In 1981, a left-handed pitcher from Mexico named Fernando Valenzuela captured the nation's attention with a dazzling 13-7 season and 2.48 ERA. He led the National League with eight shutouts and 180 strikeouts, and won the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards. "Fernandomania," as it was called, was not a unique event. Five years earlier, a lanky 21 year old right-hander from Massachusetts electrified the baseball world en route to the AL Rookie of the Year award. That pitcher, as Tigers fans know, was Mark Fidrych, and he completes our top 50 countdown.
Mark Steven Fidrych was born on August 14th, 1954 in Worcester, Massachusetts. He was drafted out of high school in the 10th round by the Tigers in 1974 and quickly posted a 3-0 record and 2.34 ERA as a reliever for the Bristol Tigers in short-season ball. Jeff Hogan, a member of the Bristol coaching staff, was the one that bestowed the nickname "Bird" on Fidrych because of curly blonde hair (which reminded Hogan of Big Bird from Sesame Street). Needless to say, the nickname stuck.
Fidrych moved quickly through the system in 1975, compiling an 11-10 record and 3.21 ERA in 30 appearances (22 starts) across three levels. He started 16 games for the Class-A Lakeland Tigers before a brief call-up to Double-A, where he tossed 14 innings out of relief in a span of roughly two weeks. He received a promotion to the Triple-A Evansville Triplets late in the season. It was here that his 4-1 mark with a 1.58 ERA in six starts caught the Tigers' attention, and they brought him up to the big leagues for the 1976 season.
Going into the 1976 season, the 21 year old Fidrych had big shoes to fill. The Tigers traded left-hander Mickey Lolich -- the #12 player on our list -- to the New York Mets earlier that offseason. Lolich's departure didn't immediately open the door for Fidrych, who spent the first five weeks of the season as a rarely-used reliever. Right-hander Joe Coleman came down with the flu in mid-May, opening the door for Fidrych's first big league start. The Bird dominated, holding the Cleveland Indians hitless in his first six innings. He would eventually allow a run on two hits and a walk, striking out five in a complete game victory.
Even an outing this dominant did not earn Fidrych a permanent spot in the rotation, however. He did not start until 10 days later, allowing two runs on six hits in eight innings in a loss to the Boston Red Sox. Despite the loss -- his only one until July 9th of that year -- he had earned his place in the rotation. Fidrych won his next six starts, including back-to-back 11 inning outings, with a 2.40 ERA. By now, hype was beginning to build, earning Fidrych and the Tigers a nationally televised audience on ABC's Monday Night Baseball with the New York Yankees in town. The night was June 28th, 1976, and a legend was born.
Fidrych dominated the Yankees, holding them to a single run on seven hits in a 5-1 Tigers victory. His on-field antics -- notably, talking to the ball and pretty much anyone else within earshot -- drew some scorn from the Yankees. Fans and the media loved Fidrych's quirky personality, adding to his immense popularity throughout the summer. Fidrych shut out the Baltimore Orioles in his next start, improving his record to 9-1 with a 1.85 ERA. He took the loss in his next start -- a nine inning, one run effort -- but was still selected as the American League's starting pitcher in the All-Star game.
Fidrych allowed a pair of runs in his only inning in the All-Star game, but picked up right where he had left off once the season re-started. He tossed an 11-inning shutout against the Oakland Athletics in his first start after the break, stranding all 11 baserunners he allowed. He also won his next start, improving his record to 11-2. Fidrych would endure a couple of rough patches throughout the second half, but still stymied hitters in most of his starts. He was 8-7 with a 2.74 ERA in the second half, resulting in a final record of 19-9 with a 2.34 ERA and 97 strikeouts in 250 1/3 innings. He won the AL Rookie of the Year by a landslide, earning 22 of 24 first place votes*. Fidrych also finished second in the Cy Young voting behind 22 game winner Jim Palmer of the Orioles.
*The two mistaken souls who voted for Butch Wynegar could not be reached for comment.
Fidrych suffered a knee injury while shagging fly balls during Spring Training in 1977, delaying his sophomore debut until May 27th. Despite the late start, he picked up right where he left off in 1976. He was 6-2 with a 1.83 ERA in his first eight starts, including six consecutive victories with a 1.33 ERA to close out the month of June. This hot start would lead to his second consecutive All-Star berth.
Unfortunately, the Bird's glory was to be short-lived. In a start on July 4th, 1977, Fidrych injured his shoulder in a start against the Baltimore Orioles. He said that he felt his arm "go dead," and would later be diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff -- though it was not repaired surgically until after his career ended. He only made two more starts in 1977, finishing the season with a 6-4 record and 2.89 ERA. He won a pair of starts to open up the 1978 season, but would only tally 22 innings that season. He made 11 more starts for the Tigers in the next two seasons before being released by the Tigers in October 1981. After a failed comeback attempt with the Boston Red Sox in 1982 and 1983, Fidrych retired from baseball.
Despite seeing his promising career cut short by injury, Fidrych remained the same kind, upbeat person that teammates described during his playing days. During an interview in 1998, a reporter asked him who he would invite to dinner if he had the choice of anyone in the world. Fidrych replied "My buddy and former Tigers teammate Mickey Stanley, because he's never been to my house." Ernie Harwell described Fidrych as "the most charismatic player we had during my time with the Tigers."
Like his career, Fidrych's life was also shorter than all would have hoped. He was found beneath a dump truck -- he owned a small trucking business -- at his home in Northborough, Massachusetts on April 13th, 2009. Mr. Fidrych passed away at the age of 54.
Note: This will end our countdown (for now, maybe). I want to thank everyone for reading, voting, and helping us to compile a fantastic list of past and present Tigers greats.