Fidrych made the Tigers as a non-roster invitee out of the 1976 spring training, not making his major-league debut until April 20, and not making his first start until mid-May. He only made that start because the scheduled starting pitcher had the flu. Fidrych responded by throwing seven no-hit innings, ending the game with a 2-1 victory in which he gave up only two hits. He went on to win 19 games, led the league in ERA (2.34) and complete games (24), was the starting pitcher in that year’s All-Star Game, won the American League Rookie of the Year Award, and finished second in voting for the Cy Young Award.
In the process Fidrych also captured the imagination of fans with his antics on the field. He would crouch down on the pitcher’s mound and fix cleat marks, what became known as “manicuring the mound”, talk to himself, talk to the ball, aim the ball like a dart, strut around the mound after every out, and throw back balls that “had hits in them,” insisting they be removed from the game. Mark Fidrych also was known for shaking everyone’s hands after a game. On June 28, 1976, he pitched against the New York Yankees in a nationally televised game on ABC; the Tigers won the game 5-1. After a game filled with “Bird” antics in which he and his team handily defeated the Yankees, Fidrych became a national celebrity.
Every time he pitched, Tiger Stadium was jam-packed with adoring fans who became known as “Bird Watchers”. Fidrych’s fan appeal was also enhanced by the fact that he had his own “personal catcher”. Because Tigers coaching and managerial staff were somewhat superstitious about “jinxing” Fidrych’s success, Bruce Kimm, a rookie catcher, caught each of Fidrych’s outings. It became common to hear the crowd chant “we want the Bird, we want the Bird” at the end of each of his home victories. The chants would continue until he emerged from the dugout to tip his cap to the crowd. While these “curtain calls” have become more common in modern sports, they were not so in the mid 70’s baseball. In his 18 appearances, attendance equaled almost half of the entire season’s 81 home games. Teams started asking Detroit to change its pitching rotation so Fidrych could pitch in their ballparks, and he appeared on the cover of numerous magazines, such as Sports Illustrated (twice, including once with Sesame Street character Big Bird), The Sporting News, and became the first athlete to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone. In one week, Fidrych turned away five people who wanted to be his agent, saying, “Only I know my real value and can negotiate it.”
Fidrych also drew attention for the simple, bachelor lifestyle he led in spite of his fame, driving a green subcompact car, living in a small Detroit apartment, wondering aloud if he could afford to answer all of his fan mail on his league-minimum $16,500 salary, and telling people that if he hadn’t been a pitcher, he’d work pumping gas in Northborough. He fascinated everyone, most especially young girls, with his frizzy blond curls, blue jeans, and devil-may-care manner.
At the end of his rookie season, the Tigers gave him a $25,000 bonus and signed him to a three-year contract worth $255,000. Economists estimated that the extra attendance Fidrych generated around the league in 1976 was worth more than $1 million. Fidrych also did an Aqua Velva television commercial after the 1976 season.
In one of Bill James’ baseball books, he quoted the Yankees’ Graig Nettles as telling about an at-bat against Fidrych, who, as usual, was talking to the ball before pitching to Nettles. Immediately Graig jumped out of the batter’s box and started talking to his bat. He reportedly said, “Never mind what he says to the ball. You just hit it over the outfield fence!” Nettles struck out. “Damn,” he said. “Japanese bat. Doesn’t understand a word of English.”