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The Bird is Gone

April 14, 2009

The thrill of the Bird is gone. He came and went in a time when the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News were thriving, a time when GM and Ford were still kings of the city and the world of cars.

 

I didn’t know it first thing this morning because the Detroit Free Press is now only delivered 3 days a week and Tuesday isn’t one of those days. I used to go outside when I arose before 6:00am, in good weather and bad, with a little thrill in my heart. I always looked forward to getting the newspaper every morning, never knowing what would capture the front page.

            I exercised, showered, and ate before I left for work and heard the news on the radio today that Mark (The Bird) Fidrych died the day before, apparently a victim of a freak accident. He was found on his farm, dead underneath his dump truck.

            The Bird, who was the Thrill of 1976, is gone. 1976, the 200 year anniversary of our country, the year after I graduated high school and was a freshman at Wayne State University in Detroit, was for me and most every sports fan in Detroit, the Year of the Bird.

Mark Fidrych, only two years older than me, was the rookie pitcher who aroused a city and nation after Nixon and Watergate. Looking like Big Bird from Sesamee Street, Fidrych became a baseball and pop culture phenomenon. He pitched fast, talked to the ball, lifted his arm in wild gestures, and won 19 games in 1976 for the Detroit Tigers. He became the All-Star game starter that year and was voted Rookie of the Year. He was featured in TIME, LIFE, and Newsweek magazines. He got to talk to President and Michigander Gerald Ford about baseball and filled Tiger Stadium when no one else could. The Tigers since its thrilling World Series win in 1968 had faded from my consciousness, until the birth of the pitcher, the Bird.

I remember going to see him, the stadium alive with excitement, 50,000 people screaming and cheering. I never got to see the Beatles live but was lucky enough to see the Bird. In all of my 52 years, I have never seen anything like the passion of Bird and his fans.

It didn’t last long. Injuries took a toll on the Bird and he only won 10 more games in his next five years with the Tigers. On September 2, 1980, his last complete game, he didn’t allow the Chicago White Sox an earned run and won the game, 11-2. Thrilled with the moment, he took the game ball and handed it to his friend and minor league manager and mentor, Jim Leyland, now coach of the Detroit Tigers. When Leyland was asked yesterday about Fidrych, he chose not to speak, his words stuck in his throat.

Dick Tracewski, Tigers’ first-base coach in 1976, said, “This is the way I’ll remember him; He was always happy, but always thrilled, even after his playing days, about the place in the sunlight that baseball had given him.” (“Antics didn’t sum up ‘Bird’), Tom Gage, Detroit News, April 14, 2009)

The thrill of the Bird is gone. He came and went in a time when the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News were thriving, a time when GM and Ford were still kings of the city and the world of cars. Today, the newspapers try to survive by cutting home deliveries, and it looks now as if GM is likely heading toward a “prepackaged bankruptcy.” On the front page of the Detroit News, which I bought at the Seven Eleven, the front page also says that, “counting those who have settled for part-time jobs or abandoned their job search, the number (of working-age Michiganders without jobs) exceeded 900,000.” One in five is out of work “and the percentage is growing.”

The state of Michigan is in a virtual “Depression,” whether it’s official or not. As motivator, Anthony Robbins, says, “You need real emotional muscle” to deal with the current economic time.

It’s time to mourn for Mark the Bird Fidrych and the plight of Detroit, Michigan. But it’s also time to flex our emotional muscles and feel lucky that we had a chance to see what the gift of passion can bring. The Bird was “always happy, always thrilled” to have the chance to be a Detroit hero.

I will always remember his gifts to me and everyone in our state: the thrill of his joy and his exuberant passion. We need this now more than ever.

 

 

 

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