Even though the Tigers didn't make the playoffs -- for that matter, allowed 100 more runs than they scored and finished the season 13 games under .500 -- 1976 will always be a special year in the history of the team.
That can be credited to one man: Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, a man known for his pitching skill as much as his showmanship. From his first big league start, a one-run, two-hit effort on May 15 of that year that began with seven no-hit innings, Fidrych looked like he might be special. In his third and fourth starts, he threw 11-inning complete games. Soon, the eclectic 21-year-old was pitching to sell-out crowds at Tiger Stadium. The entire situation was a big surprise, for Fidrych as much as anybody else.
Fidrych recalled his first big league spring training invitation for Steve Rushin in a Sports Illustrated article in 2001:
"I walked into that big league clubhouse in Lakeland [ Fla.] and went, 'Wow! Free orange juice!' " he recalls. " 'Free chewing gum! Free chewing tobacco! I don't even chew tobacco, but I think I'm gonna start!' I was in heaven. Five pairs of spikes, gloves a dime a dozen, big league uniforms with our names on the back. Audrey, our minor league secretary, gave me writing paper with the Detroit emblem stamped on it so I could write letters home. It made me feel like a big shot."
After just 11 major league starts, the 21-year-old was not only named to the American League All-Star team, but he was named the starter of it. That made him just the second rookie pitcher named the all-star starter in the history of the Midsummer Classic. The first came in 1962.
There is no fiction about the Bird, the Tigers' rookie righthander whose real name is Mark Fidrych. This scene occurred early last week after he defeated the first-place Yankees 5-1, but there was as much excitement five days later when 51,032 showed up to see Fidrych shut out Baltimore for his ninth win in 10 big-league starts. Detroit, a city of sports deprivation, vibrated the way it had not since the days of Denny McLain. Donald Shoemaker of nearby Warren even named his newborn son Mark Fidrych Shoemaker.
Unfortunately, Fidrych gave up two runs on four hits in his time on the mound. Pete Rose and Steve Garvey teamed up with a single and a triple to score a run before an out was even recorded. A grounder got Garvey home from third. Fidrych allowed two more hits in the second inning, but kept the NL off the board.
Two other Tigers were starters in that game, by the way. That's quite the feat for a below average team. Left fielder Ron LeFore and right fielder Rusty Staub went 1-for-2 and 2-for-2, respectively.
LeFlore had better seasons, but 1976 marked his only all-star appearance. Staub and Fidrych also made their only all-star appearances in 1976.
You already know Fidrych never recaptured his rookie season and battled injuries after. LeFlore fared even worse in life, eventually ending up arrested for non-payment of child support.
Staub hit .277 with the Tigers and had 70 home runs in about 3 1/2 years with the Tigers. He was traded to Montreal in 1979 after holding out to begin the season. He retired after 1985. Montreal retired his No. 10 jersey in 1993.