It's funny how there are watershed years in life; periods in which amazing things happen, life takes a different course, memories get cemented.
1976 was the first year like that for me. It was America's Bi-Centennial, which was celebrated with vigor in school. A bit of American pride post-Viet Nam and post-Watergate was restored. We celebrated my 5th birthday early by going to Disney World during the Fourth of July holiday. I got my first bike. Baseball became a passion.
Why did I fall in love with baseball that year? Mostly because my Uncle Bob loved baseball and he took me to a lot of Detroit Tigers games. On the grander scale, I fell in love with the game because of rookie sensation Mark "The Bird" Fidrych. He electrified Detroit like no athlete since. Even Hall of Famers like Isaiah Thomas, Steve Yzerman and Barry Sanders did not capture the attention of people in this city -- and across the country like The Bird.
Fidrych was a helluva pitcher. I was too young to remember what he did as a pitcher, the record books say he was 19-9, with a 2.34 ERA, and completed 24 games. He was the Rookie of the Year, starting pitcher in 1976 All Star game and was number 2 in Cy Young voting. Unfortunately a shoulder injury (later found to be a torn rotator cuff) wrecked his career.
The memory I do have of him is being at a game that year with my uncle. I don't know who the Tigers played or what the score was, but I know Fidrych pitched and I know they won. Tiger Stadium was packed to the rafters. It was about as loud as I ever heard it. On the way out of the stadium, we stopped behind the lower deck fence, right next to the right field foul pole. Uncle Bob threw me up on his shoulders so I could see the Bird come out up the dugout to a standing ovation. I remember him off in the distancing waving to the fans with his cap, standing on the top step of dugout as the fans went wild. The roar of the crowd shook my body, hurt my ears. But it was great.
One of the Detroit newspapers had free iron-ons that said, "The Bird is the Word" and my grandma got two copies of it and a packet full of white t-shirts. The first iron-on came out backwards but the second worked. I wore both shirts until they were filthy.
As his career disintegrated and new heroes came and went, the Bird slowly faded from glory. But he never vanished. The Detroit Tigers and Fidrych always maintained great relations and Mark, being a great, humble guy, came back to Tiger Stadium for special events. He mingled with fans, signed autographs, was great with the kids. There's not a Detroit Tigers fan that was alive in the 70's that didn't love Mark Fidrych, even 33 years after his amazing rookie year.
Sadly Mark Fidrych passed away yesterday at age 54. According to the press reports he was found dead around 2:30 p.m. from an apparent accident that took place while he was working under his truck. Besides the tragedy of him passing away, the eerie thing for me was that I was at the Detroit Tigers game yesterday afternoon with my Uncle Bob, mom and my daughter. I saw a new Tiger wearing no. 20, pointed him out to my daughter and said, "Kiddo, no. 20 was the number of my favorite player when I was a little younger than you, Mark Fidrych." This was before word had gotten out that Mark had died. His was the only number I noticed yesterday. He was the only player from my past, my childhood, that I mentioned or even thought about. Odd.
Mark will be missed. My thoughts are prayers are with his family and friends.