Detroit Tigers fans will likely never again see a rookie pitcher have the kind of season that Mark Fidrych had in 1976. The Bird’s adventures that summer will never be forgotten. His best start in that one-of-a-kind season was the type of start Tigers fans will definitely never again see from a rookie pitcher.
Mark Fidrych was recently named to the All-Rookie of the Year team that MLB.com’s Richard Justice put together. The Bird went 19-9 and led the American League in ERA (2.34) and complete games (24) in 1976. Nobody knew about stats like WAR, ERA+ or WHIP back then, but Fidrych’s 9.6 WAR and 159 ERA+ were the best in the league, and his 1.079 WHIP was third best. He finished second to the Baltimore Orioles’ Jim Palmer in the AL Cy Young Award voting.
His most-remembered start in that exciting rookie season was the one that fans in Tiger Stadium and TV viewers across the nation watched on June 28. Airing on ABC’s “Monday Night Baseball”, it was an entertaining complete game performance against the best team in the AL, the New York Yankees. For The Bird, though, the best was yet to come. Using Baseball-Reference’s version of the Game Score statistic, created by Bill James, Fidrych’s best start in 1976 was on July 16. The Tigers played host to the Oakland A’s that night.
The eventual Rookie of the Year had faced the A’s in Oakland in his big league debut back on April 20. More accurately, Fidrych faced one Oakland A in his debut. After Tigers reliever Jim Crawford gave up a game-tying, two-run single in the top of the ninth, Detroit skipper Ralph Houk called on Fidrych. With runners on the corners and only one out, it was quite a high-leverage situation to debut in. The curly-haired rookie couldn’t stop the Oakland rally that had started five batters earlier against Tigers starter Joe Coleman. Don Baylor sent Fidrych’s second pitch into the outfield for a walk-off single. The A’s won 6-5.
On July 16, the A’s would be getting their first look at Fidrych since that early-season encounter. It’s an understatement to say that things changed for the righty from Massachusetts after that. Since joining the Tigers’ rotation in mid-May, Fidrych had gone 9-2 with a 1.79 ERA. Opponents were hitting .213/.260/.291 against him in 11 starts. Although he’d only struck out 42 in 100.1 innings as a starter, Fidrych had walked just 22. If he was really talking to the baseballs on the mound, as many believed, the balls were listening.
A Friday night Tiger Stadium crowd of 45, 905 was ready to have another good time cheering for The Bird. It was the fourth straight crowd of over 45,000 that the charismatic Fidrych had drawn to one of his starts at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, a streak which began with that instant classic against the Yankees. It was also his first time back on the mound for the Tigers after starting the All-Star Game for the AL in Philadelphia three days earlier.
Bill North led off the game with a single. With Billy Williams at the plate, North broke for second base. Coming into the game, North had stolen 56 bases. He ended up leading the AL with 75 that season. This attempt would not be one of the 75 steals. Bruce Kimm, who was behind the plate for all 29 of Fidrych’s starts in 1976, threw North out. Williams, a future Hall-of-Famer, walked. Up stepped Don Baylor, who had ruined Fidrych’s debut. This time, The Bird prevailed by inducing an inning-ending double play.
This was the 14th game of Fidrych’s career. In comparison, the three A’s hitters that were due up in the second inning; Joe Rudi, Sal Bando, and Gene Tenace; had played in a combined 114 postseason games (including all five games of the 1972 ALCS against the Tigers) over the previous five years. The Detroit youngster handled all three seasoned vets rather easily in the inning. Rudi grounded to short, Bando grounded back to Fidrych, and Tenace flew out to left.
Fidrych set the A’s down in order in the third, fourth, and fifth innings on nine straight groundouts. Everyone in the Tigers infield got in on the fun. First baseman Jason Thompson handled two of them unassisted. Second baseman Pedro Garcia, shortstop Tom Veryzer, and third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez each fielded two. One Oakland hitter grounded back to Fidrych. The Bird was making quick work of the A’s.
Claudell Washington, who led off the sixth, was tired of the hyperactive pace of the Tigers’ ace. It’s possible that Washington may have gotten a little irked about it before he could lead off in the top of the third. After the last out in the bottom of the second had been registered, The Bird immediately took his position. As seen in a photo in the next day’s Detroit Free Press, he was already smoothing out the mound before two of Oakland’s outfielders had even exited the field. That inning, Washington was the first of the nine straight A’s to ground out. This time, he intended to disrupt Fidrych, who was prompt and ready once again. Washington dawdled on his way the batters box. As his stalling tactics, like rubbing dirt on his hands for almost 40 seconds, continued, an Associated Press photographer got a picture of a frustrated pitcher pointing and yelling something while crouched on the mound.
When Washington finally stepped in after successfully ruffling The Bird’s feathers, the first pitch he saw was a brushback pitch. He took exception to that and headed for the mound, bat in hand. He didn’t get very far before Kimm and the home plate umpire restrained him. Both benches cleared, but there was no brawl. Thankfully, that also meant that something even worse wouldn’t happen. The players weren’t the only ones feeling the friction. In the Fidrych biography The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych, Tigers pitcher Frank MacCormack told author Doug Wilson,
"“It’s a good thing Washington stopped. I could see fans putting their legs over the rail, getting ready to go out there to rescue The Bird. They were ready to run out there. They were not going to let The Bird get hurt. It would have gotten ugly if Washington had gotten any closer. But that’s how Detroit fans felt about him.”"
After the game, Fidrych was still fired up about what had happened. He chirped,
"“(Bleep) Claudell Washington! Yes, I intended to come inside with the pitch. I didn’t intend to hit him, but I wanted it inside. But why should I try to hit him in a nothing-nothing game?”"
Fidrych made a good point about the score, but Washington wasn’t immediately convinced at the time. He remarked,
"“I just wanted to see if he was throwing at me. If he was, I was ready to fight him.”"
The Bird wasn’t going to fly away. He said,
"“It wasn’t that far inside, but it sure made him mad. I told him if he wanted to do something about it to come and get me. But I had my teammates out there with me. I was just waiting on the mound for him. I had the ball.”"
Later, Washington seemed like he was trying to make sense of it all as he described what happened from his perspective. He commented,
"“He pointed at me, and he said something. Then he threw the ball two feet inside. I didn’t know if he was talking to the ball or to me. But he’s a helluva pitcher, and I don’t have anything against him.”"
Washington, who would face Fidrych in only one more game two seasons later, added,
"“He’s smart. He comes right at you. He’s got a good gimmick and all those people out there.”"
Once everybody settled down, Fidrych got his new nemesis to ground out to third. Future Tigers manager Phil Garner flew out to right. Tommy Sandt grounded back to the mound. Despite all of the extracurriculars, it turned out to be the fifth straight 1-2-3 inning for Fidrych.
North finally snapped the string when he led off the seventh with a single. Just like in the first inning, North was thrown out attempting to steal while Williams was at bat. Just like in the first inning, Williams walked. Baylor popped out for the second out. Rudi singled, giving the A’s two baserunners for the first time in the game. Fidrych’s first K of the game was a big one, as he struck out Bando to end the inning.
Fidrych got Tenace to foul out to Kimm to begin the eighth. Then he struck Washington out, which fans who chanted “Go, Bird! Go!” throughout the game, were happy to see. The A’s tried to get something going after that, though. Garner singled, and Sandt walked. North lined out to The Bird to end the threat. Fidrych also pitched a scoreless ninth, giving up only a harmless single to Rudi.
Meanwhile, the Tigers were having a tough time with A’s starter Mike Torrez. He retired the first six hitters he faced. Rodriguez led off the third with a double, but was thrown out trying to stretch it into a triple. Torrez then put down the next seven Tigers. Alex Johnson, a Detroit native playing for his hometown team in his final big league season, singled in the fifth, but was caught stealing. Rusty Staub tripled in the seventh, but was stranded. The Tigers put a couple runners on in the eighth, but couldn’t score. Ron LeFlore singled to lead off the bottom of the ninth, which was the end of the day for Torrez. Oakland brought in its relief ace, Rollie Fingers, who kept the game tied 0-0 after nine innings.
Fidrych went back to the mound for the tenth. It was the third time he’d pitched extra innings. He went 11 innings in back-to-back starts on May 31 and June 5. Each of those times, he got a win. The Bird retired Tenace on a called third strike to begin the inning. Washington singled, but was erased in a double play. The Tigers managed to put a runner on third in the bottom half, but came up short again.
Back out for the eleventh, Fidrych again struck out the first batter. North singled for his third hit of the game. He became the just the third player to collect three hits off Fidrych in a game. A’s manager Chuck Tanner, remembering how North was caught stealing twice earlier, lifted him for pinch-runner Matt Alexander. Alexander had 20 stolen bases in 45 pinch-running appearances that season. Naturally, he made a break for second. He stole it successfully due to a throwing error by Johnny Wockenfuss, who had taken over behind the plate for the Tigers that inning. Alexander advanced to third on the error, becoming the first Oakland runner in the game to make it that far.
The Tigers, who lost a 1-0 game in Fidrych’s previous start, were in danger of falling behind 1-0. A walk to Ken McMullen brought Don Baylor up. The scenario was similar to the time Fidrych faced Baylor in his debut. There were runners on the corners and one out in a tie game. Baylor got the upper hand the first time around, but Fidrych got him this time. He struck Baylor out, putting the capper on an 0-for-5 night. Rudi flew out to end the inning.
The bottom of the eleventh brought up the top of the Tigers’ lineup. The speedy LeFlore legged out an infield single off Fingers to get things started. Veryzer dropped down a sacrifice bunt to advance LeFlore to second. Staub was intentionally walked. Willie Horton, playing in his last full season as a Tiger, came up. He singled into left, and LeFlore came around to score the winning run. The final score was Tigers 1, A’s 0.
As LeFlore was headed for the plate, so was a jubilant Fidrych, ready with a big congratulatory hug. The Bird then headed toward third with another hug ready for Horton. Fidrych loved being able to praise his teammates after his victories just as much as he loved congratulating them during games when they made good plays behind him. The Tigers played solid defense in their tight win over the A’s, accounting for 27 of the game’s 33 outs. Fidrych struck out only six in the 11 innings. He quipped,
"“I’m doing one-third of the work, and they’re doing two-thirds – defense and runs.”"
Fidrych would pitch extra innings twice more in 1976. If Horton’s hit hadn’t won this game, it’s likely that Fidrych would have gone back out for more against the A’s. Tigers manager Ralph Houk told reporters that he wouldn’t have let his prized rookie go longer than two more innings. Although the skipper said he didn’t want to take a chance on hurting The Bird’s arm, he had an interesting comment about a different kind of factor that was on his mind. Houk reasoned,
"“If I did (take him out), the people just wouldn’t understand.”"
Houk knew that the stadium was at near-capacity that night because Fidrych was on the mound. The crowd of 45,905 was right there until the end. They were definitely a part of the festive Friday night fun that included, as the Detroit Free Press‘ Jim Hawkins reported, “continual pandemonium at every good Tigers play”. As had become the custom, Tigers fans wanted a curtain call from The Bird and stuck around until they got it. It was a longer game, in terms of innings, but it only lasted two hours and 26 minutes. Credit Fidrych for some of that. New York Times writer William Barry Furlong, who became a Bird watcher later that summer, noted,
"“Fidrych customarily pitches very quickly; one of the many reasons his performances are so fascinating is that they are fast‐paced —there is no time for things to drag and get dull.”"
The Bird was just as lively in the Tigers clubhouse after the game while reporters fired questions his way. If he wasn’t working on his jump shot by tossing pieces of his uniform into a laundry basket like they were basketballs, he was bouncing from one side of the clubhouse to the other to grab himself an ice-cold victory beer. He proudly pointed out that he’d recently gotten a bit of a haircut so that he could “start the second half new”.
It was Fidrych’s second shutout of the season (the first had come just two starts earlier). He would throw two more later in the season. The win ran his record to 10-2. For his efforts in keeping the A’s off the scoreboard for 11 innings, Fidrych reclaimed the team lead in wins and complete games from Dave Roberts. His Game Score for the evening was 85.
Houk continued to be amazed by what he saw from Fidrych. The Tigers’ skipper had been in pro ball since 1939, and he said that he’d never seen anything like it. He laughed as he called it “the damndest thing”. A’s manager Chuck Tanner said that the game was better than a World Series game. (Tanner, it is worth noting, didn’t make it to the World Series as a player and was still three seasons away from managing in the Fall Classic.) The Free Press’ Hawkins wrote,
"“Incredible. Sensational. Phenomenal. Fantastic. Mark Fidrych was all those things – and more Friday night. All the superlatives in the world don’t adequately describe the absolutely unbelievable Bird.”"
Kimm, who called Fidrych an “amazing pitcher”, said that The Bird was “really throwing hard tonight” and his stuff was as good as it had ever been. When the talented Tigers twirler was asked if he agreed that this had been his best game of the year, Fidrych’s modest deflection was a little contradictory at first. He replied,
"“All games are satisfying. You can’t ever be satisfied with what you’ve done.A coach in the minor leagues once told me if you’re ever satisfied with what you’ve done, you’re going no place.”"
It was cool that it was Willie Horton who delivered the game-winning hit in The Bird’s best start in 1976. The long-time Tigers slugger had invited the likeable 21-year old to a barbecue back in spring training, and the two became good friends. Horton also became a mentor to Fidrych. Later in the season, Willie told a reporter that he and Mark talked every day. One of the lessons that Horton would impart was the importance of pitching for the whole team, not just for himself. Horton confirmed that Fidrych had been a good student. The friendship lasted until the end of Fidrych’s life in 2009. Delivering one of the eulogies at Fidrych’s funeral service, Horton said,
"“He was a trailblazer. Everyone playing in the major leagues today owes a debt of gratitude to Mark Fidrych. He brought baseball back to the people. He made it popular again. He helped save the game.”"