April 14, 2009 at 1:00 am

Former Tigers pitcher Mark 'The Bird' Fidrych dies at 54

Mark Fidrych had left the Tigers by 1981, but returned to Detroit for a Legends and Celebrities game at Comerica Park in 2005. (The Detroit News)

As another summer night's crowd of 50,000-plus jammed Tiger Stadium during that one-of-a-kind summer of 1976, the chant would begin as a muted, isolated chorus, rising in a split second to a jet-like roar as it swept the stands.

"Go, Bird, Go," the crowd would shout, rhythmically, as a curly-haired, 21-year-old pitcher of uncanny skill and color mowed down his latest American League team.

Mark "The Bird" Fidrych was a Detroit Tigers baseball icon so unique as to defy explanation to those who were not part of the Bird mania that gripped a town and a nation 33 years ago.

Fidrych died Monday at age 54 at his farm in Northborough, Mass., apparently accidentally as he worked on his dump truck.

As a 21-year-old rookie right-hander in 1976, Fidrych became a baseball and pop culture phenomenon.

He befuddled batters with a sinkerball at their knees as he racked up a 19-9 record, a league-leading 2.34 earned-run average, and a spot on the American League All-Star team, all ahead of being awarded American League Rookie of the Year honors.

Meanwhile, a kid from Massachusetts who had grown up pumping gas at his father's station entranced fans with a style as innocent as it was animated.

Unbound exuberance

Fidrych talked to the baseball as he stared in for the catcher's sign, exhorting the ball to "flow" before spilling into his wind-up and delivery, which tended to produce pitches that exasperated batters pounded into the ground -- or missed altogether.

He got down on his hands and knees to smooth the mound, making sure the dirt and undulations were to his satisfaction before he dared throw a pitch.

He was so guileless, so seemingly unaware of the world around him, that Fidrych never appeared to pick up on the laughter and delight he was generating from yet another sellout crowd that turned out, in Detroit and elsewhere. The fans simply could not believe what they were seeing in The Bird.

"That's what made it such an unbelievable year for everyone involved," said Jason Thompson, a rookie first baseman for the Tigers in 1976 who now operates Jason Thompson Baseball, a baseball and softball teaching clinic in Auburn Hills. "I tell people all the time: 'You don't realize how good this guy was.'

"They think he was this goofy guy running around on the mound. But he was just a great guy to play behind because he threw strikes, gave up a couple of hits, and you were out of there in two hours with a win."

Thompson remembers the crowds that began to shake Tiger Stadium almost immediately after Fidrych's first start, which came on May 15, 1976, when he pitched all nine innings of a 2-1 victory over the Cleveland Indians, holding the Indians to two hits.

He combined pitching prowess with an endearingly eccentric style that was purely irresistible. Later that summer, as the Tigers closed out the Yankees during a Monday Night Baseball telecast slurped up by a coast-to-coast audience, Fidrych put the Yankees down with the help of a ninth-inning ground ball to Tigers second baseman Tito Fuentes.

Fidrych had darted from the mound toward the ground ball that Fuentes ultimately and neatly handled. Typical of his spontaneity, The Bird was so ecstatic that Fuentes made the play he shook Fuentes' hand after the ball had been relayed to first.

"I love this kid!" yelped ABC-TV play-by-play telecaster Warner Wolf, letting loose with an on-the-air hosanna as reflexive as some of Fidrych's acts.

Dave Rozema, the right-hander who roomed with Fidrych for two years, talked amid sobs Monday about a teammate whose personality triumphed over the setbacks that eventually came Fidrych's way.

Over too soon

Fidrych's stunning career, in fact, ended nearly as abruptly as it began.

He had surgery on a knee he injured during spring training in 1977 and later developed arm problems that ended his career in 1980. From 1977-80 he had a 10-10 record and experienced one sad comeback attempt after another.

"It wasn't fair for him to hurt his arm like that," said Rozema, now a sales representative who lives in Grosse Pointe Park. "The way that guy worked, the way he competed, this guy should have had a long career the way he took care of himself and the way he loved the game."

Fidrych never appeared to see himself as the celebrity he became during a dreamy summer of '76. And he never took on the lifestyle of a person whose name became iconic.

His nickname was at the heart of Fidrych's lore. It was bestowed upon him during his minor league baseball days when his height (6-foot-3) and curly hair inspired a coach to say he looked like Big Bird from "Sesame Street."

The name stuck, and hung with him long after his playing days. A baseball institution, he continued to visit Detroit, as he did in February when he appeared at an Orchard Lake St. Mary's benefit.

Fidrych, as was his policy, never accepted an appearance fee. He attended countless charity events in Metro Detroit and elsewhere for the simple compensation of plane fare and hotel room. He spent his latter years in the area where he had grown up, in and around Northborough, Mass., where he had a small trucking business and some livestock.

Fidrych married Ann in 1986, and they had a daughter, Jessica, 21.

Monday, the truck that had long been associated with a plain and simple baseball man from New England killed him. Tragedy, it seemed, had been an integral part of Fidrych's life, unwilling as he was to accept such a notion or such sympathy.