A strange Bird with flamingo legs, a sparrow's countenance and Harpo Marx plumage stood on the mound and talked to the baseball:
"Flow, gotta flow now, gotta flow.
"C'mon, gotta keep down. Let it fly."
The soliloquy was accompanied by wing-flapping gyrations. When it concluded, the Bird did a double knee bend. He pitched. The batter swung at the fastball and missed.
July 11, 1976
"Great pitch, way to flow, in the groove," the Bird said to the ball when he got it back.
So it went far into the night, and when the game was over, 47,855 human beings stood and shrieked in unison, "We want the Bird! We want the Bird! We want the Bird!"
So the Bird came mincing out of the dugout in his stocking feet. He took off his cap and waved it. He waved it again. He blew kisses to the multitudes, and he bowed and nodded. Then he bird-stepped back to the clubhouse.
This all actually happened. There is no fiction about the Bird, the Tigers' rookie righthander whose real name is Mark Fidrych. This scene occurred early last week after he defeated the first-place Yankees 5-1, but there was as much excitement five days later when 51,032 showed up to see Fidrych shut out Baltimore for his ninth win in 10 big-league starts. Detroit, a city of sports deprivation, vibrated the way it had not since the days of Denny McLain. Donald Shoemaker of nearby Warren even named his newborn son Mark Fidrych Shoemaker.
Back in the clubhouse after his victory over New York, the Bird took his achievement in stride. He drank a paper cup of milk on the rocks and chased it with four beers.
"It gives my body a rush," said Fidrych in Birdese. "Any player gets a rush when he hears cheers from the stands. My mind's not that blank.
"I don't want to get impressed with myself, get a big head. If that happens, I want somebody to smack me. That would be the downfall of my life. I'm only a rookie."
"You feel you've got a lot going for you now?" wondered a radio interviewer.
"Well, my car's still going good," said the Bird.
"I mean—" said the radio person.
"I couldn't ask for anything better," Fidrych said. "The only other job I could have is working in a gas station back home."
"He's the most exciting thing I've seen in any city I've been in," says Outfielder Rusty Staub, who played in New York when the Mets won a pennant. "I've never seen a city turn on like this. I've seen Tom Seaver go out and mow them down, but I've never seen anybody electrify the fans like this. And the best part of it is that none of it is contrived."
The Bird showed up at the Tigers' lockout-delayed spring training camp with a few T shirts, a couple of pairs of blue jeans, some cutoffs and a pair of shredded blue sneakers. He was a non-roster pitcher who had been invited to throw batting practice to the big-leaguers. The big-leaguers lived in motels and rented houses. Fidrych stayed in the dormitory at the Tigers' minor league base. It seemed he was destined to play this year for Detroit's Evansville (Ind.) farm club.
Fidrych had spent less than two seasons in the minors. He began at Bristol, Va., becoming the Bird his first day there. Coach Jeff Hogan originated the name after watching Fidrych, on the field, piercing the silence with shrieks of gaawk, gaawk. "You're a bird," said Hogan, and he was right.
By the middle of last season, Fidrych had advanced from Bristol to Lakeland, Fla. to Montgomery, Ala. to Evansville in Triple A. And news of his high-velocity fastball and his hard slider had reached Detroit. When the management-player squabbles retarded the training of other pitchers this spring, Tiger Manager Ralph Houk used Fidrych in several exhibition games.
He worked against the Reds and the Red Sox. He kept the ball low and fast—and he stayed in camp. When he pitched, he talked to the ball, he talked to the in-fielders, he talked to everyone.
One day at Lakeland he ran full tilt to the bullpen to warm up for an exhibition start against Boston. Oops, he had neglected a necessity. He stood on the bullpen mound, in full view of the crowd, and removed his plastic protective cup from his pants pocket. He lowered his baseball knickers. He inserted the cup into its proper place. Then he proceeded to warm up. "I fogot," said the Bird.
Five days before the regular season began, Houk assembled the Tigers in the clubhouse. Only 25 players were there, and one of them was Fidrych. The Bird had made the big leagues at the age of 21.
"I tell you, this is the rush of my life," the Bird said that day. "I'll never have another high like it. Ralph said all the guys here were on the team. I went to stand up. I couldn't stand up. You married? Like when you get married, that's a rush."
The Bird borrowed a dime from the clubhouse boy, went to the pay phone and called his parents collect in Northboro, Mass. He inquired about the dogs and the cat, then told his folks that he had become a member of the Tigers.
Fidrych is a gangling, hyperanimated kid who remains unspoiled despite baseball's tangle of agents and lawyers and litigation. The day after he was told he had made the majors, he signed his first Detroit contract for $16,000, the major league minimum. And he is as unconcerned about big names as he is about money. He already has beaten Pat Dobson, Bert Blyleven, Bill Singer, Rick Wise and Ken Holtzman. And regardless of whom he is working against, he begins almost every inning by getting down on his hands and knees and smoothing away the ruts the opposing pitcher's spikes have left in the mound.
The Bird maintains, "I'm not flaky. This is just the way I am. Usually a lefthander's flaky. Why should I change something when it's going good for me?"
However, Fidrych does admit to a few eccentric moments, such as the time he splattered tobacco juice on his Detroit uniform. "I want the guys to know I chew." the Bird said.
Fidrych made only two mop-up relief appearances in the first month of the season. Finally, as the Tiger staff became increasingly ineffective, Houk made a desperate move and started the Bird on May 15. Fidrych responded by holding the Indians without a hit until the seventh inning and recording his first major league victory with a two-hitter. He leaped into the arms of his catcher, Bruce Kimm, and did an ostrich hop to shake hands with each of his teammates as they ran from the field. Then he shook hands with members of the ground crew.
The next day Fidrych started his rapidly expanding collection of memorabilia. He ceremoniously recorded the details of his first victory on the baseball with which he had gotten the final out: 2-1, MAY 15, 1976; INDIENS.
Detroit's newest folk hero, who this week was named the American League Player of the Month for June, lives in a bachelor pad in the suburbs. He listens to stereo music in his going-to-work outfit—a Bird T shirt sent by a fan, along with the same blue jeans and tattered sneakers he wore to spring training. "I'm pretty neat in the apartment," the Bird says. "Well, the dishes might pile up for two days."
There is a momentary pause. "That's because I only got four dishes," he says.
It is quite apparent that life in the big leagues is a rush.