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Harbaugh steals show in Fidrych documentary

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Few Major League Baseball players ever had made as large of an impact in such little time as Mark "The Bird" Fidrych.

Mark Fidrych of the Detroit Tigers scoops up dirt after the last game played at Tiger Stadium against the Kansas City Royals in 1999. The Tigers defeated the Royals 8-2.

Fidrych, the curly haired, right-handed pitcher who talked to the ball and maintained the pitcher's mound with his bare hands, won only 29 games in a five-year career with the Tigers.

With his New England accent, his "aww shucks" demeanor and his million-watt smile, he was a sensation — a sensation captured perfectly in MLB Network's documentary, "The Bird," which debuts at 10 p.m. Sunday, in this, the 40th anniversary of the year Fidrych captivated a city and a country.

"It was one of my favorite projects," senior coordinating producer Bruce Cornblatt said over the phone earlier this week.

"One of the things that made this so rewarding, is you find out what hope is true is true — in that Mark Fidrych was a good guy. Just a good guy."

The hour-long documentary, which was screened to a private audience last week at MotorCity Casino, where Fidrych's daughter and wife were in attendance, tells the story of "Bird Mania" through the words of several fascinating interviews, including with Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh and his brother, John, coach of the Baltimore Ravens.

Having grown up in Michigan in the 1970s, they were totally swept up in the hoopla of Fidrych, from his first career start, when he had a no-hitter through six innings, to that nationally televised Monday night game against the New York Yankees, managed by Billy Martin, who said he'd eat his hat if his star-studded team got beat by the "Bird."

Before a sellout crowd and millions more watching at home, Fidrych was electric that June 28 night, winning, 5-1.

"It was OK to be from Detroit because the 'Bird' was pitching for the Tigers," said John Harbaugh, adding "Bird Mania" was the "right time, right place, right guy."

Jim Harbaugh, in the documentary, called Fidrych is favorite player growing up, and had a touching story about the time he was at Tiger Stadium as a fan and Fidrych came over and said hi.

Jim Harbaugh the young boy was speechless.

The day after that Monday night game, Jim Harbaugh said he was pitching in Little League — and mimicking all of Fidrych's mound antics.

"One of my favorite things are the two Harbaugh brothers," Cornblatt said. "Just talking to them and how much Fidrych meant to them, just the look in John Harbaugh's eyes ... it was very touching."

Nearly two-dozen subjects were interviewed for the documentary, from Tigers legends Al Kaline ("Never seen anything like it in my life.") and Willie Horton; from Jim Leyland (Fidrych's old minor-league manager who said opposing teams used to beg the Tigers to pitch Fidrych against them to boost ticket sales) and Bob Uecker; from Dennis Eckersley and Lou Piniella to writers from Rolling Stone, which made Fidrych the only baseball player ever to appear on the magazine's cover. That remains true to this day.

Cornblatt said a good "yes" response to interview requests is about 75 percent, while the average is 50. He said the "yes" response on this project would've been 100 percent, had rock icon Bob Seger not been out of the country.

Even Fidrych's agent, Steve Pinkus from William Morris, was interviewed, and really shed some light on just how big the "Bird" was — Frank Sinatra, another Morris client, begged Pinkus to bring Fidrych to his birthday party in California, and spent the entire night ignoring his celeb guests in favor of conversation with Fidrych.

During "Bird Mania," Fidrych also hung out backstage with Elton John, who traded memorabilia with the "Bird."

The documentary is narrated beautifully by Detroit native Tom Selleck, and also includes heart-tugging interviews with Fidrych's daughter, Jessica, and wife, Ann. The main setting for "The Bird" is Chet's Diner in Northborough, Massachusetts, where Fidrych was from and lived until his death in a freak accident in 2009. He was 54.

Jessica Fidrych now runs Chet's Diner, and during the documentary, producers kept coming back to a viewing party of that Monday night game, which Jessica had never before seen until that screening at Chet's Diner. That was neat, especially seeing friends and family yelling at the TV when announcers incorrectly said Fidrych was from Worcester.

"Two of my favorite kinds of stories are stories about names and events that you know and you think you know, but there's more to it than that," Cornblatt said. "It had a familiarity to it, which was appealing. Getting deeper into that was really appealing. I remember that Monday night game. I remember the impact saying, 'Wow.' I remember how young he was then, how his career was this shining star, and then it wasn't."

Fidrych started the All-Star Game and was rookie of the year in 1976, when he went 19-9. Injuries, starting the following spring, limited him to just pieces of four more seasons, and he was out of MLB for good in 1980.

He went back to Northborough, where he started a family, bought a farm and eventually drove a truck.

His daughter never even realized how big her father was until watching all the fans swarm them during the ceremony in September 1999 for the final game at Tiger Stadium, and then when Jessica and Ann were asked to throw out the first pitch at Comerica Park following Fidrych's death in 2009.

"This is the genuine article, that's who he was," Cornblatt said. "How many famous people can you say that about?"

What: MLB Network documentary
When: Sunday, 10 p.m.
Run time: 60 minutes
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 4)