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Lyle Spencer

Baseball remembers 'The Bird' on 60th birthday

Fidrych charmed Majors as a unique rookie sensation for Tigers in 1976

Baseball remembers 'The Bird' on 60th birthday play video for Baseball remembers 'The Bird' on 60th birthday

Mark Fidrych would have been 60 today. He'd probably be perched on his tractor, shirtless, having a brew or two as he savored the summer air of New England.

Fidrych's life ended on April 13, 2009, in a terrible accident on his native Massachusetts farm, in Northborough. He was 54, having lived his life fully with few regrets or complaints. That was not his nature.

He became known as "The Bird" when he created a national sensation in his 1976 rookie year for the Tigers: manicuring mounds with his pitching hand, talking to baseballs, seemingly as playful and engaging as the cartoon character whose name he shared.

For a free spirit of the highest order, he had the most amazing control. At 6-foot-3 and 180 pounds, he could put his fastball anywhere he wanted it -- usually down in the strike zone, keeping his infielders busy.

During that one glorious summer, Detroit surely loved this right-handed artist of the mound as much as it ever has loved an athlete. I can personally testify to the extraordinary devotion it had for the 21-year-old kid who had no interest in trying to act cool. He was as real as the grass and dirt at Tiger Stadium.

On Aug. 17, the Angels came to town, bringing me along as a young beat reporter. Fidrych had started the All-Star Game a month earlier for the American League, facing Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Steve Garvey and Co. for two innings. The Bird was a national figure already, but at home in Detroit, he was this manchild with the goofy grin and unbridled love of the game and everything around it.

Matched against the great Frank Tanana that night, Fidrych prevailed, 3-2, going the distance in allowing five hits. His record was 14-4, his ERA 1.97. The Tigers were already buried in the AL East, five games under .500 and 15 games behind the Yankees, but 51,822 fans -- a full house -- turned out to watch The Bird.

After his work against the Angels was done, Fidrych remained in the dugout, headphones on, waiting for word to do a local radio interview. I sat next to him, looked out at the stands, and said, "What are all these people doing? Why are they still here?"

Fidrych grinned and said, "Wait, I'll show you."

He conducted his interview in his inimitable fashion, sounding like the awestruck kid he was, living his dream. When it was over, Fidrych set down the headphones, jumped off the bench, and said, "Watch this!"

Bounding up the dugout steps, he landed on the dirt, raised his cap to the crowd, and gestured to every corner and section of the stadium. The fans stood and roared. I swear, if 200 of those 51,822 had left, I'd have been surprised.

This was a scene unlike any I'd witnessed -- and never would again. I covered Fernando Valenzuela's "Fernandomania" five years later in Los Angeles, and as wonderful as it was in every respect, I'm not sure it quite measured up to the absolute devotion and pure love Detroit had for Mark Fidrych.

We hit it off that night, kindred spirits, and decided we'd meet a little later at Lindell AC on Cass and Michigan avenues, one of the original sports bars and grills. You can imagine the scene there.

People swarmed Fidrych. He soaked it all in, clearly enjoying the interplay -- and free beer. This was long before handheld phones could record everything celebrities did, granting them far more freedom than they have now.

As the night wore on, a brawl broke out inside Lindell's. Fidrych took it all in, eyes wide.

"Man," Fidrych said, "I love this place."

He was on top of the world. Fidrych went on to complete 24 of his 29 starts, going 19-9 with a league-best 2.34 ERA to finish second to Jim Palmer in the AL Cy Young Award balloting.

But some things weren't meant to last. Ongoing issues with the health of his right arm ultimately proved debilitating, limiting Fidrych to a total of 27 appearances after his rookie year. But the magic of that 1976 summer of love in Detroit remains for anyone who was there and experienced its glow.

Lyle Spencer is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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