The Bird as a Blue Jay?

EARL MCRAE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:39 AM ET

It was 32 years ago, April 1977, around this very time that I sat across from The Bird in his room at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, interviewing him for a cover piece in the American monthly magazine SPORT, the second I would do on him for the publication.

In his state of depression, he mused about playing for the new team in Canada, the Toronto Blue Jays, should the serious knee injury he suffered in spring training not allow him to play again for the Detroit Tigers for whom he was everything on the field, off the field, and, expansively, all of America in its need and hunger for sporting heroes.

"Canada's got lots of farms, right? I'm more farm guy than baseball guy. I'd like it up there. As long as they got tractors, too. The Blue Jays are just starting out. Even hurt I could help them. The fans would love me. I could do a lot for that city."

It wasn't going to happen, of course, and he knew it, but Mark "The Bird" Fidrych in Toronto with the neophyte Blue Jays? The imagination reeled. It is impossible for anyone who wasn't old enough in 1976 to comprehend the impact of Fidrych on not just baseball, but all sports; not just all sports, but North American society.

ONE GLORIOUS SUMMER

One didn't have to be a sports fan to have heard about the tall, gangly, hyper, eccentric, blond, curly-haired farm kid called The Bird for the resemblance to his Sesame Street namesake, and who, in that one, crazy, glorious summer, captured the hearts of us all with his goofy, loveable personality, his goofy, loveable antics on the pitching mound from where with only a slider, fastball, and change-up he won American League rookie-of-the-year honours with 19 wins, nine losses, and an MLB-leading 2.34 ERA.

Everywhere he played the fans deafeningly roared his name from the moment he took the mound -- "Bird! Bird! Bird!"-- and laughed and cheered and danced in the aisles, many of them in Bird costumes.

The Bird gave hope to Detroit, a laugh-starved, crime-wasted city so bereft of pride, and so conscious of the social stigma, that the big billboard at the airport greeting visitors proclaimed: "Welcome To Detroit Where Millions of Good People Live."

"Do you know much about Canada?" I asked Fidrych between his fielding phone calls in his room from his many girlfriends, the hospital switchboard rejecting countless more from groupies.

"No, but I've got an uncle who fishes up there. He says Canadian fish are smarter than our fish. They talk to you after you catch them. They give you hell."

Fish that talk. The Bird would have loved that because one of his unique characteristics that made him different and beloved was his loud and animated yapping to the balls before he pitched them, convinced they could hear him.

A vision of bodily quirks and twitches, he'd lean his face into the ball and shout, "Don't let me down. I'm warning ya, pal. Do NOT let me down." And: "This hitter couldn't break an eggshell, so don't get all chickens--t and veer to the outside." And: "Okay ball -- take this guy out and the beer's on me tonight."

A poor student throughout school ("But I can tune four cars in a morning.") he endeared himself to fans by always dropping to his hands and knees to slowly and gently smooth the mound; resembling a guy trying to find a dime he'd just dropped. "Sure beats using your foot." Claiming he couldn't afford a phone for his small, grungy apartment on his $16,500 wage, he used a pay phone at a supermarket.

'GOTTA FIGHT BACK'

"I'll be back," The Bird told me in the hospital, tears in his big, little boy eyes. "I've gotta fight back. Baseball is my whole life. It's the only thing I know. I just hope the fans will understand if things don't go so hot at first; I hope they won't get mad."

The Bird did return that sophomore season, and though things didn't go so hot, and the fans understood, and didn't get mad, it would never again be the same. More and more the balls lost their hearing; injuries bullied him.

The last game he ever pitched was in October 1980. He gave up four earned runs in five innings for the Tigers, but the 11-7 victory was his. The opponent? The team he said three years earlier could really use him: The Toronto Blue Jays.

The Bird as a bird called a Blue Jay.

Ah yes. That would have been something.

Monday, on his farm, an accident killed The Bird. He was 54.


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