A World Series title for Mark “The Bird” Fidrych

Mark Fidrych didn't like a messy workplace.

Mark Fidrych didn’t like a messy workplace.

After hurting his knee in spring training in 1977, Mark Fidrych continued to pitch and eventually hurt his shoulder, tearing the rotator cuff so much that it practically shredded clean through. Fidrych won only 10 games over the next four seasons as he tried to make a comeback. His amazing rookie season and colorful personality made him one of the most popular players in Detroit Tigers’ history, and forever placed him in the categories of “phenom” and “what if?”

In this article, I imagine what might have been, had The Bird stayed healthy and continued to pitch off the mound at Tiger Stadium for years for Detroit. Almost everything in this alternative history is made up. It’s written as if it was reported on October 15, 1984, the day after the fifth game of the 1984 World Series.

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In the chaos of the home clubhouse in this 72-year old ballpark, it was almost impossible to tell who was standing in the middle of the room being flooded with champagne by the frenzied trio of Kirk Gibson, Dave Rozema, and Lance Parrish. Streams of the bubbly were pouring onto the player’s head, but it was the blonde curly locks of hair that gave away the identity.

The Bird was getting a bath,

“GO GO GO GO GO!” screamed The Bird, over and over again. When hitting coach Gates Brown coaxed Sparky Anderson near The Bird, the grey-haired manager practically strangled his right-handed pitcher with a bear hug. “Markie, Markie, you deserve this,” Anderson blurted into his ear.

This is a different species of Bird who will soon be fitted with a World Series championship ring. The kid who once had legions of fans following him as if he were the fifth Beatle, is now in his 9th year with the team. He still bounces out of the dugout, gets on his knees to tidy up the mound, and talks to himself (or the baseball, whichever you believe). He’s a star, but now at the age of 30 (he’s just 9 months older than series star Jack Morris, who supplanted The Bird as staff ace in 1982) he’s more measured in how he approaches the game, his place on the team, and his status as one of the most popular Tigers to ever wear the Old English D.

This 1984 team will be remembered for their dominant 35-5 start (The Bird starting the season 6-0 and reversing his good season/bad season pattern to win 17 games, his most wins in a season since 1979 when he netted a career-high 21). For Fidrych, now part of a deep starting rotation that features Morris, Dan Petry, Rozema, and Milt Wilcox, he doesn’t feel the need to shoulder the responsibility for keeping this team competitive, as he did his first few seasons. His postseason resume has now grown, making him one of the better big stage pitchers of the last few seasons.

Back in ’81, when Detroit won the second-half division title in the strike shortened season, The Bird was clutch, tossing 22 straight scoreless innings down the stretch, then winning two games against the New York Yankees in the playoffs, one of them a three-hitter at Yankee Stadium to send the series to a fifth game. When Detroit advanced to face the Oakland A’s in the ALCS, Fidrych won another game and then pitched 7 shutout innings in a no-decision. With his wins this year in the ALCS and his Game Three win in the Series at Tiger Stadium, Fidrych is undefeated in postseason play with a 5-0 record and a 2.35 ERA.

For years, since That Game on Monday Night Baseball in ’76 when he baffled the mighty Yankees on national television and came out for the first of many curtain calls (the latest was after being removed with a three-run lead in Game Three), Fidrych has been known as The Bronx Bummer due to his mastering of the Yankees. At one point he beat the Bombers 11 straight times, and he owns a career record of 25-7 against the boys in pinstripes.

But since Sparky arrived midway in the 1979 campaign, Fidrych hasn’t had much to worry about, including the Yankees. Sparky took the spotlight from Fidrych, freeing him to be a flake in the clubhouse and with his teammates, while not having to be the media darling all the time. After his disastrous ’78 season (10-16 and seven complete game losses) under Ralph Houk who pitched him long and often, Sparky provided a calmer hand for Fidrych. A believer in the bullpen, Anderson started to ease The Bird’s workload, and in 1979 he bounced back with 21 wins and a 2nd place finish in Cy Young voting. That season, Fidrych started his third All-Star Game, at the ripe young age of only 24. It was at that mid-season contest that he struck up a friendship with Philadelphia ace Steve Carlton. The unlikely pair (Fidrych a chatterbox and media darling, Lefty refusing to give interviews) became buddies and Fidrych quickly began to imitate Carlton’s legendary “tantra” meditation and vigorous workout regimens. The Bird reported to spring training in 1981 with 20 more pounds of muscle on his slim frame. His fastball was as good as it ever was, and his late-season brilliance pushed the Tigers to their first postseason spot in almost a decade, as he won 12 games in the shortened season, four of them in September.

As one of the longest tenured Tigers (only Ben Oglivie – the left-handed half of the left field platoon with Larry Herndon – has been in Detroit longer), Fidrych has achieved lofty status on the pitching staff, despite his still youthful mannerisms. Rozema has especially benefited from his association with The Bird, learning how to pitch deep into games as well as how to avoid Sparky’s doghouse. Many have credited The Bird with helping Rozema regain his rotation spot, which he lost briefly in 1981. Though Morris and Petry are obviously more in their prime, Fidrych is a tough #3 starter who rarely beats himself, keeping the ball down while forcing opposing lineups to work hard to get on base.

Gibson, Alan Trammell and Parrish are the leaders of the everyday regulars, while Darrell Evans adds big league veteran guidance, but it’s The Bird who is the steadying influence on the pitching staff. When the temperamental Morris grew cranky with the press earlier this season, it was Fidrych who quietly took him aside and (in his heavy Boston accent), asked Jack to make peace with the men behind the typewriters. Fidrych also takes some heat off the others in regards to the fans. When Fidrych steps onto the field, even Gibson, Parrish, and Sweet Lou Whitaker take a second seat. Everyone – kids, teens, girls, Moms, Dads, and granddads – love the mop-topped right-hander.

Sure, there was the incident in 1982 when Fidrych argued with the front office over his contract (he’s still never had an agent represent him, noting “I know what I’m worth more than anyone else.”) that earned him some heat from talk radio and some of his fans. For a brief stretch in 1983 when he limped out of the gate by losing 7 of his first 8 decisions (he ended up 13-14), there were Trade the Bird shirts for sale at some corners around the ballpark. Then, in his next start, he took a perfect game to the ninth inning before allowing a scratch single and settling for a one-hitter. He’s always been a Detroit original, a perfect fit in the Tiger uniform. His steadfast optimism and his relative health (he’s never been on the disabled list and has averaged 30 starts per season since his rookie year) has earned him respect in this working class town.

The Bird has now won 139 games in the regular season for the Detroit Tigers, five more in the postseason, the last one just three days ago at Tiger Stadium. He knows the mound at The Corner as well as anyone who’s ever thrown from it – he’s frequently on his hands and knees manicuring it with care. “I love this old ballpark,” Fidrych said after his Game Three victory gave the Tigers a 2-1 edge in the Fall Classic. When he came out of that game, 52,000 fans stood as one, thundering applause down on their hero, ecstatic that  Fidrych was every bit The Bird in the World Series as he’s been at other times.

After receiving his uniform-drenching soak at the hands of Gibby and crew last night, Mark Fidrych eventually found his way to the corner locker, the one that once belonged to Al Kaline, and stretched himself out on the Tiger stripe carpet. While some of his teammates went out onto the field and took a victory lap in front of an empty ballpark hours after the last out delivered Detroit their fourth World Series crown, The Bird took a phone call from Senator Ted Kennedy, a friend from Massachusetts who has loved Fidrych from the start. His joy and genuine surprise at his position as a star athlete were not lost on The Bird.

“Who would have thought I’d ever be a World Champion baseball player?”