Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Bird was the Word

Once again, the passing of a Tiger legend.
I was too young to be following sports the Bird's rookie (and really only) season, and only heard stories of it when I came to sports fandom age a few years later. Part of me never really understood what the big deal was about him. So he talked to the baseball, big deal.
But a few years back when the All-Star game was in Detroit, I saw a piece on him on the WWL, and I started to get what made him so special.

The 70s were not a very good time for the Detroit sports fan. The Lions made one playoff game in 1970, and then moved out of the city to Pontiac, which must have seemed like another world at the time. The Red Wings were in the midst of a 20 year swoon which saw them make the playoffs only twice, despite the NHL expanding the post season to 16 out of the 20 teams in the league. The Pistons were still a non-entity in the NBA, and the Tigers, despite having won a championship in '68, and a division with Billy Martin in 72, lost 102 games in 75, their first losing season since 1952.

It hadn't always been that way. In the fifties and early sixties, Detroit was one of the centers of the sporting world. The Lions won four championships in seven years, playing at Briggs stadium. The Red Wings won four Cups in six years. And the Tigers, although not a powerhouse like the Yankees (or even the BoSox) were still a consistent top half of the division. Kids growing up in that era had it good around here.

So the downfall of the 70s must have seemed like the end of the world to those kids. Then along comes Fidrych, this non-roster invitee to spring training in 76, who didn't started his first game until mid-may, and wound up finishing 2nd in the Cy Young voting. He went 19-9 with 24 complete games and 250 innings pitched. He was a breath of fresh air to a town that was desperate for a hero.

And then, almost as quickly, he was gone. His career only lasted four more years, he only pitched 162 more innings in the majors after 1962. He was like that girl you dated once in high school that you were crazy about, but moved away before you could learn all the mundane things about her. He was a shooting star, whose peak came at just the right time in Detroit sports history