`THE BIRD'; He made his mark with genuine style.
Things might have been different had Mark Fidrych come bounding along today.
Doctors and trainers would have had answers for the knee and shoulder injuries that limited his big-league career to just five seasons. He wouldn't have been allowed to throw 250 innings as a 21-year-old rookie, a workload that probably contributed to his physical demise. And with his natural enthusiasm and charisma - not to mention his pitching talent - he would have been rich.
But Fidrych, who died yesterday at age 54, never had any regrets. What he did have was a ton of memories generated by a powerful right arm and a bubbly spirit that those who knew him said was no different on the mound at Tiger Stadium than it was a few years earlier in the Northboro Little League.
He so captivated the nation in that magical summer of 1976 that the Detroit Tigers drew 20,000 more fans to his starts than for other games. He made the cover of both Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone.
Nicknamed "The Bird" for his resemblance to the Sesame Street character with his curly mane and gangly appearance, Fidrych talked to the ball and smoothed the dirt on the mound with his hands. It was no act.
He did that in Little League, then at Algonquin Regional High and Worcester Academy, too.
As the news of his death spread around the nation yesterday, Fidrych was remembered near and far.
"He was very genuine. It was not an act," Alan Trammell, a bench coach with the Chicago Cubs and a rookie with the Tigers in 1977, told The Associated Press. "He never changed. He liked to have a good time. You'd go over his house and he'd make dinner. That's the type of guy he was."
Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who grew close to Fidrych when he managed him in the minor leagues, was too overcome with emotion to comment after hearing of the Bird's passing following yesterday's game against the Chicago White Sox.
"He was one of those outstanding young kids," said Bill "Doc" Samko, the longtime trainer at Worcester Academy and now special assistant to the athletic director. "Everything about him was exceptional."
Tom Blackburn, who coached Fidrych in baseball and basketball at Worcester Academy, remembered him as one of the toughest competitors and most focused players he ever had.
"He was always himself," Blackburn said. "What you saw was what you got. Everyone liked him, no question."
"He was one of the most beautiful young men I ever met," said Bob Fouracre, who knew Fidrych from Northboro and announced his American Legion games on radio. "He was apple pie."
As such, it was appropriate that he burst onto the scene in the bicentennial summer and just a week before July 4. He pitched a seven-hitter, allowing just one run in a nationally televised win over the Yankees. He treated the nation to the full Bird performance - talking to the ball, fussing with the mound, and mowing down hitters.
It was one of 24 complete games he would throw during that Rookie of the Year season in which he went 19-9, led the American League with a 2.34 ERA, and was selected by Red Sox manger Darrell Johnson to start the All-Star Game. He might have had more complete games if Detroit manager Ralph Houk didn't wait until May 15 to give him his first start.
The folks back in Northboro honored him with a big banquet after the season, packing the White Cliffs with more than 500 people.
Everyone was proud of what he had done, but a bit surprised that he had done it. Fidrych was a good pitcher growing up, but not really a sure-fire major league prospect. The Tigers saw something in him, though, drafting him in the 10th round in 1974.
Wayne Hancock, the longtime Cushing Academy coach and a member of the state baseball hall of fame, caught Fidrych a couple of times in the 1970s with the semi-pro Acton A's. He remembered that Fidrych had a good slider and pinpoint control, but he was hardly the best pitcher on the team.
"He pitched a couple of games, then disappeared," Hancock said. "That's what freaked me out. Two years later, I was watching this same guy on the mound pitching against the Red Sox in spring training."
As high as the Bird soared in '76, his success never went to his head. He was the same growing up as he was in the big leagues as he was in his post-playing career, working in trucking and construction. He donated his time and money to charity and he never refused to sign autographs or pose for pictures.
His baseball career went downhill after 1976, though. He injured his knee the following spring training, then hurt his shoulder. The Tigers released him in 1980. His career record was 29-19 with a 3.10 ERA.
Fidrych wasn't done with baseball, though. After sitting out 1981, he attempted a comeback with the Red Sox in 1982. He hooked up with Yankees phenom Dave Righetti on July 1 for Pawtucket before a record McCoy Stadium crowd of 9,389.
"It was about the seventh inning," then-Pawtucket manager Joe Morgan remembered yesterday, "and he was in a jam, so I went out to take him out. But as I was walking to the mound, I said to myself, `We've got this crowd, this big mob here, and they came to see this duel.' So I talked myself out of taking him out, which I never did, and the next guy up smoked a ball to the outfield.
"It was a hit, but we threw a guy out at the plate, and another guy trying for, I think, third base, so we got a double play out of it. It was a tie, but they should have been ahead, and then we got a run when, I think, Dave Koza hit a homer.
"So, in the ninth, The Bird mows 'em down left and right and to end it, he strikes out Butch Hobson with three sliders."
His teammates rushed to him after the game like he had just won the World Series.
That wasn't the entire story.
"The next day, I get to the ballpark early and there's Fidrych out there throwing," Morgan said. "So I ask him, `Man, aren't you still a little stiff and sore?' And he says, `Yeah, but I'm trying to work it out.' So I told him, `Just put the damned ball down and work it out another day,' and he did."
Fidrych was back at Pawtucket the next year. Dick Bresciani, then-director of media relations for the Red Sox, said the club thought that Fidrych might be ready to come up and give the big-league club a boost by May. It never happened. Fidrych couldn't shake off his sore shoulder - later diagnosed as a torn rotator cuff - and retired on June 29, 1983.
Morgan would see him several times a year at golf tournaments or charity events.
"I loved the guy," he said. "He really had a good disposition. He was always bouncing around, talking to somebody, being nice to everyone. You know, more players should be like he was - bouncing around and having fun with the game."
Bill Ballou of the Telegram & Gazette staff contributed to this report.
Mark Fidrych career major league stats
Year W L ERA IP H R ER BB SO
1976 19 9 2.34 250-1/3 217 76 65 53 97
1977 6 4 2.89 81 82 29 26 12 42
1978 2 0 2.45 22 17 6 6 5 10
1979 0 3 10.43 14-2/3 23 17 17 9 5
1980 2 3 5.68 44-1/3 58 35 28 20 16
Total 29 19 3.10 412-1/3 397 163 142 99 170
CUTLINE: (1) Mark Fidrych acknowledges the crowd during Tiger Stadium's closing ceremonies in 1999. (2) Fidrych re-creates his mound-grooming routine on Tiger Stadium's final evening.
PHOTOG: ASSOCIATED PRESS File Photos