I have a fuzzy memory of a story that said Mark Fidrych celebrated something by sneaking a girl into the stadium at night and having sex with her on the mound. I can't vouch for whether this is accurate. I seem to remember the story being in Baseball Digest, but that makes me question my memory. A story that mentions sex in Baseball Digest? Good lord. The publication was so prudish and conservative that I think it banned references to protective cups.
Still, you never knew with Fidrych. Anything was possible. In one month he posed with Big Bird for the cover of Sports Illustrated and posed for Annie Leibovitz for the cover of Rolling Stone, and during the magical summer of 1976 he was perhaps the most famous and popular athlete in America.
I'm not sure how we would react today if a rookie performed the way The Bird did that year. It's not like we didn't have colorful athletes back then -- Ali was still boxing, Namath was still throwing footballs, Dr. J was soaring toward baskets and Nicklaus ... well, Jack was wearing some very loud pants. But Fidrych was different. A 21-year-old rookie who bopped around, talked to the baseball, got down on his hands and knees to smooth out the mound and shook infielders' hands after good plays? Now, that was out there. In Roger Angell's essay on the 1976 season, Fidrych explains why he threw a baseball to the umpire after a hit: "That ball had a hit in it, so I want to get it back in the ball bag and goof around with the other balls there. Maybe it'll learn some sense and come out as a popup next time."
Fidrych couldn't have seemed more out there if he had declared that he breathed through his eyelids and pitched while wearing a garter belt.
If The Bird pitched today we'd probably be so overexposed that we would soon grow sick of him, regarding his behavior as just another obnoxious "Look at me!" act. He would be fun at the start, but then he would date Britney Spears and wind up offending everyone by dumping her for Bristol Palin. But things were different back then. The summer of '76 was long before nightly "SportsCenter" highlights, TMZ, the Internet, sports radio and our pervasive 24/7 sports culture. It was still the era of newspapers and four-minute sports reports on the local news.
We simply didn't see much of Fidrych, making him all the more special.
In fact, most of us didn't really see him until the "Monday Night Baseball" game between the Tigers and Yankees in late June. The Tigers drew nearly 48,000 that night, millions more watched on TV and Bird beat the Yankees to raise his record to 8-1 with a 2.05 ERA. And 1976 officially became the Summer of Fidrych.
Fernando-mania and Nomo-mania were huge, and Nolan Ryan drew big crowds near the end of his career, but the popularity of Fidrych stands apart. Detroit finished fifth in 1976, but its attendance rose 400,000 from 1975, almost all due to Fidrych. The Tigers averaged 18,000 more fans for his starts than for their other games. Games he started accounted for more than 40 percent of the Tigers' attendance.
And it wasn't just Detroit. Wherever Fidrych pitched, he brought in fans. His July 24 start in Cleveland drew 37,405, which is really impressive once you understand that the Indians averaged fewer than 12,000 fans for their other games. He drew 30,425 in Minnesota, the only game that season the Twins cracked 25,000 fans, let alone 30,000. They drew 5,005 the game before and 7,698 the game after.
(People who claim baseball is losing popularity need to look back at old attendance figures.)
Steve Rushin wrote in Sports Illustrated that at one point Fidrych was so popular he had to sign autographs from inside a cage in Anaheim to prevent a fan riot.
Fidrych was more than just a colorful pitcher, though. He was also damn good. He pitched a complete game in 12 of his first 13 career starts. He threw consecutive 11-inning complete games in his third and fourth starts. He lost another game in the bottom of the 12th. He started 13 games on three days' rest. He threw 24 complete games his rookie year, which is one fewer than Andy Pettitte has thrown his entire career.
This might explain why he had so many injuries.
That's the sad part about Fidrych's career. It was so brief. By the time he became the first athlete on the cover of Rolling Stone (May 1977) and the first to appear on SI's with a Muppet (June 1977), he had only 10 victories left in his arm. A knee injury during spring training 1977 was the beginning of his troubles, but it was the shoulder injury that ultimately shortened his career. Jack Morris says he was booed when he made his first career start at Tiger Stadium in 1977 because Fidrych had been the scheduled starter until coming down with an injury. When the PA announcer informed the crowd that Morris would be starting instead of Fidrych, they booed.
Well, that's easy to understand. It all ended too soon. Due to the injuries, Bird started fewer games after 1976 than he did that season. By the end of 1980, his career was over. This is the line from his final start at Tiger Stadium, on Sept. 24, 1980: 2/3 IP, 0 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 5 BB, 1 K.
But it's better to remember Fidrych at his peak, when he was young and carefree, bouncing around the mound, talking to the baseball and carrying fans on his magical flight. He was just a joy. Baseball players earned the right to free agency in 1976 and Angell related how a reporter asked Fidrych toward the end of the season what sort of salary and endorsement expectations he had. "What's come your way so far, Mark?"
Replied Fidrych: "Happiness."
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.