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The night Detroit gave baseball "the Bird"

Jun 29, 2016

Detroit is commonly and correctly thought to be doing better than it has been in a long time. There’s a sense of hope again. The streetlights are back, and the bankruptcy’s over.

 There are still more problems than solutions.

There is still too much blight and too few jobs. One state senator from the city had to quit this spring after they sent him to jail, and a state representative with eight felony convictions was charged with three more yesterday.

But there’s hope and culture and unique whimsy and nostalgia. Last night, people filled a funky little movie house called Cinema Detroit, in an abandoned elementary school in what was once the scary Cass Corridor, but is now the fashionable Midtown.

There, they paid to raptly watch a replay of a baseball game that had been played exactly forty years ago that night, in a stadium that no longer exists. Everyone knew how the game turned out. So did I, because I happened to have been there.

The game was absolutely meaningless in terms of that year’s pennant race. The colors in the videotape were faded; the broadcast, an old network game of the week, included forty-year-commercials for companies that no longer exist.

But nobody cared, because they were there to celebrate magic. Forty years ago, Detroit had plenty of troubles too. Baseball has never been just like other sports; it is a game that inspires literature and essays about the meaning of a city’s soul.

The Detroit Tigers had been the worst team in baseball the year before, and were pretty awful that year too, America’s bicentennial year. Then one day that spring they called up a tall skinny rookie pitcher from Massachusetts with a goofy grin and a shock of orange hair that reminded everyone of Big Bird on Sesame Street. If that wasn’t enough, he talked to the ball. He also got down on his knees and groomed the pitcher’s mound with his hands.

But what really mattered was that he was phenomenal.

He had perfect control and an overpowering fastball and radiated an utter, infectious joy and love of the game. He was utterly thrilled to be making sixteen thousand dollars a year.

That was the night America discovered Mark “the Bird” Fidrych, as he pitched against the New York Yankees on national TV. The Tigers finished next to last, and Yanks were headed to the World Series. But the Yankees never had a chance that night.

When the game ended, forty-eight thousand people wouldn’t leave the park until his teammates forced the Bird to come out of the dugout and greet them. He would go on to win 19 games, start the All-Star game and make people happy who didn’t even like baseball.

But the next year he hurt his knee, and then he hurt his arm, and then it was all over. The Bird stayed cheerful and went home and bought a farm, until seven years ago he crawled under his truck to work on it with the motor running. You don’t want to know the details.

What you should know is that last night women in their sixties left lipstick kisses on his picture, and a crowd gathered to cheer a forty-year-old baseball game.

Where else but Detroit?

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.