Thursday, January 25, 2007

Despite New England Dialect, Fidrych A Detroiter At Heart

Talking to Mark Fidrych, you're immediately beamed into cozy New England territory. You halfway want to look around you for cranberry bushes and lobster.

Fidrych, 52, was on the other end of the phone, regaling me with stories about that magical 1976 season, for an upcoming piece in Motor City Sports Magazine, and the Massachusetts lilt was prevalent, as always. But despite the accent, Fidrych considers himself a Detroiter at heart.

"Oh, for sure," he said when I put the question to him. "I only spent six years there (in Detroit), but it's like a second home to me. The people have always been real nice."

What would you say, I asked, to the fans in Motown today?

"Thanks for sticking with me when I was up. Thanks for sticking with me when I was down. And thanks for sticking with me now."

That's all very nice, but I still think the thanks are owed by us, and not the other way around.

Fidrych created a spike in the interest in Tigers baseball at a time when we were smack in between two championship eras -- that of the '68 heroes and the 1984 squad. He was a convenient side show when the rest of them weren't much to look at.

Still, the Tigers sent three starters to the '76 All-Star game in Philadelphia: Fidrych, and outfielders Rusty Staub and Ron LeFlore.

Fidrych pitched in perhaps the most celebrated regular season game in team history, in terms of retrospect, when he faced the mighty Yankees on June 28, 1976. His record was 7-1, and by the time the night was over with, he was a national mini-icon. He shut down the Yanks on seven hits in a complete game, 5-1 victory.

When we spoke the other day, he recalled a conversation he had with teammate Tom Veryzer on the way to the ballpark the afternoon of that Yankees game.

"Tommy says to me, 'Well, Monday Night Baseball, kid. This is gonna be beamed into your hometown. Mine, too.'"

Upon arriving at the park, Fidrych was struck by the "tons of people" milling about.

"I went to warm up, and there were so many people, I was like, 'Wow.' But then I just told myself that it's baseball, like any other game. Let's go out and get 'em. And that's what we did."

Fidrych didn't make his first start that season until May 15. Yet, he ended up with an amazing 24 complete games.

"They told me, when I made the team, that I would observe for awhile and then when they needed a fifth starter, I'd get a shot," he said. Except that observe was "obsuv" and starter was "stahtah."

The following spring, Fidrych hurt his knee shagging flyballs. ("I came down hard and heard a pop and then felt something 'slushy' down there," he says). Staub, who had warned him of such shenanigans, told him to go see the trainer.

"That's when they told me I had popped some cartilage," Fidrych said. The knee injury caused a slight change in his delivery, which led to shoulder problems that would ultimately end his career by 1980.

I asked him if he ever gets tired of talking about that incredible season.

"No, you never get tired of it," he says. "That's what the people in Michigan want to talk about. They tell me about this game or that game they saw that year. And then, you know, you just get into conversations."

Thirty-one years later, those conversations are still going strong.


Blogger Ozz said...

I didn't become aware of the Tigers until 1978. Man, I totally missed out!

11:22 AM  

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