Mark Fidrych Remembered (8/14/54-4/13/09)

Yankee classic from June 2001 The faint scent of sheep manure drifts up into this otherwise spotless kitchen in Northborough, Massachusetts. Pulling on well-worn brown duck coveralls, Mark Fidrych is on his way to the barn, where one of his ewes is about to give birth. On the island counter, beside a bottle of Gatorade, […]

By Edie Clark

Apr 14 2009

Mark Fidrych
Photo Credit : Associated Press

Yankee classic from June 2001

The faint scent of sheep manure drifts up into this otherwise spotless kitchen in Northborough, Massachusetts. Pulling on well-worn brown duck coveralls, Mark Fidrych is on his way to the barn, where one of his ewes is about to give birth. On the island counter, beside a bottle of Gatorade, a small stack of mail waits to be taken to the post office. He stops briefly to explain the letters, which come in every day from fans who remember that one year. 1976, which for Mark and the Detroit Tigers, represents perhaps the briefest, most spectacular pitching career in the history of baseball. It was 25 years ago. He touches the stack with the tip of a long finger. “Yeah,” he says. ”I’m a lucky guy.”

Patches, his five-year-old springer spaniel, hops up into the cab of the red Ford pickup, and Mark follows. He is 46 now, the famous curly mop of hair trimmed down to a manageable frizz. And he is huskier than when he played. Six-foot-three but a stringbean then, maybe too slight to throw 93-mile-per-hour fastballs and sliders over and over and over. Once he pitched back-to-back 11-inning complete games. Another game he threw 156 pitches. Too many, maybe. Maybe that’s what did his arm in. He sometimes thinks that. When he ended his career, it was the rotator cuff, torn front and back. Doctors could fix that now. But they didn’t know how to then. He pitched until he literally couldn’t throw any longer.

“And if I had taken the season off, they tell me now, it might have been OK. But for me, it was like, you don’t stop, you keep going. I didn’t go to college. I had a high school diploma and all I could think of was, I’ve got this, this is a great life. I’ve got a job doing something I like! Maybe the pain will go away, maybe it’s just tendonitis. I figured, if I took time off, you don’t know what will happen.”

Starting when he was a kid in high School, Mark has never known what was going to happen. It was one day in 1974 when a scout for the Detroit Tigers spotted Mark playing on his high school ball field in Worcester. Mark was 19 years old. A few days after he graduated, the scout knocked on his screen door. In his hand he had a contract he wanted Mark to sign, to pitch for the Tigers. “That’s when my life changed,” he says now. “Everything changed.”

At the beginning Mark lingered in the minors for an entire month after he was drafted, never once getting to the mound. “My buddy, Melvyn Ray, was sitting in the dugout with me, telling me not to get depressed. He says. ‘I’ve been around for two years, and I’m still here. You’ll get your chance. But, listen, you got to change the way you think. You see that starter up there right now?’ And I says, ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well, you better be sitting here right now praying that he flubs up.’ And I says, ‘I can’t do that! We’re a team!’ And he says. ‘But Mark, if he doesn’t flub up, you’ll never get up there. Don’t think of it as bad, because when he flubs up and you get out there, don’t you think I’ll be sitting here praying that you flub up so I can get out there and show my talent?’ “

Just like a script, the pitcher on the mound gets himself into trouble. The phone in the dugout rings, and Mark is told to start warming up. His buddy Mel turns to him and says. “All right, Mark, now’s your time! Show them what you can do!”

In time he showed the Tigers that he was ready for the big leagues, and at age 21 Mark “The Bird,” the man who talked to the Ball, was blasted into the living rooms of unsuspecting Americans. Women, especially women, started watching baseball for the first time. His elastic rotations, the elated pirouettes, the way he would dance out across the field to congratulate his teammates after a good play, all those little things that no one had ever seen a ballplayer do before became etched in America’s consciousness. For one flickering moment in time, The Bird became a household name.

When Mark tells the story of his brief and legendary career, he doesn’t talk about this or about winning 19 games as a rookie. He doesn’t mention the All Stars or Rookie of the Year or the fact that he was the only baseball player ever to have been on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. He doesn’t tell about that indelible June night when the Detroit fans, 50.000 of them-on their feet screaming, refused to leave the stadium until he came back out onto the field, flanked by police officers, and waved back to them.

Instead, the way he tells his story, it is flecked with anecdotes, like the times when his teammates, Rusty Staub and Mickey Stanley, helped him out, coached him like fathers, and the time his manager went out and bought him several suits to replace the T-shirts and cutoffs he was known for wearing between games. (“You know,” he says. laughing, “like the leisure suits with the big lapels?”)

Neither does he leave out the night of July 26, 1977, when there were 50,000 fans at Tiger Stadium, all of them there to see him pitch, praying he could regain the form that had made him a star. And he couldn’t do it. The arm just wouldn’t work. A rookie named Jack Morris, in his major league debut, came in to pitch. And, as Mark tells it, “It was his turn then. He pitched a hell of a game. The fans got their money’s worth that night.”

If you walk into his house, you do not see any sign that Mark Fidrych had played professional baseball. There is no trophy room, no framed photographs of himself with President Ford or Ralph Houk. Not that these things aren’t important to him, but he really hasn’t had the time. He keeps all the awards and magazine articles upstairs in a box in the attic. “People ask me why, and I don’t have an answer. Even back when I was playing, I never had anything around my apartments. I just never got into that.”

When his career was all over, Mark could have stayed in baseball, coaching or doing any of the myriad jobs that retired players often do, but Mark wanted to get away. “I wanted to get back to the real world,” he says.

The real world was Northborough, Massachusetts, the town where he had grown up, the town where his parents still lived. While he was pitching in Detroit, his older teammates advised him. “It’s not always going to be there for you. Mark. You gotta have something to fall back on.”

Mark missed the era of huge money in sports. Endorsements in those days meant free gloves and free sneakers. The most he ever made as a major-league player was $125,000, a piddling sum compared with today’s multimillion-dollar contracts, but it was a lot of money to Mark. “A ton of money in my eyes,” says the man who was famous for poking his finger into the coin return slot every time he passed a pay phone. “I was a pack rat with it.”

When he came back home after that big Season, he bought this land. Over the years he had seen houses built on the places in the woods where he and his friends built tree forts. The town was changing, but he still loved it. He got a job selling booze, and one day he met a girl named Ann at the diner. She had grown up in Northborough, but they had not known each other. On October 12, 1986, they were married, and soon after, they built this house, high on the hill. Broad and majestic, with fieldstone fireplace, vaulting high ceilings, and enormous windows, it is his refuge, where he can see the lights of Boston and watch the area in between grow bigger buildings and shine brighter lights. “But I’m safe here. This I can control,” he says of his small kingdom. There is a pond where he and his daughter, Jessica, who is 13 now, can skate. The only coaching he does is for Jessica’s soccer team. “Because she’s my daughter.” he says.

Fidrych lives on more than a hundred acres a mile and a half from the little house where he and his three sisters had grown up, the house where, in the backyard, his father had taught him to play ball. In spite of the many coaches he had as his career blossomed, he still credits his father with having taught him the game and with being his greatest inspiration. His father died three years ago. Mark has trouble talking about him without his eyes misting up.

He could have stayed in Michigan, where people still stop him on the street and remind him of his past. “But I wasn’t really a city folk. There were a lot of things that people would have hired me for. But when I got out of the game, I also wanted to get away from it.”

Mark often goes to Michigan, for appearances and fund-raisers. “‘When I get in a plane and it starts flying over Michigan, things just start flashing — I just start thinking of things that have gone on there. Michigan will always be in my life. Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if I had stayed in Michigan.”

But Northborough was home, will always be home. Down in the sheep pen, the big ewe is moving restlessly around in the hay, her eyes slightly startled when Mark enters. Ten Corriedales stomp around him as he checks the confined mother-to-be. “That’s one of the things that Father Roberts taught me,” he says. “Keep her confined and she won’t walk away from her baby.” Father Roberts is a priest from the local abbey and a good friend of Mark’s. As in baseball, Mark gives credit to those who have shown him the way. He knew nothing of farming when he started out in the 1980s. He started big, with cows and sheep and pigs. When he was growing up. Mark used to like to watch Bonanza on television. “That was my dream, you know, to be like the Ponderosa. But then when I lost the arm and this and that, and the money flow wasn’t coming in, then it became all about money.”

He cut and sold firewood for a while, but he found that the best money he couId make was driving a truck. So he bought himself a ten-wheeler and taught himself to drive it. With his name on the door and his daughter Jessica’s name painted in scroll on the grill, Mark’s truck is a familiar sight on the roads around Worcester, hauling asphalt for a local paving firm throughout the spring, summer, and fall. With the trucking, he’s not able to keep so many animals. ”I’m up at five and I’m not home again until five. So it’s a long day.”

But not a hard day, not a day he dislikes. And even now, “People see me in my truck and they want to know, ‘How’s your life? Is it OK?’ And that’s a nice feeling.”

He plans to clear another section of the woods for more pasture, and he’d like to build a new bam. “But Father Roberts tells me this one’s OK, the sheep have shelter, it’s fine. So I put plastic up to cut the wind. Yeah, it’s fine. I’m happy.”

A long-legged, yellow-eyed goat nudges against him, and with his big pitcher’s hands. Mark Fidrych massages the goat’s shoulders. Baseball is not a big part of his life now: He doesn’t coach it or play it or even watch it very much or follow it in the news. “I never was a rabid fan, even when I was a kid. I just liked to play it,” he says.

His career was over so quickly, he could feel cheated. But he knows it is a world where anything can happen. “This is my paradise here. Life is always changing. I’m fortunate to have what I have. How could I feel cheated when, if it wasn’t for baseball, I wouldn’t be standing here? Baseball gave me a big start in life. Baseball is everything to me. It amazes me that fans are still there; they write and tell me the things that they remember.”