Today’s special contribution to Musings of a Displaced Tigers Fan comes from a man named Mike. Mike has been a Tigers fan longer than anyone else who writes for this blog. That’s because he’s older than anyone else who writes for this blog. We’d all be silly not to listen to what he has to say. Respect your elders.
In this entry, Mike shares his experience of growing up watching Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. Look for his musings to appear periodically throughout the season, and let him know what you think in the comments section.
So, a couple of fifteen year olds were milling around in my classroom a few weeks ago, about ten minutes before a new trimester was to begin. I heard them arguing back and forth about something when one suddenly exclaimed, “Dude, seriously, YouTube it if you think I’m bullshittin!” It was as good a start to the trimester as any.
The friend tapped YouTube Dude on the elbow and pointed at me. “Oh, sorry,” he said, with just enough pseudo-politeness to derail a self-righteous, middle-aged loon who might want to shake him down for casual swearing on day one of the trimester, and he said it with just enough laid back sarcasm to show his friend that he wasn’t a suckass. YouTube Dude made all that happen with just two words. I liked him immediately.
He’ll never know this, but he actually got me to thinking about the 90 or so argumentative essays I’d graded over the previous weekend which responded to one district-given prompt: “Should your school install surveillance cameras in the hallways?” About 86 of them argued in the affirmative and most expressed incredulity than anyone could possibly disagree. Maybe two of the four NOs expressed something resembling the rebellious teen nature of which I was hoping to read more. The other two were, of the “no, but, like, it’s just my opinion and everybody has opinions right or wrong” variety. The lopsided responses made me ponder, as I do from time to time, how much, and how little, our world has changed in the past thirty years. I’m certain that, if we were able to ship that lame prompt through a time machine to thirty years ago and administer it to my generation, the essays 1) would have been just as rife with mechanical errors and 2) would have been just as polluted with faulty logic BUT, 3) the majority of us would have argued for the other side.
Ah, well. It is what it is, as the newest old saying goes, and truth can be a tricky thing to get ahold of. If a fifteen-hundred-dollar camera mounted prominently in the corner of a hallway makes young people think their peers will behave more civilly than they would otherwise, then maybe the right answer is to spend the cash and put one up there. On the other hand, if enough of the young people being filmed feel insulted, patronized and invaded, then that becomes truth for a while. It’s the tension of opposites, YouTube Dude. We attempt to define our reality as our reality attempts to define us.
And oddly enough, this leads me to reminiscing about absolutely the most incredible one-year wonder in Detroit Tiger history and, quite possibly, in all of MLB history, my absolute favorite Tiger of all time, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. If there was a Hall of Fame for magnificently bright shooting stars, this guy would have been a first ballot inductee.
He was drafted by the Tigers in the 10th round and was a non-roster invitee to Spring Training in March of 1976, and somehow earned a spot on the team. Now, before we get to the big stuff, seriously, does that even happen anymore? I mean, twelve-year-old travel team rosters these days are practically finalized by the time the kids are eight. But I digress.
Fidrych pitched in his first major league baseball game on April 20th, 1976. He threw one shutout inning in a throw away loss. He didn’t see the field again for a month, and only got his first start because the regular guy had the flu. In this, his first real major league game, Fidrych threw six no-hit innings, and ended up throwing a two-hit complete game. The Tigers, destined for fifth place that magical summer of my 9th year on the planet, won 2-1, and “The Bird” was hatched. (One of his pitching coaches supposedly gave him that nickname because of his passing resemblance to the gigantic yellow Sesame Street mutation).
Just a few weeks later, Fidrych pitched TWO STRAIGHT eleven inning games, and won them both. Eleven innings. Twice. In a row. Say what you want about today’s GMs doling out salaries that rival the GNP’s of developing countries, but one good reason we will never see pitchers throw two straight 150-pitch games again is because sheer economics makes it impossible for professional baseball managers to ever be that stupid again. Anyway, two months later, rookie phenom Mark “The Bird” Fidrych was named the American League starting pitcher for the 1976 All-Star Game.
Now, while you’re Googling, or YouYubing this guy, you might check out the ‘76 Yankees, destined to sweep Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” in the World Series that year. Some call that Yankees team one of the best ever. Fidrych beat them twice though, 5-1, and 3-0. He went the distance in both games, and both games were nationally televised. Eight of those Yankees, including Reggie Jackson, ended up in the Hall of Fame. Jackson was in that first generation of free agents, of whom Yankees owner George Steinbrenner gobbled from the Baltimore Orioles/ Oakland A’s for $3 million over three years. (Yes, Google the complexity of the trade if you’re so inclined. Sometimes scheming, motivated human beings defy words). Jackson went 0 for 7 against Fidrych that summer though. And what, you ask, did the Tigers’ very own rookie phenom make that year?
How about $16,500? No zeroes missing there. Sixteen thousand, five-hundred dollars. It was the league minimum at the time. While Jackson, who famously called himself “the straw that stirs the drink,” polished four Caddys in the garage of his mansion in upstate New York, Fidrych drove a lime green, sub-compact piece of shit to work each day. When a sportswriter asked him about it, he said, “It doesn’t fit my style, but it fits my budget.” Now, you might have to dig a little deeper than Google if you want to verify this next part, but I swear it’s true: Some state legislator tried to pass a bill that would have forced the Tigers into renegotiating his contract mid-summer. The bill got lost in committee, as good ideas tend to do, and that’s all Fidrych ended up making. But I imagine the politician got re-elected for his well-intentioned, though slightly socialist idea, and this 47-year-old blogger, nine at the time, filed away the memory forever. And, while I KNOW you won’t be able to verify this part, I promise you it’s just as true as anything you can Google: at least half of the pitchers in the Howell, Michigan Little League that summer were mimicking Fidrych’s crazy mound antics, including this strong-armed, wild lefty.
Oh, the antics. Fidrych talked to the ball between pitches. Yeah. No typo there. He talked TO the ball. Kind of a Zen Buddhism meets 1970’s America type thing. He would also, quite often, get on his hands and knees to manicure the mound between innings, and sometimes between batters.
When there was no one on base, with the ball in his glove, he’d aim his right hand and throw a phantom dart where he wanted the ball to go. Babe Ruth called-shot: meet The Bird’s called-dart. Every bit as cool, and ten times as weird. And if the ball didn’t go exactly where The Bird told it to go, he’d whip himself around, extend both arms with palms down, tilt his head, and drop his palms like a cartoon maestro silencing the orchestra in his head, as if to say, “calm down, dude. You got this.” When he stepped atop what famed announcer Ernie Harwell began to call “his perch,” Fidrych would bend at the waist about 45 degrees, always keeping his long, skinny legs straight as stilts, toes tightly together, and giving his catcher that far-away stare, lips always mouthing words that mesmerized viewers could only imagine amounted to a silent, lonely, adrenaline-inspired prayer. ‘Please, make this next pitch the best one I ever threw.’ He really didn’t look or act like a professional athlete even back then, much less now. He looked and acted more like a loveable, dorky, frizzy-haired teenager zoned into a game of Pinball at the Howell Rollerrama because the hottest girl at Highlander Junior High wouldn’t skate with him under the disco ball to “Fox On the Run.” (Spotify it, dude. It’s a sweet song, and Barb Bauer, wherever you are, I forgive you.)
Baseball purists, the first thing I think you’ll notice from these old 70’s clips is his oddly non-athletic physique. Fidrych went about 6’2″, a buck seventy-five. Also, whereas all the pitchers these days, even the ones with the more unique motions, look EXACTLY the same on every single pitch, Fidrych looked DIFFERENT on every pitch, arms and legs flailing in every direction. Also, if he’d lasted, great as he might have been, I doubt he would have ever won a Gold Glove because his wild righty momentum and gawky frame carried him across the entire circumference of the mound. On that note though, looking back, knowing what even casual baseball fans now know, the Bird’s one-of-a-kind windup didn’t have a long shelf-life. Too many moving parts, as we say nowadays. Mechanically unsound. Because of it, though, his slider, like his motion, is something of which we won’t see again. He’d start that thing on the left part of the batter’s left ass cheek and catch the low outside corner of the right side of the plate almost at will all summer. Yes, despite his appearance, his salary, his demeanor, and every logical molecule in every 1970’s American brain telling us all that there was no way what we were really seeing what we were seeing—actually, maybe BECAUSE of all of that–The Bird truly was the word in the Summer of 1976.
The Tigers averaged 15,000 in attendance when he wasn’t pitching, and 45,000 when he was. After the All-Star game, even though he got tagged for two runs in the first inning, opposing teams began asking the Tigers management to re-arrange their rotation so Fidrych could pitch in THEIR park. In his thirteenth start, at Minnesota, they released thirteen pigeons on the pitching mound just before game time, in a semi-clever nod to his nickname. He made the cover of Sports Illustrated that summer too—it was a really cool shot of him in the finish of his crazy motion as Sesame Street’s Big Bird cheered him on in the background.
Again, The Tigers were no match for the mighty Yankees that summer, or the talented Red Sox, or even the mediocre Minnesota Twins EXCEPT when Fidrych was pitching. If he was on the mound, we really could beat anybody on the planet. I still can’t help but make the mystically weird connection between Fidrych and the fictional Rocky Balboa, who electrified movie theatres for the first time that very same summer, and I remain convinced that neither the fictional Italian Stallion nor the real life Bird could have emerged in any other decade. Dude, imagine a nine-year old actually believing, really BELIEVING that any individual—anyone at all–can come out of nowhere and shut down the best baseball team in the history of the game, or knock the world heavyweight champion on his ass. Good thoughts to think.
YouTube Dude, you’ll like this part: There was one “major” scandal involving Mark Fidrych that summer. They were playing the Twins in August and, even though they were totally out of the division race by then, it was on national television because The Bird was pitching. This was one of his rare off days, though. He got pulled in the 4th inning, and when the interviewer asked for his thoughts, he said, “I was complete bullshit today. Sorry. I’m just sharing my feelings with you.” Yes, there were more than a few catcalls about “poor role models” and “the declining morality of today’s youth,” just like there are today, and just like there always have been, probably since some caveman’s son annoyed his father by crawling out of a cave and killing a tiger with a rock instead of his bare hands about a million years ago. Seriously, on a side note here, whenever some older dude starts giving you shit about your generation, do that thing you did with me a few weeks ago when you thought I might shake you down in my class ten minutes before the trimester began: Blow ‘em off in that cool, non-confrontational way. Squaring off against a self-righteous, middle-aged poser is about as productive as swinging at a Fidrych slider in the dirt. Anyway, a story quickly spread that the league was going to fine him $250 for using profanity on television. Tiger fans were outraged and actually started passing around hats at the stadium to pay his fine, but it turned out that the letter he got, on official American League stationary, was from his teammates. They were just pranking him! I remember the Tigers broadcasters at the time, George Kell and Al Kaline, mentioning that all the money collected at the park would go to charity, and I remember hoping that they’d just give it to The Bird. I still hope they did that, actually.
So how does this end? Why does no one under forty remember this guy? The answer is sort of inspiring and heartbreaking at the same time. He finished 19-9 that season, sported a 2.34 ERA and was named Rookie of the Year. He finished 2nd for the Cy Young award, behind future Hall of Famer Jim Palmer. The Tigers coughed up a little more dough the next season, but not much more. He got a $25,000 bonus, and $255,000 for the next three years. Then, sometime in the spring of 1977, he torked his knee goofing around in the outfield, and that changed his wild, flailing motion just enough to tear a rotator cuff in his shoulder. Unfortunately, this was before torn rotator cuffs were promptly diagnosed and treated. In May of that season, he was quoted as saying that he felt his arm, “just go dead” midway through a game. He got invited to the 1979 All-Star Game anyway, but declined due to injury. He still finished the year at 6-4 with a 2.89 era. Fidrych had to sit out the entire 1979 season due to the mysterious, nagging shoulder stiffness. He came back in 1980, fought the injury throughout the summer and finished 2-1. He pitched what would be his last major league game in August of that year, and got tagged for four runs in five innings. About every other month for the next five years, there were “Bird sightings,” and rumblings of a possible comeback, but it was not to be. In 1985, he was FINALLY diagnosed with that torn rotator cuff, and, because of his efforts to make a comeback during the previous nine years, too much damage had been done to repair it.
Here’s the inspiring part. Fidrych took whatever savings he had, bought himself a truck and started a gravel business in New England. Nothing big. Guy-down-the-road stuff. Adjusting for inflation, he probably made the equivalent of $16, 500 a year until the day he died. About once a season until his death in 2009, the Tigers would fly him back to Detroit to throw out the first pitch to the roar of the crowd, which seemed to get more polite and less enthusiastic as the seasons passed. And the last few times he did that, I swear, a summer breeze from 1976 would swirl up a few conflicting emotions and kick up some dust in the eyes of this wild lefty as I sat in my living room recliner and watched from a distance. It was comforting to see his cheerful, who-gives-a-dammed 70’s attitude still firmly intact, it was kind of mind-numbing to me that only Fidrych himself and Tigers’ fans my age and older would ever really get what a huge deal he was for one incredible summer, and I was kind of amazed that he seemed to give less of a shit about all of that than the rest of us who still remembered. Kicked up some dust just now, actually.
Dude, you can’t Google that, but I’m dead serious.
And here’s why they’ll never make a movie about him. He didn’t pickle himself to death, as the poets and novelists might have liked. He didn’t get gunned down by a crazed fan or a jealous lover, as the screenwriters might have liked. And he didn’t croak from the ravages of steroids or a haze of drugs, as the self-righteous posers might have liked. Mark “The Bird” Fidrych was underneath his truck, doing some repairs, and the jack gave way. He was 55. Talk about bullshit. But it’s true.
What else is true? Well, the Rocky franchise has made about a billion dollars and counting since the summer of 1976. And, that summer, at age nine, I actually came up with a billion dollar concept myself and didn’t even know it. (I used to spend hours in my room with baseball cards, lining them up, by position, on the imaginary diamond that was my bedroom floor. My green shag carpet made for a pretty good-looking, well-manicured outfield.) I’d spend half a day holed up in there matching up my beloved Tigers against Steinbrenner’s mighty Yankees, or Don Zimmer’s talented Red Sox, or the great Rod Carew’s mediocre Twins, or whomever, and imagining that I had ultimate control of the outcomes of any and every game I willed my teams to play. I’d even make my cards “run-out” doubles off my bedroom wall, slide head-first into third, and endure bone-crunching collisions at the plate. Nowadays, my two sons play a video game that has everything I was imagining on my bedroom floor almost forty years ago.
Let’s see, what else is true? The real Tigers are really pretty awesome now. They would have slaughtered the mid-1970’s Tigers, except, maybe, when Fidrych was pitching. Also, the players these days, unlike Fidrych, are much less likely to get hosed by management, which is a good thing of course, but the tradeoff is that, because there is so much money involved, and SO much media following the money involved, unlike with Fidrych, we can pretty much see the phenoms coming from the time they’re in Junior High School. Oh, get this: Everybody’s favorite player, Miguel Cabrera, just signed a ten-year contract worth $300,000,000. No zeroes added there. Three hundred million dollars. My oldest son told me just the other day that Cabrera will make about $49,000 PER AT BAT this season, which is the average annual salary for a person working in Michigan these days (and, I might add, three times as much as Fidrych made in his entire rookie year). The reason we got Cabrera in the first place though, is that the owner, Mike Illitch, was a Double-A Tigers player in the 1950’s who couldn’t quite make it to the next level, so he decided to make some pizza instead, and he actually made enough of it to afford to pay the salaries of a three-time batting champion, two Cy Young winners and a few other potential Hall of Famers too. A World Series might be in the cards this season, so to speak. Oh yeah, the pizza dude also owns the Red Wings.
Simply put, YouTube Dude, my favorite personal truth I’ve managed to piece together in forty-seven trips around the sun is this: Truth really is stranger, more wonderful, sometimes more tragic, but more exciting than any fiction, and it’s still a tricky thing to get ahold of. Finally, yes, it is what it is, but sometimes, seriously, we, meaning any single one of us, can actually make it what it is.
YouTube it if you think I’m bullshittin’.