When Mark Fidrych made his first start for the Detroit Tigers

Detroit pitcher Mark "The Bird" Fidrych was the biggest story in baseball in 1976.

Detroit pitcher Mark “The Bird” Fidrych was the biggest story in baseball in 1976.

It was a cool Saturday afternoon in mid-May. It was easy to get a good seat halfway back in the lower deck grandstand behind home plate at Tiger Stadium; the team was bad and going nowhere. My friend and I didn’t know much about the starting pitcher that day, some rookie being given his first shot at the rotation.

The gangly young man who took the mound didn’t attract any special attention. His pitches didn’t look very intimidating. He struck out leadoff hitter John Lowenstein in the first and again to lead off the fourth. In between he set down eight Indians without anyone hitting a ball out of the infield. Then Buddy Bell hit a fly ball to center, and the Indians resumed grounding out. With two outs in the fifth the pitcher gave up a walk and then another fly ball.

The crowd was so small (14,583) and the game so swift and uneventful that it only slowly dawned on anyone that something special was happening. To start the seventh Cleveland broke up the no-hitter with two singles and then scored a run on a groundout. The rest of the batters resumed making routine outs.

The Tigers won, 2-1, in an hour and fifty-seven minutes. The rookie struck out five, walked one, and gave up just the two hits. Batters just swung at his offerings and kept beating them into the ground.

He’d previously made two short, unremarkable relief appearances. After his six innings of no-hit ball, he didn’t get another start for ten days. Then he went into the regular rotation and, after a 2-1 loss in Fenway Park, reeled off six consecutive wins, starting with two games where he pitched eleven innings each.

The 1976 Mark Fidrych Detroit Tigers road jersey is colorful and special because it also has the Bicentennial patch on the left sleeve.

The 1976 Mark Fidrych Detroit Tigers road jersey is colorful and special because it also has the Bicentennial patch on the left sleeve.

When the Tigers returned from a road trip, they drew 36,377 fans on a Friday night. The noisy crowd now paid close attention to the young man who shook the hands of his infielders after they made good plays on all those grounders he induced. At Tiger Stadium, where so many seats were so close to the field, it was easy to see him muttering on the mound, “talking” to the ball, and grooming the dirt between pitches.

On Monday, June 28, I headed to the bleachers. My fifty cents would normally secure me a seat in the middle of the upper deck. But not this night. I had to climb high up near the fence that divided the bleachers from the right field grandstands. Attendance was 47,855.

Back then, the nationally televised Monday Night Baseball game was as an event equal to Monday Night Football.  The Tigers were playing the New York Yankees. Suddenly, in the middle of a terrible season, the excitement was at a fever pitch.

As usual, the rookie worked quickly, getting most batters to swing at the first or second offering. He wasn’t completely dominant. He gave up a hit an inning in the first four innings, including a homer in the second. He ended up winning the game, 5-1, giving up seven hits, no walks, and striking out two in an hour and fifty-one minutes. At the end fans stood and roared and the star had to be pushed out of the dugout to take a curtain call, an almost-unheard-of event in those days. And while in memory you think he was already The Bird, fans that night were actually shouting “We want Mark.”

He became a national celebrity that night. The next two games he pitched were sellouts.  In that magical season, unlike any other we’ve ever seen in these parts, Mark Fidrych went 19-9 with a 2.34 ERA in 250 1/3 innings for a fifth-place team.

The dream didn’t last, but no one who saw it will ever forget it. Forty years later, I can still close my eyes and see him smoothing out the dirt, bouncing around the infield, grinning and laughing. And I grin and laugh right along with him.

Forty years—and watching The Bird is still the most fun you could ever hope to have at the ball park.