1977 | LAKELAND, FLORIDA – When Detroit Tiger pitcher Mark “The Bird” Fidrych twisted his knee shagging fly balls on this date in 1977 it seemed like a 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. Fidrych had torn cartilage in his knee and would need surgery. He was never the same, and was out of baseball three years later.
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 was called “The Bird” because he resembled Big Bird from the Sesame Street children’s TV show. When he pitched he’d talk to the baseball. 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.
Fidrych took it all in stride. The name of his autobiography was “No Big Deal.”
He returned to his native Massachusetts after baseball. Tragically, on April 13, 2009 Fidrych was found dead under the truck he was apparently working on. He was 54.