MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Mark Fidrych died yesterday. You may know him better by his nickname, Mark "The Bird" Fidrych. His major league baseball career as a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers was brief. He had one great season followed by a handful of years marked more by injuries than fastballs. But baseball fans in the motor city and elsewhere still talk about that one great season. It was 1976. NPR's Don Gonyea, a native of Detroit, takes us back.
DON GONYEA: The mid '70s were top years to be a Detroit Tigers fan. In 1975, they lost 102 games, 1976 promised little relief - until May, when a young prospect came up from the Minors to make his first Major League start against Cleveland. He took a no-hitter into the seventh inning. He won 2-1, his name was Mark Fidrych but everybody simply called him "The Bird".
(Soundbite of song, "Surfin' Bird")
Mr. DAL WINSLOW (Musician, The Trashmen): (Singing) A-well-a everybody's heard about the bird, B-b-b-bird, bird, bird, b-bird's the word, A-well-a bird, bird, bird, the bird is the word, A-well-a bird, bird, bird, well the bird is the… word
GONYEA: Forget Motown, that song was the sound of Detroit that summer. The wins started piling up. Dan Dickerson is the Tigers play-by-play announcer. Back then he was a 17 year old fan.
Mr. DAN DICKERSON (Lead Radio Play-By-Play Announcer, Detroit Tigers): By midsummer I mean it was a phenomenon. And you look back at those crowds -45,000, 50,000 time after time at Tigers Stadium - the whole state was in the grip of this 21-year-old kid.
GONYEA: Fidrych was called "The Bird" because of an uncanny resemblance to Big Bird from Sesame Street. He was tall and awkward and he had a mop of curly blonde hair that refused to be contained by a baseball cap. But that was only part of it. He'd sprint out from the dugout, leaping over the chalk and the third baseline. He'd talk to the baseball. Between pitches he'd drop down to his hands and knees and groom the mound filling in holes.
Mr. DICKERSON: It was genuine. This was who he was. I mean he shook the hands of his infielders during an inning, not just when he coming off the field at the end of the inning. If they made a good play, he'd go shake their hands. That was him.
GONYEA: But most of all "The Bird" could pitch. He sold out ball parks around the country. He was the starting pitcher for the American League in the 1976 All-Star Game. He racked up 19 wins, was named Rookie of the Year - all on a rookie salary of $16,500. But it all ended too soon. He got hurt the following spring. He came back, pitched well and then a shoulder injury. He said his arm felt dead. Comeback after comeback failed. "The Bird" retired in 1980. Fidrych returned to his native Massachusetts, bought a farm and a truck and made a living. Always a hit at autograph shows, he'd also play in old-timer games and always seemed to have the best time of anybody out there.
GONYEA: Mark Fidrych was 54 years old when he died yesterday. The victim of an apparent accident while working underneath a dump truck on his farm. As a tiger fan, I've wondered over the years what it must be like to be Fidrych, to live with a disappointment of a career cut short of brilliance only barely fulfilled. A friend said to me, it's like a movie or a novel or an opera. I agree but even with its sad ending yesterday it would not be a tragedy because Mark Fidrych never gave any indication he saw it as such. He always seemed pleased that so many of us still remember that amazing year when everybody was talking about "The Bird". Don Gonyea, NPR News.
(Soundbite of song, "Surfin' Bird")
Mr. WINSLOW: (Singing) Papa-oom-oom-oom-oom-ooma-mow-mow, Oom-oom-oom-oom-ooma-mow-mow, Ooma-mow-mow, papa-ooma-mow-mow, Papa-ooma-mow-mow, ooma-mow-mow. Well don't you know about the bird? Well, everybody knows that the bird is the word! A-well-a bird, bird, b-bird's the word…
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