March 21st in baseball history: Mark Fidrych dazzles then fades

The Bird Man

LAKELAND, FLORIDA | MARCH 21, 1977 - When Detroit Tiger pitcher Mark "The Bird" Fidrych twisted his knee "fooling around" shagging fly balls on this date in 1977 it seemed minor bump in the road for the 1976 rookie of the year. He was expected to miss his next start. Unfortunately, the injury was more serious than first thought, and he would never be the same.

Fidrych had torn cartilage in his knee and would need surgery. He ended up injuring his throwing arm trying to pitch before his knee was fully healed. Fidrych tried several unsuccessful comebacks. He appeared in his last major league game in 1980 at the age of 25.

But 1976 was magical.

Twenty-one year old Mark Fidrych wasn't even expected to make the team out of spring training. He made his first start in May only because the scheduled starter had the flu. But Fidrych went on to win 19 games while losing 9. He led the league with a 2.34 ERA and completed 24 games, also the league leader. He won Rookie of the Year honors and was second in voting for the Cy Young award.

Fidrych created a national sensation not only because he pitched well, but also because of his personality and antics. He was "a little out of left field," but seemed to really have fun playing the game. Fidrych, called "The Bird" because he resembled Big Bird from the Sesame Street children's TV show, talked to the baseball when he pitched. He'd stoop down and carefully manicure the mound. He'd throw balls back to the umpire because he said they still had hits in them.

Detroit drew huge crowds every time he pitched even though the team was never in the pennant race. Opposing teams tried to get the Tigers to change their pitching rotation so he'd pitch in their park, hoping to see a boost in attendence. Fidrych took it all in stride. The name of his autobiography was "No Big Deal."

Tragically, Fidrych died April 13, 2009 in an accident while working on his truck. He was 54.

Contributing sources:
Mark Fidrych Baseball-Reference
The Associated Press, Lakeland, Florida, March 22, 1977
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