At 8:06 last Friday night. Detroit's 1977 baseball season began—51 days late. It was a different kind of season from the one that had opened seven weeks before in the 23 other major league cities. No owners, managers or players were bickering with each other or getting on the media for publicizing the wrangling. No one could be heard complaining about contracts or short-circuited hair dryers. Instead, 44,207 people stood in musty old Tiger Stadium and roared, because the Bird—Mark Steven Fidrych—was, at last, on the mound. "Two things keep this city alive," said Nancy Szczukowski, a Detroit secretary. "The automobile industry and the Bird." And what's good for Detroit is good for baseball. After the sport's grumpiest start ever, the Bird had made the business a game again.
When the opener was over at 10:45, it did not seem to matter that Fidrych and the Tigers had lost 2-1 to the expansion Seattle Mariners. No one cared that traffic was jammed from Kaline Drive to the Windsor, Ont. tunnel. The Bird had flapped his arms and landscaped his mound, thrown a baseball to kids in the stands and a wad of bubble gum at the Seattle player scoring the winning run. And all the while, the fans, two of whom were dressed in Sesame Street costumes, had chanted, "Go, Bird, go!"
Almost unnoticed amid the hoopla was the fact that Fidrych had proved in his first appearance that the knee he had injured in spring training was sound, that he was the same emu who in four months last year had rocketed from a spring training nobody to baseball's Elton John. He had pitched nine strong innings. The two Mariner runs were the result of a dropped fly ball, a bloop double and an error. "I feel like I let the people down by losing," said Fidrych. "But, boy, I'm happy to be back. It felt fine, so fine. When I started warming up and heard all those cheers, I felt tingly and got half-tears in my eyes. Lemme tell you, I felt good."
But from March 21, when he tore cartilage in his left knee shagging flies in Lakeland, Fla., until last Friday, the Bird had not always felt good. On March 31 he was rushed back to Detroit for an operation. During the next two weeks, except for daily visits to the hospital, he could do nothing but sit around his apartment. "I was going nuts," Fidrych says. "Everything I do revolves around playing baseball." In mid-April he started jogging. "By then I'd learned to kill time better," says the Bird. "I started riding my two motorcycles. When I'm on them, I just think of happiness." By the end of April he was throwing batting practice. "He's so young and eager," says Tiger Manager Ralph Houk, "but we wanted to bring him back slowly, so that the first time he started, he'd be ready to go nine."
On May 11, in front of nine cops, 16 Minnesota Twins and 29 members of the concessions and ground crews, the Bird pitched a mock game against a batting order consisting of Tiger substitutes. On a trip two weeks ago—during which he almost gave Houk a heart attack by trying to lift a car that had gotten its bumper locked with the Tigers' bus in Dallas—Fidrych pitched an exhibition game in Cincinnati. He allowed four hits and a run in seven innings. He was, at last, pronounced ready.
By that time, the Bird had become itchy and testy. "He kept telling me he was ready," says Houk. "I sure wanted to pitch," says Fidrych, "but it's probably good the doctors didn't listen to what came out of my head." He had shouted at a reporter in Texas and had demanded in Cincinnati that no one mention his knee again. And it did not help that the Bird's return, which, it had been speculated, would occur during the middle of last week, was finally scheduled for Friday. There were two good reasons for that: first, he would not have to face California's Nolan Ryan or Frank Tanana, Detroit's opponents on Tuesday and Wednesday; and, second, Friday night crowds in Detroit are twice as big as those on mid-week evenings. The Tigers could be excused for making the shift, though some local reporters accused the club of "exploitation." Because six of Fidrych's 10 missed starts would have been at home, the Detroit front office figures his sore knee cost nearly $500,000 in gate receipts.
So, instead of pitching, the Bird fluttered around. He took hitting practice on Wednesday with a bat that is 50" long and weighs 60 ounces. "I asked the Louisville Slugger people for the biggest bat they make," said Fidrych. "Why not?" After a while, he went inside and sat in front of his locker, where he was immediately surrounded by reporters.
"I've got to be different this year," Fidrych told them. "I can't go on the way I did last year, letting anyone take advantage of me. I'm going to charge $100 for interviews, with the money going to cerebral palsy, the March of Dimes or some kids who need it. I hope it keeps people from interviewing me, because I can't come to the park without being interviewed. I can't be like anyone else. And the things people write. My mother's always calling me." Fidrych—and his mom—were particularly upset by a Rolling Stone article detailing his sex life.
On Friday the Bird managed to be by himself most of the time. He rode one of his Kawasaki 175s through the woods and later cleaned his other bike in preparation for turning it over to a new owner. Then he drove his Thunderbird through the lines of teen-age girls in their THE BIRD IS THE WORD shirts and into the Tiger Stadium parking lot. At 4:02, dressed in jeans and green sneakers and a UNIVERSITY OF POLAND T shirt, he passed the concession stand outside the clubhouse, squawking unintelligibly, and walked up to groundkeeper Frank Feneck. "Don't you ever change your shirt?" said Fidrych, jabbing his finger into Feneck's chest. When Feneck looked down, the Bird flicked his fingers up to tweak the groundkeeper's chin and went into the clubhouse howling.
It was an hour earlier than Fidrych normally arrives when he is pitching. The night was special. Denny McLain's return on July 1, 1970 after a half-season's suspension drew more people, 53,863. "But this is different," said Jimmy Conte at the souvenir stand. "We didn't have Denny McLain buttons." On Friday, Conte had plenty of Bird buttons, not to mention Bird posters and copies of a 45-rpm record by a group called the Fowls. One side is The Bird Is the Word, the other is Chirp Me Out to the Ball Game.