On the hottest day of the summer of 1976, I fell in love. I was thirteen.
That’s the day I went to a Yankee doubleheader with my father and sister. Although it was a regular season game on a nothing special day, my father had been noticeably excited about this game. He figured out that the opposing pitcher that day would be Mark Fidrych, nicknamed the Bird. Fidrych was the talk of baseball that year, a phenom. It was close to impossible to get a hit let alone a run off him. But, besides making pitches that fooled even the most skilled batters, Fidrych was best known for his antics on the mound. He talked to the baseball, got on his hands and knees to manicure the mound, and when an infielder made a great play, he immediately dashed over and personally congratulated him. He was nicknamed the Bird because one of his coaches thought that he ran just like Big Bird from Sesame Street. He kind of looked like Big Bird too: he was tall, lanky, and had bushy red hair. Before making a pitch, he talked to the baseball, begging it to avoid the batter’s bat. If he felt a baseball had a hit in it, he’d toss it out of the game and ask for a new one. “I want that ball to go back in the bag with all the other balls so they can tell him to behave,” he said. He hugged players after they made a great play. The crowds adored him.
When my father realized the Bird was going to be pitching when we were scheduled to be at the game, he counted the days. “Guess, where we’ll be seven days from now?” he’d ask. Everyday the countdown continued. While he generally kept the tickets in his wallet, this time he upgraded the ticket space to under the phone. So, every time the phone rang (which for my sister was right after she got off the phone) we would be reminded of that game. Finally, the big day arrived.
For several years, my father had been taking us to Yankee games. I don’t remember my first game, but this was the game I remember that fostered my love for baseball. I was born and bred to be a Yankee fan but ironically my love of baseball originates from an opposing pitcher from the Detroit Tigers.
There was a lot going on that day. It was Jacket Day; anyone under 14 got a plastic jacket. The jacket was like having your own personal sauna; it was made out of the cheapest plastic and had two vents in the back. As soon as you put your arm through the sleeve, you immediately started to sweat. The jacket was particularly suitable to wear at Halloween as a shield for eggs being hurled at you.
The Yankees were on their way to winning their division after a twelve year drought. Not surprisingly, 52,707 people came to the game, close to the capacity of 57,546.
As the game started, my dad educated us on the players, the positions, and the intricacies of the game. Unlike the other games, this time I listened. Something about this Bird guy piqued my interest.
The National Anthem was sung. The starting line-up was announced. I watched the Yankees run on the field. I along with the other 52,706 fans waited anxiously for the Bird’s appearance.
What would he be like? Would he look like a Bird? What would it be like to watch a legend in the making?
Unlike the other players who calmly jogged on to the field, he bolted to the pitcher’s mound. He was in his own private world. He got on his knees, patted the mound so it was just right, jumped up and down, and pointed to his teammates who made great plays. He looked funny and did things that other players simply did not do. He did not care what he looked like. And, he looked pretty weird. Despite the fact that the view from our cheap seats was not good, I could still see that stick of a man with a bushy mound of flapping red hair.
We watched the bird with utter amazement. You could feel how impossible it was to get a hit off him. His pitches zoomed by my Yankees. They were stumped. When they approached the plate, they looked like they were hoping to be walked. The Bird was simply invincible. All his weird movements were working. He did not allow the Yankees to score a run. He struck out five and allowed only nine hits.
The Yankees lost the first game 6-0. It wasn’t even close. The day was not a total disaster for the home team; the Yankees won the second game 6-5. It was a perfect baseball day. I saw a phenomenal pitcher and I got a free jacket.
And, that was the day I fell in love with baseball.
Since then, I have followed the Yankees religiously. Because the season is so long and games are played on a daily basis, I can always catch a glimpse of them: a quick flick on the remote control, taking a peek through a big window at a bar to get a score, or simply reading about the game the next day. And, they have become my friends in good and bad times. Doc Gooden pitched a no-hitter when I got stood up on a date. David Cone pitched a perfect game on my birthday after I had been in a bike accident that temporarily disfigured my face. (I still think he pitched that game for me). When there was an awkward silence with colleagues, bosses, and distant relatives, the talk of baseball helped me start a conversation.
And, my baseball knowledge helped me in my dating life. I got married to surprisingly, a Met fan; we joke that we have a mixed marriage. Our little guy, halluejah, is a Yankee fan. His first little league game starts on the same day as opening day 2016.
So, whatever happened to the Bird? Did he make it to the Hall of Fame? Win a World Series?
Sadly, no. I saw Fidrych pitch at his best, his first year in the majors. In fact, he won the Rookie of the Year Award. In the following season, however, after winning six of his first ten starts, he seriously injured his arm and virtually could no longer pitch. He pitched in three games in 1978, four in 1979 and retired in 1980. He owned a trucking asphalt and gravel company in Massachusetts while doing a little public relations work. He also had two seats at Comerica Stadium (that is where the Detroit Tigers play).
I cried when I found out that in 2009 he died tragically in an accident on his farm: he was 54.
In writing this article, I started my research with the Bird. I went to the public library to find articles about that game. However, because I could not remember what the exact date of the game was and how to find it, I sought help from the twenty-year old looking librarian at the help desk.
“I haven’t done research in years. Would you know how I can find a story about a game when Mark Fidrych pitched?”
“I’d do anything for the Bird.”
I guess I wasn’t the only one affected by him.
PLAY BALL!!! And Go Yankees!!!