Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Detroit Tigers versus New Yankees game that featured Mark Fidrych. “The Bird” put on a show that set his name in the annals of baseball history.
Despite his iconic status and memorable nickname, The Bird really only had one outstanding season: 1976. Fidrych was only 21 years old, just 20 months out of high school and four months out of the minor leagues.
Bill Dow with the Detroit Free Press, captured the 1976 season in a quote from former Detroit Tigers player John Wockenfuss: “I talked to older guys who knew the Babe Ruth era and they said there was more excitement that summer than ever because Fid brought fun back to the game.”
The Bird’s timing couldn’t have been any better. Baseball was in a funk as the great players from the 1960s were retiring and free agency was in its infancy. The game just wasn’t fun…until The Bird debuted on the mound.
What made Fidrych so endearing was his true joy on the mound. He was named after Big Bird on Sesame Street because of his build and his blond curls. He would talk to the ball, talk to himself, clean the mound, and chat with everyone he could – even thanking umpires for their work when the Tigers won. Baseball fans all over the country took notice of The Bird, especially when he made his debut on national television on June 28, 1976.
Tigers fans who weren’t old enough to see The Bird pitch live in 1976 will have opportunities to learn more about him. The MLB Network will air a documentary about the late pitcher in July.
It is interesting to note that one player was able to bring back joy and enthusiasm to a game that was seriously lacking anything fun. Now, 40 years later, the conversation about baseball and fun is topical again. Washington Nationals Bryce Harper has tried to drum up fun with stickers and tee shirts and analysts look at the intangibles that create personalities on the diamond.
But, is baseball fun? Is there anyone out there with a personality that draws fans like The Bird did for those glorious games in 1976? With the immense contracts and the serious business of the game, will there ever be someone who is just so darn happy to be playing – like Mark Fidrych was?
Some might argue that Miguel Cabrera is the most fun man in baseball today. His antics on first base do get the attention of the fans who pay big bucks to see what The Big Man will do on any given day.
The other Tigers who bring fun to the game include Ian Kinsler and Cameron Maybin – especially when it comes to wearing goggles and eating it up. Jose Iglesias‘s acrobatic plays bring absolute amazement to the game. Justin Verlander uses social media to bring his version of fun to baseball, too.
Another fun guy in baseball is Joe Maddon with the Chicago Cubs. No one knows exactly what he’s got up his sleeve, from selecting his lineup based on an iconic tune about Jenny from the 1980s (8675309) to naming his ace pitcher Jake Arietta a “cyborg“.
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The Houston Astros Jose Altuve draws big crowds, too. The All-Star second baseman enjoys playing the game and he isn’t afraid to get into it with the big boys like Miggy and Mike Trout. Of course, his tiny stature makes him the butt of several jokes – especially from his teammates.
Salvador Perez with the Kansas City Royals brings fun to his game, too. His constant smile and joyful playing style are the big reasons why he is topping the MLB All-Star votes in 2016. It is so important today that the players honestly look like they are having fun – Salvy sure looks like he enjoys his job.
In order for baseball to remain relevant, it is important that it remains “fun” – in a way that fans can enjoy. The fun has to come from the players and it has to be genuine and honest. Despite the millions of dollars that are spent buying the best players, baseball is still just a game and in order to keep that simple moniker, it must keep its sense of joy.