It was a cool autumn evening in September of 1975 – eight months before Mark Fidrych became the darling of Detroit – and the 21-year old pitcher was about two hours away from taking the mound for the Evansville Triplets. He was shuffling through the tiny closet-like clubhouse at Bosse Field in Evansville, Indiana.
“Tonight, we celebrate,” squealed Fidrych, as he instructed manager Fred Hatfield, a crusty veteran in his fourth decade in the game, to order champagne. The Triplets needed one victory to clinch the American Association’s East Division. Fidrych was guaranteeing a win.
“Tonight, I’ll break every bottle over your head if we don’t win,” Hatfield growled.
The Bird went out and beat Omaha, 2-1, tossing a complete game filled with his knee-high fastballs and quirky antics on the diamond. After he recorded the final out, Fidrych pranced toward home plate and gave Gene Lamont (his catcher) a kiss on the cheek. He then galloped toward center field and gave a similar smooch to Art James, who had caught the final fly ball.
“Never had a doubt,” golden-haired shortstop Chuck Scrivener said, as he and his teammates enjoyed the bubbly that Fidrych had insisted Hatfield secure.
By June of ’76, of course, Fidrych was the most famous rookie in baseball, the most loved and talked-about player in Detroit, and the idol to female fans who worshiped his curly locks and amazing pitching talent.
They said he talked to the baseball. They said he believed baseballs had bad karma if they were hit hard by the opposing team. They said he only owned one pair of blue jeans and used a grocery bag to carry his clothes on road trips.
Some of it was true, some of it was myth, but all of it was entertaining.
“I really don’t know what I do out there,” Fidrych told reporters after baffling the Indians on May 15, 1976, in his first big league start.
Fidrych aimed his arm toward the plate as he carried on a conversation (more with himself than with the ball) in the middle of the diamond in front of thousands of fans. He bounced across the infield and shook his teammates hands after they made a nice play, and he did something weird as he took to the hill at the start of every half-inning. He did his housekeeping.
“He would kneel on the mound and pat the dirt, smoothing every imperfection,” remarked former teammate Tom Veryzer, who had a bird’s eye view (sorry) from his position at shortstop. But Fidrych’s mania had a purpose.
“I want [the mound] to be the way I want it,” The Bird explained. That meant the scuffs and holes made by the other pitcher needed to be erased. During that first start against Cleveland, Fidrych was superstitious about it too, refusing to allow the Indians’ groundscrew to touch the mound for their customary manicuring.
“Why should I let them mess up the mound when I had a no-hitter going?”
Fidrych settled for a two-hitter and his first major league win. He lost his next start (despite going the distance and allowing just six hits and two runs), before reeling off eight straight victories as Birdmania took over the sports world. While his antics were making headlines along with his eye-popping record, Fidrych was just doing what came natural – what was comfortable for him on the mound. Still, it rattled many of his opponents.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Cleveland slugger Rico Carty said. “Sometimes I was almost laughing. How can you hit when you’re laughing.”
Laughing and having a good time may have made the job harder for hitters facing The Bird, but it made the game so enjoyable for the fans, who showered Fidrych with adulation. But for The Bird, when he was on the mound it was all business, and the “fun” was just a by-product of his concentration and “method” of pitching. He didn’t know what he was going to next, he just wanted to get the next batter out.
“The funny thing about him is, when he’s pitching he doesn’t say a thing on the bench,” Tiger manager Ralph Houk said. “When he’s not pitching, he’s hollering at everybody. But when he’s working, he’s all concentration”
Mark “The Bird” Fidrych made concentration look like a lot of fun.