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Mark 'The Bird' Fidrych dies at 54; quirky young pitcher enthralled Tigers fans in '76
Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, whose offbeat antics electrified the city of Detroit and charmed baseball fans everywhere during one of the unlikeliest seasons of glory in major league history, died Monday. He was 54.
Fidrych was found under his 10-wheel dump truck on his Massachusetts farm, the victim of an apparent accident, according to Worcester County Dist. Atty. Joseph Early. Fidrych appeared to have been working on the truck, Early told the Associated Press.
In 1976, the Detroit Tigers awarded the last spot on their roster to Fidrych, a shaggy-haired kid two years out of high school.
Within weeks, Fidrych took the city by storm, with fans flocking to Tiger Stadium to see the pitcher that talked to the baseball, got his nickname from his resemblance to the "Sesame Street" character Big Bird and started the All-Star Game for the American League.
"The only thing I could possibly compare it to would be Fernando [Valenzuela] in L.A.," said Angels executive Gary Sutherland, the Tigers' second baseman in Fidrych's first major league start.
"Every night he pitched, the place was packed."
In his first major-league start, after one month in the Tigers' bullpen, Fidrych took a no-hitter into the seventh inning. He finished the game with a two-hitter and a 2-1 victory over the Cleveland Indians, and he finished the season with a 19-9 record and league-leading 2.34 earned-run average.
He was selected as rookie of the year and finished second to Hall of Famer Jim Palmer for the Cy Young Award.
He started 28 games and completed 24. Only one pitcher has completed more games since then -- Rick Langford, with 28 for the Oakland Athletics in 1980.
Yet Fidrych is better remembered for a lighter side unusual among baseball players. He gave pep talks to the ball, kneeled to arrange the dirt on the pitcher's mound, sprinted to shake the hand of a fielder that had made a good play.
Opponents wondered whether he was putting on a show, then recognized the childlike joy was genuine.
"The guys that have fun when they play, they're rare," said Dodgers coach Larry Bowa, who played against Fidrych in the 1976 All-Star Game.
"We knew he wasn't trying to show anyone up. That was just how he was."
The Tigers averaged 34,000 fans that season when he started, 14,000 when he did not. In Anaheim, as a visiting player, he once signed autographs for more than an hour.
"He was the game's Pied Piper, the most charismatic player I've ever seen in baseball," Hall of Fame Tigers' announcer Ernie Harwell told the Detroit Free Press in 2001.
He posed for the covers of Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated, the latter next to Big Bird.
"I was like Mr. Clean," Fidrych told Sports Illustrated in 2001. "That was the cleaner everybody had in the house. And the Bird became as famous as that.
"People might hear the name Mark Fidrych and say, 'Never heard of him,' but say the Bird, and everybody knew."
His star dimmed quickly after that 1976 season.
He injured his knee and then his shoulder the next year, although he was not diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff until after he retired.
He won six games in 1977 and four more over the next three years.
By 1980, his major league career was over.
But his place in baseball was so entrenched that Sutherland said Brandon Wood asked him all about Fidrych this spring. Wood, the Angels' top prospect, was born nine years after Fidrych's magical season.
Phil Garner played against Fidrych in 1976, then managed the Tigers in 2001.
"How many other one-year wonders do you still vividly remember 25 years later?" Garner told the Free Press. "This is supposed to be a fun game that appeals to the little boy that's still in all of us, and he reinforced that idea that season. That was his attraction."
Fidrych, a native of Worcester, Mass., who was born Aug. 14, 1954, is survived by his wife, Ann, and the couple's daughter, Jessica.