We don't mean to ruffle Joe Rudi's feathers, but let us admit right here that this week's cover was intended for our special baseball issue (SI, April 11). It was all set to go when Mark Fidrych tore cartilage in his knee late in spring training, and, well, we were forced to kill the two birds with one Joe.
Happily for baseball, the Bird (the one in front on the cover) is back, chatting with baseballs and picking up his zany antics where he left off, as the story beginning on page 20 will attest. And happily for us, we finally have the two most popular birds in America on our cover.
It was last summer that a friend said to Carroll Spinney, the man behind...er...inside...well, the man who is Big Bird, "Have you seen this kid Fidrych? He's as wacky as you, and he's using your name." So one afternoon, before Fidrych was to pitch at Yankee Stadium, Big Bird paid his namesake a surprise visit. He waddled out of the visitors' dugout, all 8'2" of him, onto the diamond where Fidrych was standing, and the two shook hands. Or wings.
"Hiya, Mark," said Big Bird in his familiar high-pitched voice. "Nice to meet a fellow bird."
"Boy! Wow! What a trip!" was about all Fidrych could manage.
Senior Editor Peter Carry right away thought that the twosome was a natural for a cover. The nice folks at the Children's Television Workshop, producers of Sesame Street, and Jim Henson, creator of Big Bird and the rest of the Muppets, sent Big Bird over to join Fidrych for a photo session with Staff Photographer Lane Stewart, who soon found himself working in a cuckoo's nest.
"Bird, would you mind moving about six inches to your left," he said, peering through his viewfinder.
Both birds moved as one.
"No, Mark, not you," said Stewart. "I said the Bird."
The 22-year-old fledgling can be excused, but the fact is that Big Bird is the ranking pro here. Spinney, 43, has, as he puts it, "helped make Big Bird move and speak" since the very first Sesame Street show in 1969. He also plays Oscar the Grouch, but it is being Big Bird that demands a right arm as powerful as the Bird's. Spinney's right, constantly upraised, supports Big Bird's head, and his left operates both wings. His own head is somewhere inside the bird's neck, and he "sees" by means of a two-square-inch TV monitor strapped to his chest. "It's a little like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time," says Spinney.
Nonetheless, whatever sort of bird "Big" is, he is of a heartier breed than Fidrych. Big Bird has "pitched" more than 1,000 television hours, missing only six starts. Big Bird's closest brush with serious injury came in Atlanta in 1974, when, resting after a visit with candidate Jimmy Carter and daughter Amy before an appearance at Georgia Tech, he was brutally de-feathered, plucked clean by a group of ROTC students. Fortunately, Spinney was not inside Big Bird at the time.
"I'm not the best coordinated eight-foot-tall bird," says Big Bird. "I'll let Mark represent us birds in the sports world. By the way," he adds, "if you see him, tell him Big Bird says, "Heeeyyy!' "
LANE STEWART LOOKS AT THE BIRDIES