JUNE 6, 1977
Twenty years ago Mark Fidrych was to have shared the cover of SI's baseball preview issue with Sesame Street's Big Bird. In 1976, as a 21-year-old Detroit Tigers rookie, Fidrych had soared to fame on his pitching, charm and amusing idiosyncrasies. He had earned the nickname the Bird for his floppy-armed, goofy-gaited resemblance to the Sesame Street character and displayed more mannerisms than a parakeet. Before a pitch, he would drop to his hands and knees as if a gardener to smooth the soil around the rubber. He appeared to talk to the ball before throwing it. (In truth he was merely talking to himself while looking at the ball.) He shook hands with his infielders after good plays and once included the groundskeepers in his congratulatory rounds. Unlike so many of today's brooding artistes, he genuinely seemed to be enjoying himself on the field.
And why not? In that rookie season, he had 19 wins and a 2.34 earned run average, the lowest in the majors. His 24 complete games led the American League. He increased Detroit's home attendance by some 400,000 while delighting reporters with such drolleries as, "Hey, it's my vacation, let me vacate." He was, after all, just a kid from Northboro, Mass., who would have been pumping gas down at Pierce's Sunoco station had it not been for his baseball talent.
But as suddenly as the fun began, it ended. In spring training of 1977 Fidrych tore cartilage in his left knee while shagging flies. Surgery was performed, and SI shelved its already shot cover photo of the Bird with Big Bird. Fidrych was sidelined until May 27 when, before 44,207 at Tiger Stadium, he began what was to have been his triumphant comeback. He pitched well enough, and SI dusted off the Big Bird cover. But the following week something popped in Fidrych's right shoulder. He pitched sparingly the rest of the season. Six years of grief followed. In June '83, pitching deep in the minor leagues, Fidrych retired.
But weep not for the Bird. He's back in Northboro, living on his 107-acre farm—"sheep, cows, things like that"—with his wife, Ann, and their nine-year-old daughter, Jessica. Fidrych, who once said, "They say I'm writing a book, and I can hardly read," has also made a foray into publishing. In collaboration with writer-editor Rose Lonborg, wife of former Boston Red Sox pitcher Jim, he has put together a coloring book based on his one great season. "The cover has a bird on it with my face," he says, laughing the old laugh. "It's a new adventure."