and while his outing was rugged, he nonetheless added to his legacy by his mere presence.
Fidrych won 19 games, posted a 2.34 ERA, and he was the overwhelming choice for Rookie of the Year. He was the most exciting---and most profitable---player the Tigers had in decades, because when The Bird pitched, the house was almost guaranteed to be packed, even on the road.
Fidrych's "Aww, shucks" persona and simple nature endeared him to people. He may have been a big league player, but he was a kid at heart.
Oh, by the way, the Tigers finished 74-87 and in fifth place in the AL East. But the attention they got, thanks to Fidrych, was like that of a playoff team.
"I've seen Tom Seaver go out and mow them down," teammate Rusty Staub---who came to the Tigers from the Mets in an off-season trade for Mickey Lolich---said. "But I've never seen anything like when The Bird pitches."
After the season, the only question was, "What would Mark Fidrych do for an encore?"
The answer, sadly, would come in spring training of 1977.By GregEno