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The short flight of the Bird

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By Karl Lindholm

I saw The Bird before he was The Bird.

Here’s the story:

Many years ago (early 1970s), my good friend Jim was the basketball coach at Auburn High outside Worcester, Mass. Home in New England for a visit, I stopped to visit Jim and Candy on the night of the big hoop tilt between Auburn and Algonquin Regional High.

All I remember about that game was the play of a skinny, frizzy-haired kid from Algonquin. He could really play. “You should see him play baseball,” said friend Jim.

I guess. Just a few years later, the frizzy-haired kid was the toast of baseball — national baseball, not Worcester-area baseball, the Big Leagues, baby. A shooting star, as it turned out, he nonetheless lit up Detroit and the baseball world in the summer of 1976.

Mark Fidrych of Northborough, Mass., was selected by the Tigers in the 10th round in the 1974 baseball draft after a year at Worcester Academy. He spent just two years in the minor leagues before he made the big club as a non-roster player in 1976. He was 21 years old, just a kid, 6-foot-3, 175 pounds.

He had been nicknamed “The Bird” by a minor league manager for his resemblance to the Sesame Street character Big Bird.

Fidrych pitched twice in relief for Detroit before he got his first start in May against the Cleveland Indians. He pitched a two-hitter, going all nine innings in a 2-1 win. On June 28, he defeated the Yankees 5-1 in a tidy hour and 51 minutes before a national TV audience.

I watched that game in Mister Ups. The 48,000 fans in Detroit chanted his name after the game. The Bird made a curtain call and the crowd in Mister Ups and the baseball nation were hooked.

In his next start he came to Fenway Park and lost 2-0 to Luis Tiant, giving up a decisive home run to Carl Yastrzemski. He had pitched to his boyhood heroes, Yaz and Rico, and was thrilled nearly beyond words. Asked about the homer after the game, the kid from Wusss-tah said, “It blew my mind. It blew my g--d-- mind. Just because ... hey, the only reason it blew my mind was because, ... here I am, goin’, ... I’m in front of my ... Fenway Pahk!”

Despite his late start he won 19 games in the summer of 1976. With a nasty slider and pinpoint control, he led all pitchers in the American League with a 2.41 earned run average and 24 complete games. He started the All Star Game in July for the AL and was named Rookie of the Year. He finished second in the voting for the Cy Young Award. He earned the major league minimum, $16,500.

He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated twice that summer (once with his Sesame Street doppelganger) and also on the cover of the Rolling Stone. The 18 games he started accounted for nearly half of the attendance at the Tigers’ 81 home games (the fans were “Bird-Watchers”). On the road, he sold out stadiums across the country.

He struck a chord. He was exuberant and eccentric, but utterly authentic. He constantly broke baseball’s hoary conventions and got away with it, because it was all natural and spontaneous. He was a kid in a kid’s game. He bounced around the mound, famously talking to the ball, ... well, talking to himself, as he peered in for the catcher’s sign, the ball held in front of his face. He threw balls out of play that had hits in them.

He got down on his hands and knees and manicured the mound. He congratulated his teammates on good plays and high-fived them as they came in from the field to the dugout.

In spring training the next year he tore cartilage in his knee, shagging flies. After surgery, he returned to the mound, perhaps too soon, and developed arm trouble. He never recovered his form and was finished in the major leagues by the time he was 25.

He adjusted to life after baseball. He worked. He bought 100 acres in Northborough with his baseball money and farmed a bit, and logged, and drove a truck; he hauled things and worked construction jobs with his truck. He married Ann, the daughter of Chet of Chet’s Diner in Northborough and they had a daughter, Jessica.

It was his truck that killed him last month. He was underneath his 10-wheeler, working on it, officials speculated, when his clothing caught in the “power take-off shaft.” He was 54. He was found dead in the middle of the day by his friend and sometimes construction boss, Lou Amorello.

He was beloved in Northborough. “He had a million friends,” said Amorello.

* * *

A student in one my baseball classes at Middlebury College, Mike McCarthy, decided to write his final paper on the Fidrych phenomenon. I suggested at the time, “call him up,” and he did. It wasn’t that hard — The Bird’s number was in the phone book.

Mike, who graduated in 2003, wrote to me last week: “He was so gracious to me. I was nervous, but he was patient, thoughtful, and tolerant of being asked to retell aspects of his baseball career that he had already covered innumerable times with far more experienced journalists. He was eager to talk about his life after baseball and we spent the most time talking about his family.

“He was fantastic.”

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