In the summer of 1976, I was 10 years old and only three things really mattered to me…playing baseball for the TBB Pirates, playing pickup baseball games in the back yard with my friends and following my beloved Detroit Tigers.
The Tigers genuinely stunk in the mid-70s finishing losing close to 300 games from 1974 to 1976. Still, the summer of ’76 ranks as one of my favorite Tiger seasons. It was the year Mark “The Bird” Fidrych took this town, and the nation, by storm.
The gangly 21-year old with the floppy hair and care-free attitude gave this town a jolt in 1976. His crazy antics…talking to the ball, manicuring the mound with his hands, sprinting in and out of the dugout…were unlike anything baseball has seen, before or since. The results were pretty good, too. The Bird went 19-9 with a 2.34 earned run average, and his genuine enthusiasm for the game was infectious. Stadiums were packed every time The Bird took the mound.
Sadly, injuries cut short what might have been a Hall of Fame career. The Bird only won a handful of games over the next two seasons and was out of baseball by 1980. You might expect a guy to be a little bitter, having it all, then having it yanked away. But not The Bird. I saw him interviewed on ESPN Classic and he said something along the lines of “Are you kidding? I got to pitch in the Major Leagues!” If everyone had an attitude like that, the world would be a much better place.
The Bird died yesterday and I’m not surprised it makes me so sad. Heroes are larger than life when you are 10 years old and the great memories of ’76 are still vivid in my mind. What did surprise me was how many others felt the same way. I posted a note on my Facebook page shortly after hearing the news. I must have heard from a dozen people within an hour, all expressing their sadness at the news.
The Bird touched a lot of people in Detroit, apparently quite deeply. He gave us a magical summer in 1976 and some memories that will last a lifetime. Through it all, he remained humble and appreciative of his time in the sun. Thank you, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. Rest in peace.