I missed the Monday Night Baseball Game in 1976 when Mark Fidrych introduced himself to the world, through the serious tones of Howard Cosell and the magic of the old game of the week.
I think I was the only person in the entire state of Michigan to miss it.
Back then, I was going to be a basketball star -- ah, the idealism of youth -- and I had spent the week at Digger Phelps' camp at Notre Dame. What I clearly remember is my parents picking me up at the end of that week and my mother excitedly telling me all about this curly-haired kid who talked to the ball while he pitched.
The way I figured it, if even my mother was all that hopped up about some new phenom, he must be quite the story. And what a story Fidrych was, from the shooting-star exuberance of that '76 season to the stunningly quick flameout less than two years later.
Sitting here across the country in the Dodger Stadium press box, it is impossible not to think back to those days as the news hits -- and hits hard -- that Fidrych is dead at 54.
If you were in Michigan or anywhere close, the Bird was the word during the summer of '76. You hung on his every start, watching the crowds swell at Tiger Stadium for what was a bad, bad baseball team.
Fidrych was a one-man gate attraction, between his uncanny knack for keeping the ball down (19-9, 2.34 ERA in '76) and his even uncannier knack of talking to the ball and dropping to his hands and knees to groom the mound between innings.
Nobody was more exuberant. Nobody was more cool. Nobody was more intriguing.
Fidrych spread like a wildfire, drawing huge crowds with each road start as well. And this was way before clubs had marketing departments or ESPN instantly spread the gospel of the newest phenom. Fidrych's act was genuine, not contrived to get himself some publicity and more dough.
Everybody loved The Bird. By summer's end, after school started, I remember an eighth grade classmate of mine named Wendy St. Bernard entranced in one of those quickie paperbacks that already had been produced on The Bird's life. He was all of 21.
Odd what you remember all these years later, isn't it?
By the next summer, it was finished. The Bird had wrecked his knee hopping over a fence during spring training in Lakeland, Fla. While we all hung on updates and prayed that the knee would heal, it never did. At least, not before his arm went.
And now, Detroit has been hit with a double dose of sadness this spring, Fidrych's death following closely that of beloved television broadcaster (and Hall of Fame player) George Kell.
And the start of this season is unspeakably sad, with Fidrych's death following those of young Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart and Hall of Fame Philadelphia broadcaster Harry Kalas.
I remember running into Fidrych at the final game at Tiger Stadium in 1999, when they brought back so many of the old Tigers. It struck me as odd that he spoke in a thick New England accent. I don't know why it would strike me as odd. He grew up in New England and returned home after he retired.
But when someone as exciting as Fidrych comes along, it's as if he belongs to all of us. It certainly seemed that way back then.
In one sense, he'll always be 21 with curly, blonde hair, yapping away at the baseball. And even though he's sadly gone, the mere mention of his name will always take those of us who were there back to that wonderful summer of '76, the bicentennial in full flower, a wide-open future in our hearts.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to take a minute and close my eyes. And I'm going to picture one of the greatest Sports Illustrated covers ever: Fidrych in full windup (and full smile), with Sesame Street's Big Bird standing behind, peeking around him.
If you were there, you know.