Fidrych was right. Baseball's bosses did want to hear about him, because few rookies have had the impact on the game he had last year. His 19 wins (he lost nine) were the most by a Tiger rookie in 68 years. His earned run average of 2.34 was the lowest in the major leagues for a starting pitcher. His 24 complete games and his 1.000 fielding average (78 chances) led the American League. He was only the second rookie pitcher to start an All-Star Game. He was the American League's Rookie of the Year, and he was named major league Man of the Year by the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the award he accepted under the blinding lights in Los Angeles.
As impressive as Fidrych's statistics are, they account only in small measure for his extraordinary popularity, not merely in Detroit but throughout the country. In games he started at home, the average attendance was an astonishing 33,649. In games without him, the average was only 13,893. On the road he attracted an average of 26,869 fans, so that in 29 starts at home and away he drew 901,239 spectators, an average of 31,077. And with less than two full seasons of minor-league experience, Fidrych had not even been listed on the Tigers' regular-season roster when training began last spring. He did not start a game until May 15, when he beat Cleveland 2-1, and he did not become a star until June 28, when he defeated the Yankees 5-1 on Monday-night television. It was his seventh consecutive win, and his performance that evening enchanted a huge nationwide audience. In his three subsequent starts, he drew crowds of 51,032, 51,041 and 45,905. Not since Sandy Koufax has there been a pitcher with such drawing power.
Fidrych was new and very good but, more important, he had a quality that is in very short supply in these days of the plutocrat athlete—color. His small-town naivete and candor charmed an audience grown disillusioned with the litigious sorts who now people our playing fields. He talked not about how much he could make out of the game but of how much pleasure he got playing it. He spoke of how nice it was of the Tigers to sign him. He spoke of loyalty. Best of all, he did not seem to care much about money. In fact, he was earning what was then the minimum salary. $16,500 a year, though he would be handsomely rewarded with bonuses at the end of the season.
But the real source of his almost unprecedented fan appeal was his behavior on the mound, which, by any evaluation, was distinctly odd. He ran to his position, uncommonly eager to get on with the game. He knelt on the mound to pat the earth in front of him and smooth out the opposing pitcher's spike holes. He bolted from the mound to shake the hands of fielders whose play behind him seemed to call for some demonstration of his gratitude. And—the coup d'estime—he talked to the baseball! You could see him standing out there on the mound, holding that ball before him and actually speaking to it, as if he were Hamlet addressing poor Yorick's skull. Who, in the name of Walter Johnson, had ever done that before?
Fidrych also came with a ready-made and highly marketable nickname, the Bird. This now-deplored appellation was inflicted upon him by one of his minor league coaches, Jeff Hogan, who observed that Fidrych's awkward, arm-flapping gait was reminiscent of Big Bird on the children's television program,
. And it was as the Bird that he took flight on network television. He became a household word, the most refreshing eccentric to enter baseball since Dizzy Dean. In the past, such zanies were known as characters; the ongoing word is flake, and Fidrych seemed the biggest flake of them all.
The parents of this newly beloved eccentric, Paul and Virginia Fidrych, live just south of the center of Northboro in a house they have occupied for the last 23 years. He is gray-haired, a little heavy, and quiet. She is blonde, slight and as fidgety as her son, whom she calls Markie (Maaackie). They have three daughters, one older, two younger than Markie. Paul Fidrych is an assistant principal, teacher and coach at the Heard Street School in nearby Worcester. He coached his son until the boy entered Algonquin High School (Mark graduated from the Worcester Academy). To the townspeople, the Fidryches are known as Mr. and Mrs. Fid. When Markie is home, he and his mother often watch television together. "He likes The Brady Bunch, The Waltons, Happy Days and The Partridge Family," she says, the irony of his enthusiasm for the last show apparently lost on her.
"I don't like this Bird thing at all," says Mrs. Fid. "Markie's not a bird. He's a human being. He's my only son."
"It's just a nickname," says Mr. Fid, mildly remonstrating with her. "When I was growing up, we all had nicknames."
"And," says Mrs. Fid, warming to the battle, "I don't know what this flake business means. To me, my son is not flaky. He's just got a lot of nervous energy. He's on the ball all the time. He knows mechanics. He's human. I don't go for flaky and the Bird."
"The boy'll do whatever comes into his head," says Mr. Fid. "If it isn't what another person likes, he doesn't care. He's just having fun in life. I think he has feelings that nobody knows about. He just doesn't release them to anyone. I don't think he knows how to express his feelings. He just keeps them in."