Monday, June 28, 2010

June 28, 1976: The Bird

DETROIT - Sometimes, there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.

In Detroit on June 28, 1976, there was only one man people wanted to see. The Tigers had beaten the Yankees 5-1, but the score was meaningless. They were 10 games back and wouldn't get much closer all year. Yet the entire crowd, the Tigers' largest of the season to that point, were all still in their seats. They were chanting, "We want the Bird."

Coaxed out by his clubhouse attendents, Mark Fidrych returned to the field, and tipped his cap, both embarrassed by and reveling in all the attention. With the ABC cameras still rolling, he shook hands with fans and police officers on top of the dugout and tipped his cap again, a huge grin on his face. And that was the moment that "The Bird" became a national celebrity.

Fidrych won only 29 games in his Major League career, but 19 of those came in the summer of 1976, when he transformed from an unknown and unwanted rookie to a national phenomenon. Thrown into the Detroit rotation as an afterthought in May after another starter got sick, Fidrych started throwing complete game after complete game, completely confounding hitters in the process. By the time his June 28 start against the Yankees rolled around, he was 7-1 and was becoming a celebrity in Detroit.

Then came his appearance on "Monday Night Baseball," and the entire nation found out about the quirky Detroit pitcher. They saw him crouch down to manicure the mound with his bare hands. They saw him talking to the baseballs before pitching them, and directing them as you would a dart. They saw him throwing baseballs out of play because the balls "still had hits in them." And they saw him throw a complete-game victory against the eventual American League champions in less than 2 hours.

Soon, every Fidrych start became a must-see event. The Tigers were fighting to stay out of last place that year, yet drew sellouts every time he pitched. Opposing teams would request the Tigers move around their rotation so Fidrych could pitch in their ballparks, thus allowing them to reap the benefits from the added attendance.

That summer, Fidrych appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated twice - once with Big Bird, the inspiration behind his nickname of The Bird. He also appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, the first athlete so honored. He was selected to pitch in that summer's all-star game despite having only 12 Major League starts under his belt. For one summer, he was the most popular athlete in America, a true phenomenon that would never be forgotten.

And almost as suddenly as he had appeared, he was gone. He injured his knee in spring training the next year, and though he returned for half of the 1977 season, he felt his arm go dead in a start that year. He hung around until 1980, never pitching more than 5 games a season. After going 19-9 and winning the Rookie of the Year award in 1976, he went 10-10 over the rest of his career.

Part of the reason for his quick demise could have been his workload. Despite being only 20 years old, he pitched complete games in 24 of his 29 starts in 1976. While fans marvelled at his durability, nobody realized the kind of damage he could have been doing. Another reason was the arm injury. In 1985, it was diagnosed as a torn rotator cuff, an injury many modern pitchers suffer from - and easily come back from. For Fidrych, it went undiagnosed for 8 years, during which time he did irreperable damage to his arm trying to pitch through it.

The Bird was the word in 1976, the dominating story line in baseball. It almost seems cruel that he succeeded so easily, then had it all so quickly taken away. But Fidrych never let it bother him, keeping a positive attitude about his Major League career until his accidental death in 2009. While most players would have lamented such a short career, The Bird was able to enjoy it, and revel about the summer of '76, when he was the man for his time and place.

June 28, 1997: LAS VEGAS - The first time that Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield's ear was odd enough. After being sent back to his corner after "forgetting" his mouthpiece for the third round, Tyson openly bit Holyfield's right ear in the middle of the round. Infathomably, the fight was allowed to continue. Then in the next round, Tyson bit Holyfield's other ear. After being disqualified, Tyson charged Holyfield's corner, trying again to get at him. While being led to his dressing room after the fight, Tyson charged the crowd, trying to get at hecklers. Mike Tyson had at one point been the most feared fighter in boxing history. Now, he was feared for a different reason. He had gone from intimidating fighter to sideshow, and nobody knew what he was capable of.

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