April 14, 2009 at 1:00 am

Mark Fidrych: Aug. 14, 1954-April 13, 2009

'The Bird' sure could fill the seats -- and ushers' wallets

Mark Fidrych started 29 games and completed 26 of them for the 1976 Tigers. (Associated Press file)

Mark Fidrych helped put me through college. Actually, he pretty much paid for my junior year at the University of Michigan, in 1976-77.

Like most fans of the Detroit Tigers, my memories of Fidrych are joyful and exuberant -- just like Mark, all happiness and manic-excitement, all of the time.

But there is a considerable, facts-of-life consideration added to my memories of the late phenomenon that was and always will be Mark Fidrych, in Detroit. He made me a ton of dough!

The year he talked the ball into winning 19 games for him and the Detroit Tigers was my eighth year as an employee at Tiger Stadium -- and my first as a uniformed usher.

It was an ideal summer job, especially for a big, lifelong Tigers' fan.

But, as low man on the seniority pole, back when the ushers at Tiger Stadium were all in a union, I had people sitting in my sections in right field that year only when "The Bird" pitched.

The Tigers were lousy in 1976 -- except, by and large, for Fidrych, who was the phenomenon about which the whole nation, let alone Metro Detroit, was talking, that summer.

When he did not start a game, the Tigers drew at most 15,000 spectators, maybe 18,000, if they were lucky.

But "The Bird?" Well, after his first few starts at the old ballpark, the Tigers began drawing 30,000, 40,000 and -- occasionally -- 50,000 nearly every time he took the mound.

For me, it meant the difference between my $31.50 base pay for working a game, and an extra $45 or $50 I would earn in tips when there were fans to seat.

At the time, a full year of tuition for students who were residents of Michigan in Ann Arbor was only about $800.

"The Bird" paid for that and a little of the dormitory fees, too!

Some 20 years later, when I was an editor at The Boston Globe, I ran into Mark while watching some friends play in a rock-n-roll band in western Massachusetts. As I drove from Boston to the club, out west on the Massachusetts Turnpike, I recalled that Fidrych lived somewhere in the area.

As I moved around the club that night, the first thing I noticed about him was that hair. Still long and curly, piled high on the top of his head, it shown brightly in a spotlight.

"No! Can't be!" I thought to myself.

I moved closer, and it was -- "The Bird," in person! He looked quite nearly as youthful as when he pitched as a daffy 21-year-old for the Tigers, two decades earlier, and repeatedly looked at the ball and said, out loud, "Stay down, ball! Stay down!"

"Hey, Mark!" I screamed in his ear, as the band played too loudly. "I'm from Detroit! Man, you helped put me through college!"

"Cool, dude!" Fidrych said, not missing a beat, and with that huge, always-eager-for-life smile on his face. "Buy me a beer!"

We both laughed from our bellies. And I did. Right away, I went immediately to the bar and bought him one and carried it back.

"Hey, thanks guy!" Fidrych said, before taking a deep, long swig of the cold one.

But that did not end it with Mark. He was happy to hang out with me and my friends and to talk about the old days, and how he much he liked driving a truck, and to hear anything that yet another baseball fan that recognized him had to say.

Fidrych was what everyone always said he was, wonderfully daffy and utterly genuine. There was not a false bone or a bit of pretense in his entire body.

How sad to see him go.

But why am I not surprised, somehow, that his premature death happened while he was fixing his pick-up?

He was probably talking to it, too!

gkrupa@detnews.com">gkrupa@detnews.com (313) 222-2359

Matthew Harris, Alec Harris and Chase Turner from Birmingham get their ... (Morris Richardson II/The Detroit News)