MARK FIDRYCH AND DENNIS ECKERSLEY
“The Bird”…Eck’s pal…
Two more unlikely friends would be hard to find.
Not exactly two peas in a pod.
But they did share a couple of commonalities.
Each could pitch, and both were nuts — as in, batshit crazy.
The Eck is in the Hall of Fame and Fidrych is dead, lest we jump ahead.
Let us not.
Rather, let’s backtrack 45 years to a time when a native son of Northboro, MA became the most famous athlete in America.
Just when Mark Fidrych morphed into “The Bird,” is open to question, but perhaps the jumping off point was June 28, 1976.
That evening, he beat the Yankees 5–1 in Detroit’s Tiger Stadium, before 47,855 roaring patrons and millions more, watching Monday Night Baseball.
The rest of the summer was ‘The Summer of The Bird.’
(Fidrych bore a striking resemblance — in both appearance and mannerisms — to Sesame Street’s iconic Big Bird character, as did a college roommate of mine, around the same time).
His 1976 season remains one of the great baseball stories of the 20th century; a kid out of nowhere led the major leagues with a 2.34 ERA; won the AL Rookie of the Year Award; and posted a 19–9 record.
Recalls Eckersley, “I never pitched against him, but he pitched against us (the Indians), in his first start.
He beat us, beat Pat Dobson, 2–1, and that was the beginning of it all.”
There were 14,583 at Tiger Stadium that night; the aforementioned 47,855 in attendance against the Yanks; and, for the remainder of the season, whether the club was on the road or in Detroit, huge crowds came to see Fidrych pitch.
His on-field antics were epic, the likes of which grizzled baseball stoics — who had seen it all — had never before witnessed.
He talked to the baseball.
Kneeling on his right knee, he manicured the pitching mound, arranging the dirt, just the way he liked it.
He raced over to thank teammates immediately following hit-saving defensive plays.
Didn’t matter where they were positioned on the diamond.
And he flummoxed the hitters.
He was the show.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” the Eck conceded.
“We started messing with him; you know the ball, he was talking to the ball, next to the mound on his hands and knees, and someone threw a ball out there saying something nasty to him.
But it didn’t bother him.”
Eckersley was beginning his stellar career then, and he learned all about mound demeanor and how to use it to his advantage.
He marveled at Fidrych.
At the time, the game of baseball was enjoying a revival of sorts, catalyzed by the thrill-a-minute 1975 World Series between the Red Sox and the Reds.
In the Bicentennial Summer of ’76, the hardball universe — and the country — was craving more excitement.
Fidrych provided it.
Unknown to all but a few diehard followers of minor league baseball, he was not unknown to the Tigers organization.
Detroit selected him in the 10th round of the 1974 draft out of Worcester Academy, where he went to school after attending Algonquin Regional HS.
Fidrych fast-tracked himself to the majors.
At age 19 in 1974, he was 3–0 with a 2.38 ERA for Bristol (TN), of the Appalachian League, a novice circuit that played a 70-game season.
By the end of ’75, he was in Triple A, where he posted a 4–1 mark with a 1.58 ERA for Evansville.
These were still the days of the four-man starting rotation, so “The Bird” made the Tigers as a reliever in 1976.
The team would finish a woeful 74–87, and Fidrych was quickly inserted into a faltering rotation — taking Natick, MA native Joe Coleman’s spot, interestingly.
He captured the fancy of everyone around him.
After beating the Indians on May 15, he didn’t start again until May 25, in Boston, with his family and friends swelling the crowd of 21,033.
He pitched beautifully, but was on the wrong end of a 2–0 shutout — twirled by Luis Tiant and fueled by a 2-run Yaz homer, which landed in the leftfield screen above the Monster.
He wouldn’t lose again for six weeks.
And people began to take note.
How could they not?
Attendance grew and spiked.
Other opposing players raised an eyebrow — and then, both — in incredulity.
Said Eckersley’s pal, former teammate and current broadcasting partner, Jerry Remy:
“The first thing you noticed about him was all his antics out there, the way he got ready to pitch.
It was so emotional with the way the people loved him.
He was really different than anybody I’ve ever faced.
That Bird thing and all the stuff that came out of that — you heard about it, you heard about it , then you finally got to face the guy and you found out he was legitimate.
He was good.
His stuff was real.”
Fidrych was lifting Detroit — and all of baseball.
Remy pontificated further.
“It was a totally different feeling in Detroit, because you used to go in there and, you know, it wasn’t great.
This guy brought an electricity to the whole place that was unbelievable.
The crowds would go crazy and you would absolutely feel that in the box facing him.
And then you’d find out he was also very good.”
When he faced the Yankees on Monday Night Baseball, he was 7–1.
Catcher Elrod Hendricks hit a home run off Fidrych in the second inning.
Hendricks also made the game’s last out, on a grounder to second.
Fidrych ran around the field frantically, shaking his teammates’ hands, and then disappeared into the dugout.
Not for long.
A standing ovation wasn’t about to end anytime soon.
It was raining, but Tiger fans would not leave the stadium.
Eventually Fidrych relented and reappeared for a quick curtain call.
The normally reserved and measured Willie Randolph, cut from the staid Bombers’ newly redesigned polyester pinstripes, admitted, “You want to send a line drive right through his head.”
Fidrych was named to start the All-Star Game for the American League and did, although he took the loss.
He slipped a bit after that, but finished the season strongly with three straight complete-game wins — another vestige of an earlier era.
He was selected AL Rookie of the Year and was the runner-up to the Orioles’ Jim Palmer in the Cy Young Award voting.
Largely due to Fidrych, the Tigers’ attendance increased from 1,058,836 in 1975 to 1,467,020 in 1976, a jump of 408,184 — for a club never in the pennant race.
The team knew what they had; they gave him a retroactive raise to $30,000 from his $19,000 salary and extended his contract for three more years, starting at $50,000 in 1977 (just shy of a quarter-million in today’s dollars).
In ’77, Fidrych suffered a knee injury in spring training and had surgery.
He returned on May 27 and was as good as ever, running his record to 6–2 with a 1.83 ERA, after beating the Red Sox on June 29.
But on July 4 with 45,339 packed like sardines into Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium for a holiday game, “The Bird” threw a pitch and tore his rotator cuff.
Another distinction — to be considered dubious, at best, in 2021 — of a long-ago time: today, surgery would have almost certainly restored him to full health, but then it was just “a sore arm.”
In fact, it wasn’t finally diagnosed until 1985, far too late to do him any good.
Fidrych’s last major-league game was on October 1, 1980 before 12,426 fans in Toronto.
He went five innings and got the win in an 11–7 Tiger victory.
Mark Fidrych was 26 years old.
The Eck — renowned for having a lexicon all his own — loved “The Bird,” plain and simple.
“He was in camp with the Red Sox when I was still in Boston,” he reminisced, “and I wound up being friends with him.
He lived in Northboro, and I lived in Sudbury.
He’d come over to my house and tell me he could pave my driveway — I almost had him do it.
He was a sweetheart, he really was, a great kid and it was authentic.
Everyone who met him was kind of in awe because of how real he was.”
When Eckersley was told of Fidrych’s death at 54, due to a 2009 accident on his farm, he was devastated.
“When I found out, I was really broken up,” he said.
“I couldn’t believe it, didn’t want to believe it.”
[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in July 2021.]