My night with The Bird: A Mark Fidrych Memory

I’m pleased to present a guest post from regular contributor Joe Guzzardi. Today, Joe looks at one of baseball’s all time memorable characters.

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During the summer of 1976, I traveled frequently to Minneapolis on assignment from my New York office.

On a late July trip, the buzz around town was that the Detroit Tigers’ Mark Fidrych would be taking the hill later that week against the hometown Twins.

Fidrych’s ascent into the baseball elite had been remarkable. Tiger manager Ralph Houk kept Fidrych in the bullpen the season’s first five weeks before giving him his first start on May 15th against the Cleveland Indians. Fidrych tossed a two-hitter to beat the Indians, 2-1.

Along his way to stardom the “Bird,” as Fidrych soon became known, pitched back-to-back 11-inning victories and also defeated the Twins on the Tigers’ first visit to Minneapolis in June.

By July 20, the date of his second start against the Twins, Fidrych had shot to national stardom thanks to a national television appearance on ABC’s Monday Night Baseball against the New York Yankees. In between talking to the ball and patting down the mound, Fidrych dominated the Yankees 5-1 in a mere 1:51 to send his record to 8-1. (YouTube video clip here.)

Fidrych figured prominently in another national showcase, the All Star Game, when manager Darrell Johnson gave him the starting nod, a rare honor for a rookie.

With Fidrych-mania at its peak, I couldn’t miss being among the fans at the old Metropolitan Stadium.

I asked my plugged-in banking friends who had behind-home-plate box seats, if they had an extra ticket. No way!

Local ticket brokers laughed. They offered to put me on their list but warned it was already 150 names deep.

By game night, I still lacked a ticket. I decided to head to the park, confident I would find a scalper there.

But only buyers milled around. I walked through the parking lot hoping that a tailgate group would have had a no-show. Again, I came up empty.

Resigned to listening to the game on the radio, I headed back to my car. At the last minute, I tried the only thing left. I walked to the ticket booth to ask if there was one seat available. Incredibly, there was.

I remember what the woman behind the window said: “This is your lucky night. I have exactly one.”

Because of an overflow crowd, a common phenomenon at Fidrych performances, the game started a half hour late. And it was further delayed by a pre-game stunt. To commemorate Fidrych’s 13th start, Twins’ owner Calvin Griffin ordered 13 homing pigeons released from their cages on top of the mound.

Fidrych’s opponent was the crafty Bill Singer. Once a 20-game winner with the Los Angeles Dodgers and again with the Los Angeles Angels, Singer was at the end of his 14-year career. But Singer still knew how to pitch.

The Twins, featuring a hard hitting line-up that included Rod Carew and Tony Oliva, roughed Fidrych up early. Led by Oliva and Steve Braun singles, the Twins scored twice in the bottom of the third.

In the fourth, singles by Lyman Bostock and Oliva added one more Twins tally to give Minnesota a 3-0 advantage.

The game turned around in the sixth when Detroit scored four runs on five hits including a Rusty Staub home run.

For all practical purposes, Staub’s homer ended the game. The Tigers added single runs in the seventh and eight while Fidrych (11-2) held the Twins at bay over the last five innings. Final score: Tigers 8-Twins 3.

Fidrych’s line: 9 IP; 10H; 3ER; 2 BB; 2 K

As the Twins’ fans filed out, they were much happier to have witnessed Fidrych history than they were sad that their team, in the midst of an uninspiring 85-77 third place finish, lost.

After the game, Fidrych showed why he was such a media favorite. A reporter asked Fidrych what he thought of Oliva who went 4-4 with a run scored and an RBI.

Replied Fidrych: “Who’s Oliva?”

In 1976, Fidrych led the American League in ERA (2.34), complete games (24) and won the Rookie of the Year Award. By most accounts, Fidrych should have also have won the Cy Young Award but it went instead to Jim Palmer.

By early 1977, Fidrych’s developed arm trouble and won only ten games over his next four seasons. He died in 2009 in a freak accident at his Massachusetts farm.

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Joe Guzzardi belongs to the Society for American Baseball Research, as well as the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America. Email him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com

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