April 14, 2009 at 1:00 am

Tom Gage

Antics, alone, didn't sum up Mark Fidrych

Mark Fidrych was the American League Rookie of the Year in 1976 and finished second to Jim Palmer in the Cy Young voting. (The Detroit News)

Long live the Bird.

The death of Mark Fidrych, the former rookie of the year with the Tigers in 1976, Monday brings to mind two dates in his honor -- one from his great season, the other from his last season.

Despite his antics, despite the fun he had on the mound and the joy his pitching brought to others, Fidrych was a serious pitcher.

But also an appreciative competitor who never forgot a friend.

The first date was July 16, 1976 -- the height of Bird-mania in Detroit. It was evident by now that the fans loved him.

He talked to the ball. He strode around the mound like a rooster. But, oh, how he could pitch.

Tiger Stadium was packed again. The city was rocking. And the Oakland A's were in town.

Fidrych was at his best and would eventually win, 1-0, in 11 innings. And, yes, he pitched all 11 innings. But before game's end, Claudell Washington tried to interrupt his pace.

The Bird worked quickly. The faster, the better -- and one by one, he was mowing down the A's. In stepped Washington. The Bird went to work.

Not liking how the at-bat was going, Washington stepped out. It was a move to take away the tempo of the game, to slow Fidrych down.

Washington adjusted this, adjusted that. Then he finally stepped back in, thinking perhaps he had gained the advantage.

Fidrych wound up and threw. Not a strike, not even close to a strike. Instead, the pitch was a laser at Washington's knees and he had to hit the dirt.

The message was clear. Don't mess with me, the Bird had said -- the only way he knew how. It hadn't been a high pitch. Fidrych wasn't a headhunter. But it definitely was a message pitch -- and Washington got the message.

That's how 1976 went, however. I was a rookie baseball writer, watching a rookie phenom. It was a special moment and remains a special moment now.

One last thrill

The next date was Sept. 2, 1980. Fidrych had almost completely faded away by now. His attempts to come back from his injuries were courageous and determined, but he just didn't have it anymore.

Except for this day.

In an 11-2 victory over the White Sox, the last complete game of his career and his last victory at Tiger Stadium, Fidrych realized one last moment of complete triumph.

He knew he couldn't pitch as he once did. He knew the slider wasn't what it had once been. This was sweet, though. He hadn't allowed an earned run -- and he wanted to share the happy moment.

So he picked up the game ball after the final out, took it to a friend sitting in the first row and handed it to him.

He handed the ball to minor league manager Jim Leyland, who'd not only helped him over some bumps but had always believed in him as a person.

Leyland a mentor

Leyland was so distraught Monday at the news of the Bird's passing that he chose not to speak. Coupled with the sudden death of Phillies announcer Harry Kalas, whom he called a "friend and true gentleman," the one-two punch dealt to Leyland was a knockout.

"They're probably with the best manager ever, in my eyes," Fidrych said of the young Tigers' pitchers in 2006 during an interview with Hal Bodley of USA TODAY. "Jim's going to care about them."

In return, Fidrych always cared about those who cared for him. The memory of him, in his own moment of vanishing glory, handing the ball to Leyland has not been forgotten.

This was the serious side of the Bird -- the fastball-at-the-knees side and the friend of those who'd been his friend side.

He'll be remembered for his antics. Of course, he will. He should be.

It would be a disservice, however, to remember him for nothing more.

tom.gage@detnews.com">tom.gage@detnews.com

Mark Fidrych was the American League Rookie of the Year in 1976 and ... (The Detroit News)
Mark Fidrych shows his form during the All-Star Game festivities in 2005. (John Reid III/Getty Images)