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Wertz Warriors ride Jan. 31

By Frank DeFrank, Macomb Daily Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 20, 2010

When the Wertz Warriors head out Jan. 31 for their annual charity snowmobile ride, they'll do so with heavy hearts.

For the first time in 18 years, Mark "The Bird" Fidrych won't be with them.

Fidrych, the former Detroit Tigers pitcher who captured the heart of an entire community during that magical summer of 1976, died last April, just months after completing his 17th ride with the Warriors.

His absence will leave a gaping hole — both in the ranks of the Wertz Warriors and in the thousands of fans who greeted him in the burgs and hamlets throughout northern Michigan.

"He was like an icon to us," said Donald "Digger" Odell, a former Vietnam-era prisoner of war and longtime member of the Warriors support crew. "There's going to be a lot of sad faces."

The Warriors were founded by ex-big league baseball player Vic Wertz, who later carved out a second successful career as a beer distributor in Macomb County. The group was given its moniker by former Detroit newspaper columnist Joe Falls.

From the group's inception, the Detroit Tigers always maintained a presence, with the likes of Bill Freehan and Dave Rozema among the participants.

But none proved as popular as The Bird.

"No doubt about it," said Odell.

Odell watched many times as Fidrych signed hundreds of autographs and never walked away until the last person in line got to meet The Bird.

"If there were 2,000 standing in line … he never got up and left," Odell recalled.

In what turned out to be his final interview with The Macomb Daily, Fidrych said he marveled that baseball fans still loved him long after his all-too-brief career ended.

"Almost 30 years later, the (fans) are still there," Fidrych said last winter. "The state of Michigan never forgot me."

And Fidrych never forgot the state.

Odell and about 25 other snowmobilers made the trip to Massachusetts to pay their respects at Fidrych's funeral last April. Soon after they arrived, the Warriors learned that Fidrych carried their legacy all the way to his home.

"In that small town (where Fidrych lived), if you had a green (Warriors) jacket on, you couldn't buy anything," Odell said.

Fidrych is gone, but the work of the Wertz Warriors continues. Since 1982, the group has raised between $7 million and $8 million for the Special Olympics Michigan.

On Friday night, the quest will start again when Zuccaro's Country House in Clinton Township hosts the Warrior's annual fund-raising dinner.

For a $14 donation, guests will be treated to a spaghetti and chicken dinner and enjoy the knowledge that they'll help continue a tradition that is unique to Macomb County.

Dinner hours are 11:30 a.m. until approximately 10 p.m.