On an April day in Oakland, Ralph Houk, then manager of the Tigers, signaled to the bullpen. On the run, still half unzippered, shoving his shirt and cup into place came a gangly kid with curly blond hair bouncing over his ears, entering his first major league game.
He dropped to his knees and smoothed out all the little holes the other pitcher had left on the mound, like a little kid in his sandbox, lost in an imaginary world. When his infielders or outfielders made a good play, he ran to them to shake their hands in the middle of an inning. He did knee bends and squats on the mound, and when he set himself to pitch, he held the ball in front of him and appeared to talk to it. Of course, he was actually talking to himself, focusing on his task, but in 1976, when a children's game was becoming overrun with attach�-carrying shortstops and talk of holdouts and strikes and agents' percentages, who cared about details like that?
"Never in my 37 years of baseball have I seen a player like him, and never will I again," says the Tigers' president, Jim Campbell. "My gosh, I don't know why we don't see more people like Mark Fidrych. He was what he was. All natural. So hyper, so uninhibited. A minute after he came into my office he'd have one cheek of his butt on the corner of my desk. Before you knew it, he'd be lying on my desk, his head resting in one hand, the other hand gesturing in the air."
"The best young pitcher I've ever had in my career," says Houk.
A 10th-round pick by the Tigers in the '74 draft, Fidrych had stayed in a tent his first few days of Rookie League ball until management talked him into a motel. His fastball and slider were as naturally hyper as he, his control, for a wild kid, was confounding. A minor league manager, assessing Fidrych's tall, gawky body, his plume of hair and free spirit, nicknamed him the Bird after the
character Big Bird. The night the Tigers told him he was going north with the big team in '76, he smuggled a girl over the fence of their Lakeland complex, lay down on the mound with her and celebrated.
His salary was $16,500, he didn't have an agent, and the guy in the upper deck didn't need four beers to gaze down at Fidrych and imagine he saw himself. On June 28, before 50,000 fans at Tiger Stadium and a Monday Night Baseball national audience, Fidrych pitched a seven-hit, 5-1 victory over the Yankees. The camera hopped from him apparently talking to the ball to a fan in a yellow bird costume frolicking through the stands, and twice after the game, Fidrych had to make curtain calls for the mob that chanted "Bird! Bird! Bird!" and wouldn't leave.
"Our family, the whole town, felt part of it," says his sister, Carol Ann. Her eyes look off. "We had the best times going to his games. Ahhhh, the best times. About once a month I still go back and look at a video of highlights of him pitching that year. He was the happiest I've ever seen him. On the video you can see it—his face glowed."
He became the second rookie in history to start an All-Star Game, went 19-9 on a next-to-last-place team, led all major league starters in ERA (2.34), was voted Man of the Year by the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, and singlehandedly boosted Tiger attendance by more than 400,000 over the year before. Bird T shirts, buttons and records appeared; helicopters bearing greetings to the Bird circled the stadium. A man named his baby after him, and a resolution was introduced in the Michigan state legislature demanding that the Tigers raise his pay. The Twins delayed a game for nearly half an hour to funnel the huge crowd into one of his games. The Angels, afraid to disappoint a packed house when Fidrych missed a start, put him in a cage in their stadium concourse to sign autographs. Men who had spent their lives trying to become polished and sophisticated fought for postition to get the signature and shake the hand of a man who had remained spontaneous and natural.
Maybe if he could have kept it small, if he could have risen off his knees from the dirt, thrown the hyper fastball by the batter and gone home, it could have lasted longer than a year. Maybe in a country that had become obsessed with building and dismantling celebrities, and expert at turning the natural into the stale, it was better that it didn't. The day after the Monday night game, a man from the William Morris Agency in Manhattan called and soon was lining up commercials and appearances. After a while Fidrych would hide in the stadium until near midnight, then dash for his car, zigzagging to avoid fans leaping onto the hood. The parking lot and hallway of his apartment became so jammed with people that he had to move to another complex in the suburbs with a 24-hour security patrol. "He'd call me and tell me reporters were calling his hotel room at midnight the night before he had to pitch, that people were banging on his hotel door all day," recalls Stephen Pinkus, the William Morris agent. " 'They're driving me nuts,' he'd say. 'Why?' I'd say. 'Because you're a star and that's what happens.' He didn't understand. He was completely out of his league. All he wanted to do was drink beer and listen to rock music and have fun."
Fidrych taped an appearance for Bill Cosby's children's show, during which the director screamed at him when he had trouble reading the cue cards. "Hey, man," Fidrych screamed back, "this isn't my field. I'm a baseball pitcher."