When I was a boy, The Bird was The Word. I had a t-shirt with those words printed across the front of it.
The Bird Is the Word.
The good book says, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was—Bird. Or to put it in other words, what I’m talking about, who I am talking about, say his name: Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. Named so, so we were told, because he looked like that big yellow bird, Big Bird, who lived on Sesame Street.
This was 1976. I was a big kid then. I was ten, too old to waste my time in front of the TV watching puppets on Channel 56. And yet I sat wide-eyed in front of the bluish light of televised Tiger Stadium and watched in awe as a grown man talked to a baseball. As if the baseball would listen. It seemed that it did.
The Bird was scarecrow-thin and duck-your-head tall and he had a nest of yellow hair that hung out from his cap in a way that made him look only like himself. I liked him because he was a big kid who wasn’t above or beyond being true to the little boy living inside a grown-up’s body.
He was an adult child is what I’m saying: a Peter Pan type, one of the tribe of lost boys. He was, in other words, like us: a little big kid; a big little kid. A pitcher who dropped down on his knees on the hump of dirt that he called home and made the dirt his own.
As a pitcher you don’t want to pitch in the other pitcher’s shoes, their holes. The Bird knew this well. He filled in the holes. He smoothed things out. He was a bird who built his own nest. In his hands, the baseball was an egg that would not break.
At least not for that year. For that year, the summer of 1976, The Bird flew. He took flight. He was a man whose skin was made out of feathers.
He brought word-magic and bird-song back to Tiger Stadium, back to Detroit, back to the game of baseball.
Baseball, he reminded us, was a game. It was child’s play. In the sandlots of my boyhood, we were all transformed into talking “Birds.”
We talked to the ball, told it where to go. When it sometimes did not listen, we said what we wanted in a different way: Hit the glove, ball. Paint me a corner. Land low and away.
In truth, The Bird was talking to himself, talking himself down, when it looked like he was talking to the baseball. Settle down. Stay grounded. Keep it together.
These are things that I sometimes tell myself, even today.
The Bird who was The Word, he lived among us and looked and dressed like us too. That first year, The Bird rented an apartment in a working-class suburb two towns upriver from where I lived. In a K-Mart store with its blue lights flashing, The Bird almost knocked over a little girl who would later become my beloved wife. At the local pizza joint in my hometown there’s a photograph—it’s still there on the wall behind the bar to this day—where The Bird looks like he could be one of the local stiffs in a checkered flannel shirt who worked the swing-shift at the steel mill and had stopped in for a shot and a beer before going home to a night and a world that would stay the same for the next 40 years.
The Bird flew for a year before, like Icarus, his flight was cut short. Maybe, like Icarus, The Bird flew too soon and too close to the sun. Or maybe, I like to think, it was the sun that came down to be closer to him, to get a closer look at a one-of-a-kind type of bird, a bird that flew without leaving the earth, a bird whose song was in touch with the simple pleasures of dirt and grass and a baseball that, when held in his right hand, was at times an unhittable, unbreakable egg.
There’s a line from a poem by Jack Gilbert that makes the claim that, “Love lasts by not lasting.” When I think of the magic that The Bird brought to baseball, I think I now better understand how love, like childhood, “lasts by not lasting.” Sometimes poetry and baseball speak a shared language and ride together on a single beam of light.
The Bird had his one season of glory in the sun. He was only given that one. That was all The Bird needed to leave his singular mark on the game.
It’d be a cliche for me to say that The Bird’s wings got clipped, that his fastball lost its zip, that his sinker no longer had its late dip action, etc. I will say this, though, and will lean again on the image of light when I tell you that he lit up the corner of Michigan and Trumbull in a way that no other player has since.
When he could no longer fly, or walk without limping, or throw a baseball the way that it needed to be thrown to keep hitters from digging in at home plate, The Bird took a plane back home to rural Massachusetts, where he lived the rest of his days on a farm there. I want to say that he took to raising pigs on that farm, though this may be an act of my own invention (since The Bird had such an affinity for the dirt). I sometimes like to picture him adding water to the dirt to make mud for his pigs to sit in. Sometimes I see him down on his knees, smoothing out the dirt, tending to it, talking to it, telling it his name.