Fidrych's '76 etched in Tigers' lore
Pitcher came out of nowhere to take baseball by storm
DETROIT -- Before there was Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya, there was Mark Fidrych. Before Rick Porcello was born, Fidrych was out of the game, a memory for Tigers fans.
Yet for all the comparisons Fidrych evokes, the full story of The Bird in 1976 defies any equation. He was barely a blip on the Tigers' radar when they opened Spring Training in 1976. By the closing months of the season, the club seemingly revolved around him, an event every four or five days.
"The whole season was just a happening," said longtime Detroit sportswriter Jim Hawkins, a beat writer covering the Tigers in that '76 season. "I mean, it was just spontaneous. You couldn't script it. It was a storybook season, and he was the story."
Fidrych was known in the farm system as someone climbing the developmental ladder, but that was about it. A 10th-round pick in the 1974 Draft, he was hard to miss, but moreso for his look -- a skinny, 6-foot-3 teenager with blond hair sprouting from under his cap. His nickname reportedly came from a coach in Lakeland, Fla., named Jeff Hogan, because Fidrych reminded him of Big Bird.
Pitching-wise, he wasn't evoking many comparisons early. Even though he captured the last spot on the Tigers' roster out of camp in '76, he was buried in the back of the bullpen. Even that was so unexpected that Fidrych supposedly didn't have any dress clothes to wear when the Tigers broke camp. Then-general manager Jim Campbell did him a favor, went to a Lakeland clothier and bought him a sportcoat and slacks to fit the team dress code.
Fidrych made just two brief appearances in the Tigers' first 23 games until a rotation scratch forced manager Ralph Houk to make a change for their May 15 game against the Indians. In stepped Fidrych for his first big league start. Down went the Indians on two hits over nine innings, including 16 groundouts, before a crowd of just under 15,000 at Tiger Stadium.
"I remember watching it [on television] with my dad," said Tigers radio broadcaster Dan Dickerson, a 17-year-old living in western Michigan that year. "He just pounded the ball. Everything was low, in the strike zone. It was easy. That was probably one of the last times he had a crowd of 15,000."
Four weeks and two 11-inning complete games later, Fidrych took the mound on a June evening against the Angels before a crowd of over 36,000 and outpitched Nolan Ryan. Four starts and four more victories after that, he faced the Yankees on national television before 47,855 and dominated the Bronx Bombers to improve his record to 8-1.
From then on, there was no missing The Bird.
"We played 8 o'clock starts in those days," Hawkins recalled, "and at 5 o'clock in the afternoon, the streets outside of Tiger Stadium would be packed. It was like Opening Day every time he pitched. It was all so spontaneous."
Part of it was the dominance. Not only did he win 11 of his first 13 starts, 12 of them were complete games. Not only did he pitch back-to-back 11-inning victories in late May and early June, he retired the Rangers in order in the bottom of the 11th in the second of those games, closing out his victory after the Tigers took the lead in the top of the inning.
Beyond the mound performance, was, well, the performance. His habit of seemingly talking to the baseball during the game was noticed from his first start. He would also talk to himself, a habit he later explained was meant to help him remember the game plan and execute it. He would walk around the mound after each out. He would groom the mound, remove cleat marks, and generally fascinate crowds.
Fidrych's personality, as odd as it was, remained the same regardless of the results. But he was also a pitcher who wouldn't back down.
"He was one of the most popular Tigers we had, certainly one of the most charismatic," Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell said. "No matter whether he won or lost, he was always the same. He was very approachable."
On June 28, a national television audience got to witness the show. ABC selected his Yankees showdown for its Monday Night Baseball broadcast, and he captured the spotlight. His complete-game seven-hitter over Ken Holtzman had fans in and out in less than two hours, but they were eventful hours, from the outs to the antics. The game was memorable enough that MLB Network replayed it last weekend among its classic games.
Every start from there was an event -- in Michigan, certainly, if not the country.
"I have such a vivid memory of that summer, because it was unlike anything I'd ever seen," Dickerson said. "It was unbelievable. You really had to see it to believe the impact that he had on this whole region."
How big did his celebrity status go? He agreed to let the Tigers Wives club cut his hair and auction off the remains for charity to a huge response. When asked how the event went, according to Hawkins, Fidrych said, "It was just like Samson and Goliath."
His loss in the All-Star Game the next month was a temporary setback. He came back to Tiger Stadium on July 16 and shut out the A's -- for 11 innings, improving to 11-2. After the Yankees enacted their revenge on him in the Bronx, he rattled off six straight complete games, four of them with two runs or less.
Just when a stretch of four losses in six outings seemingly wore him down, capped by seven runs in 2 2/3 innings against the Red Sox on Sept. 17, Fidrych finished with three straight complete games and two September shutouts to finish with a 19-9 record. His 2.34 ERA led all of baseball, and his 24 complete games led the American League. He was a shoo-in for AL Rookie of the Year, and only Jim Palmer denied him the Cy Young Award.
He won just eight games the rest of his career, and his ensuing efforts to battle back from injuries evoked sympathy at times more than marvel. But they could do nothing to tarnish his incredible summer.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.