(This is Day 18 of our series on the “Best Card From” each year, 1960-1989. Read all the entries here.)
Imagine this …
You’ve just graduated from Worcester Academy in Northboro, Massachusetts, where you played football, basketball, and baseball.
You’re really too scrawny for the gridiron at the next level, too short for the court, and were never a star — even in high school — on the diamond.
You do have a healthy fastball, though, and a joie du jeu that infects your teammates in all three sports. It’s enough to catch some Major League attention, and the Detroit Tigers select you in the 10th round of the June draft.
It’s the summer of 1974, and you have a (long) shot at becoming a Big League player.
For the next year and a half, you hone your craft in the Tigers’ farm system, beginning as a reliever in Rookie ball with the Bristol Tigers.
You begin 1975 with the Class-A Lakeland Tigers before being promoted to the Double-A Evansville Triplets … and then to the Triple-A Montgomery Rebels.
Your numbers are good but not spectacular: 11-10, 3.21 ERA, 113 Ks in 171 innings, 1.257 WHIP.
The Big League club is going nowhere fast, though, and finish the 1975 season with 102 losses.
It’s a combination that lands you a spot on the Detroit roster out of Spring Training in 1976, and you make your Major League debut on April 20 that season.
Manager Ralph Houk brings you in against the Oakland A’s in the bottom of the ninth with the score tied, the bases loaded, and one out.
It’s an impossible situation, and you give up a game-losing hit to Joe Rudi.
To fans, you may be just another unknown scrub they think they’ll never see again, but Houk — and you — have different things in mind.
Your next outing is another ninth-inning stint, but this time you retire three of the five Minnesota Twins you face and strike out your first MLB batter.
Then, on May 15, it happens — your first Big League start.
You make the most of it, going the full nine innings while allowing just two hits and a walk to defeat the Cleveland Indians, 1-0.
Ten days later, you lose to the Boston Red Sox but still manage eight solid innings.
From there, you reel off eight straight victories and land at the Bicentennial celebration with a 9-1 record, a 1.85 ERA, and your name on the lips of baseball fans across the nation.
The second half brings more of the same, even though you sprinkle in some losses here and there.
By the time Detroit wraps up its season, your record stands at 19-9, and your 2.34 ERA is tops (bottoms?) in the American League. You’ve tossed four shutouts among your league-leading 24 complete games, and you are the sensation of the season.
Thanks in large part to your fire, your joy, but mostly your performance, the Tigers have improved by 16 games over 1975, to 74-87.
You’ve even got a nickname, first bestowed on you by Bristol coach Jeff Hogan but then picked up by the American public as they watched you lank and flap your way to mound stardom in 1976.
You are, and forever will be, “The Bird.”
And that’s just fine with you.
You’re having a ball, and life is great. The future looks even better, a sentiment underlined by the AL Rookie of the Year Award that you pick up after the season.
Nothing can stop you.
Now imagine that, somewhere along the wild ride of that magical rookie season, someone tells you that it’s baseball card day — they need your picture.
You’re going to be on your own baseball card? How cool!
So you slam your Tigers cap over your lustrous curls and trot out of the dugout toward the baselines where the photographer is waiting for you
“Hey, Mark,” the Topps guy might have said. “How you feeling today?”
“Awesome!” you enthuse, and he snaps your picture mid-sentiment.
You can hardly wait to see the card when it comes out the next spring, and it doesn’t disappoint.
There, in one 2 1/2″ x 3 1/2″ rectangle of cardboard is the encapsulation of your incredible career-in-a-season:
- TIGERS, PITCHER, proclaim the type and banner at the top of the card.
- A.L. ALL-STARS shouts the bright red band at the bottom of the card.
- TOPPS ALL-STAR ROOKIE trumpets the golden trophy in the lower right-hand corner
- Your smiling face is perfectly accented by your stylish, angled signature.
You grin and grab your glove. It’s time to head out to the field, the place you love to be and where your future lies.
You are Mark Fidrych, the best there was in 1976.
And you already have the best baseball card of 1977.
Life is good.