I sent away for Al Kaline's autograph in the summer of '73 and got a black and white photo with a fake auto-penned signature. The Tigers clearly had their marketing act together because I subsequently would get souvenir catalogs from the team. To me, it was very exotic to have among my Mets yearbooks those of the Detroit Tigers, yearbooks being all I wanted and the highest amount of money I could bring myself to ask my parents for.
As a result, I was very familiar with Mark (The Bird) Fidrych before his stellar 1976 season even began. His pleasantly goofy face appeared in the 1976 Tigers annual and I felt like an insider as he streaked through the American League that year. It wasn't just his famous Monday Night Baseball effort against the resurgent Yankees. I followed him all year in The Sporting News.
After that Rookie of the Year campaign, The Bird suffered from arm injuries. I'll never forget his Sport magazine cover in 1977, swearing he'd comeback. It was a close up of a sad, sad boy, who saw that maybe all his dreams were over after hardly just beginning. As Fidrych tried to comeback, first with Detroit and then with the Red Sox, his quirky antics - talking to the ball, jumping up and down, hitting the mound on all fours to smooth out the holes with his bare hands - became tragic, the act of an unhappy clown. Then it was all over.
Every once and a while he'd be back, seemingly with sense of humor intact, but always with a hint of tragedy. And now he's dead at 54, apparently from an accident while working under his dump truck.
Is it better to burn out than it is to rust? I don't know. Mark Fidrych did both, not an easy trick. While I never wax nostalgic, I will for The Bird. For one summer he truly did represent all that was good and innocent about our national game.