The photo above shows Mark Fidrych talking to the ball before delivering a pitch on Opening Day in Detroit forty years ago today.
I was in the press box in Tiger Stadium on April 7, 1978, covering my first major league game as a baseball beat writer, for the Toronto Sun. (More on me later.)
Two years earlier, Fidrych had been a 21-year-old sensation, voted 1976 Rookie of the Year in the American League.
Tall, with long curly hair and a goofy grin, he was nicknamed “The Bird” because of his supposed resemblance to Big Bird.
He was known as much for his eccentric on-field behavior – talking to himself as well as the ball, getting down on his knees to play in the dirt on the mound, like a kid in a sandbox – as for his pithing proficiency. He was on the cover of Rolling Stone as well as Sports Illustrated.
But his star burned out quickly. A series of injuries limited Fidrych to fewer than 30 games over the next four years. He was done at the age of 25.
He died, at 54, in a truck accident on his farm in his native Massachusetts, in 2009.
I recall that Opening Day in 1978 in my book, though The Bird was edited out in the chapter that begins with my first trip on the road with the Toronto Blue Jays. What follows is an earlier draft of that passage, which notes Fidrych’s performance. (And here is his line in my scorebook.)
Flying north from Florida with the Blue Jays, I was as anxious as the players and coaches to get the season going. It’s a cliché to say that all teams start with a clean slate, but it really does have that feeling, that anything can happen over the next six months, 162 games. Not that the Jays had a chance to win the pennant, but maybe they wouldn’t be as awful as everybody expected.
This was also my first taste of travel with a big-league ballclub. The players, by contract, flew first class, which meant the twenty-five young men took up the forward cabin on the wide-bodied Lockheed TriStar, L-1011, on the flight from Tampa to Detroit. The manager, coaches, travel secretary Mike Cannon, trainer Ken Carson and the writers, had the first rows of seats in coach. We all had the same luggage: large, gray, hard-sided Samsonite suitcases. In the pampered world of professional sports, players – and the rest of us, who tagged along – were not required to handle their own luggage, except to and from home. Someone else put the bags on the bus, on the plane, on another bus, and turned them over to hotel bellboys who delivered them to our rooms.
The charter bus picked us up at the airport in Detroit and deposited us at the Westin in the new Renaissance Center complex. In 1978, Motown was not a place for sightseeing, unless you enjoyed the sight of buildings still burned out from the 1967 riots or wanted the thrill of being robbed at gunpoint. So, the baseball lifestyle of hanging around the hotel seemed like a good idea.
After opening day was rained out, I spent a lot of time in my room, watching TV, reading, talking to Linda on the phone and ordering room service. Since my paper paid the team for my accommodations, my only obligation on checkout was to pay for incidentals such as phone calls and room-service charges.
Despite the rainout, there was a story to file. The day before, the Jays had bought John Mayberry from the Kansas City Royals and he’d just arrived in Detroit to join the team. There was a news conference to meet Mayberry, a genuine slugger capable of hitting thirty home runs in a season. Teaming with Rico Carty, the Jays had two power threats in the middle of their lineup.
The next day, the season began in warm sunshine at Tiger Stadium, filled to the rafters with kids and grownups playing hooky. The game, though, pretty much set the tone for the rest of the season for the Toronto team. The Tigers sent out pitcher Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, who unceremoniously mowed down the Jays, going all nine innings in a 6-2 win.
As for my major league debut, I followed the other writers on their appointed rounds. The pregame ritual included hanging around the cage during batting practice, chatting with the coaches and the managers; setting up my typewriter at my assigned spot in the press box; joining my fellow scribes in the private dining room for the complimentary pregame meal.
During the game, I dutifully kept score in my genuine baseball writer’s scorebook – shipped directly from the genuine baseball writer’s scorebook company in Cincinnati – ate the available free snacks and drank the free beer and listened to the wisecracks of the hometown Detroit writers – mainly going on about designated hitter Rusty Staub, speculating on his sexual predilections.
After the game, I dashed down to the clubhouses, talked to Jays’ manager Roy Hartsfield and the pipe-smoking Tigers’ manager Sparky Anderson, went back to the press box to write my story and hand it page by page to the gofer who delivered it to the Western Union operator who transmitted it to the Sun.
It would generally take me about the same time to write a story as it would take the players to shower, dress, eat their free postgame meal and drink their free beer, which would mean we’d arrive at the bus for the ride back to the hotel at about the same time.
All of these chores would become routine, some more onerous than others, depending on the city and ballpark.
On my first trip with the team to Texas, I bought a new pair of cowboy boots because it was the style of the day and all the cool baseball folks wore cowboy boots. But the footwear also proved practical for the postgame walk to the clubhouses in Arlington, which were down the outfield lines, requiring a walk through the stands where giant cockroaches had moved in to feast on all the litter of ballpark chow.
If you’d like to read more about my baseball-writing career, and how it nearly destroyed my lifelong love of the game, here is a link to order The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.