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Published: Thursday, 4/16/2009

Remembering 'The Bird'

IF YOU grew up anywhere near these parts and are old enough to remember the nation's bicentennial year, there's no way you'll ever forget Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, that tall, gawky kid with a mop of golden curls, a winning smile, and a pitching arm that appeared to be a gift from the baseball gods.

That's true even if you weren't much of a fan. For a summer in 1976, the 21-year-old Tigers pitcher lifted the spirits of a team, a town, and a state suffering - as now - through national uncertainty and a dreary recession.

The Bird appeared on the scene when the Tigers were terrible, auto sales were down, Detroit was slipping, and the nation was suffering from "stagflation." Few noticed him until the day they gave him the ball and let him pitch. Looking like Big Bird from TV's Sesame Street, he roved around the pitcher's mound, squatted down, and appeared to talk to the ball. And then he threw strikes. He won. And won again. And again and again.

When he didn't play, the Tigers were terrible, and attendance was worse. When he pitched, the stands were full. The New York Yankees were clearly bound for the World Series, but The Bird beat them easily in a nationally televised contest. The rookie started the All-Star game and was on national magazine covers, yet none of it went to his head.

He was a cheerful, smiling farm boy from Massachusetts, who told national writers that he really liked driving a dump truck best of all. Then, in a flash, it was over. Something happened to his arm. He struggled for a few years to make a comeback, but it was over.

The Bird was neither bitter, nor, as he would have been today, a multimillionaire. He didn't know anything about fancy agents; he and his dad had negotiated his contracts. So he cheerfully went home and bought a farm and laid pipe, helped out at a local diner, and drove his truck.

Then on Monday, he was apparently working on the heavy vehicle when it fell on him. He was 54 on paper, but as one of his grief-stricken coaches said, "He'll always be a kid to me," a bright boy of summer who lifted the spirits of millions for one magical year.

Today, there are many fans who wish they could see his like again.

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