MLB documentary 'The Bird' debuts in Detroit

Life and career of Mark Fidrych to be featured on MLB Network

MLB documentary 'The Bird' debuts in Detroit

DETROIT -- Forty years ago Tuesday, a tall, lanky 21-year-old from a small town in Massachusetts took center stage on ABC's "Monday Night Baseball." While Mark "The Bird" Fidrych had already begun making a name for himself around Tiger Stadium and the city of Detroit, he took the country by storm that night, throwing a complete game against the New York Yankees, the eventual American League champions.

About 400 Tigers fans turned out Wednesday at MotorCity Casino to view the Detroit premiere of "MLB Network Presents: The Bird," a TV documentary showcasing the life and baseball career of the former Detroit Tigers pitcher.

WXYT-FM's Dan Leach hosted a panel discussion after the documentary with Fidrych's widow, Ann, MLB Network producer Bruce Cornblatt, author Dan Epstein and sports historian Bill Dow.

Fidrych earned his nickname because of his antics on the field -- shoveling dirt off the pitching mound with his hands, talking to the ball, congratulating teammates after routine plays -- as well as the fact that his lanky stature was comparable to Big Bird on "Sesame Street."

But all of that was just part of the legend.

As the documentary highlights, Fidrych's teammates and friends remember him for his quirky, selfless personality.

During the panel, Cornblatt said baseball is probably the only sport that can produce a character like Fidrych because Americans have such a connection to the sport.

"I think the one thing you can say about Fidrych, the best thing you can say about anyone, is he was one of a kind," Cornblatt said. "No one ever did what he did. In this culture, everybody does what someone else does, and if they can make money off it, so much the better. And with Mark, 40 years later, there is no equivalent to [him]."

Though he only pitched one full season in the Major Leagues -- he won 19 games and the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 1976 -- Fidrych's legacy lives on in Detroit today. Throughout the documentary and the panel discussion, it was apparent that Fidrych had an impact far beyond baseball.

When the floor was opened for questions from the audience, instead of asking questions, fans told stories of interactions and memories they had with "The Bird".

One fan reminisced on eating a hamburger at Nemo's Bar in Detroit before Fidrych was scheduled to make a Friday night start before the 1976 All-Star Game. He was wearing a shirt that had Big Bird sporting a No. 20 on it. Fidrych's agent approached him and pointed it out to the young star.

"See, this is what I'm talking about," his agent said.

Fidrych, who wasn't receiving any royalties from shirts like that, played it off as a coincidence. He went out that night and threw a complete game, though the Tigers went on to lose, 1-0 to the Royals.

Fidrych died in 2009 while working on a dump truck on his farm in Massachusetts. Wednesday produced plenty of tears among fans, including Ann and their daughter, Jessica. While his life was cut too short, Ann was humbled by all of the support from Detroiters.

"He loved his fans, just over the top," she said. "He loved his fans."

The documentary is scheduled to premiere on MLB Network on July 10 at 10 p.m. ET.

Kyle Beery is a reporter for MLB.com based in Detroit. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.