At 5:50 a.m. the alarm clock rings, and the dream he has started having recently—the one in which he keeps throwing strike after strike after strike; no crowd, no cameras, no reporters, just he and his body back in that sweet sweaty rut—comes to an end. Sasha, his ancient black mutt, lifts her grizzled face from the single bed they share and blinks.
He pulls on his long Johns, tattered jeans, boots, red flannel jacket and the blue denim jacket with four rips on the right sleeve, then plops an old brown hat on his head of tangled hair. There are three puncture marks on his right shoulder, a little wariness in his brown eyes and the frailest footprints of crow around his eyes, but the face is still young and the dirty blond curls still fall around it.
Yella, the half St. Bernard, half collie evicted from the single bed because of overcrowding, shakes himself down and falls into line behind his master and Sasha. They shuffle quietly past the room of his sleeping parents. "You stay," he orders Sasha. It is too cold for the old mutt, and she doesn't fight the order.
Out the kitchen door they walk into the flat gray dawn, his boots crunching old snow, the late February chill sneaking in through each hole in his sleeve. Ten years ago, almost to this very day, on a sunny morning in Lakeland, Fla., Mark Fidrych entered the dream year. Today he enters his beat-up blue Chevy pickup with Yella, pulls up to the back door of a restaurant called The Grille and muscles two garbage cans full of pig slop onto the truck bed.
April 7, 1986
He drives the scraps back to his farm, where there are 20 pigs, 12 cows, three sheep, two goats, six chickens and six geese. One of the baby pigs is dead, smothered perhaps in the litter's crush for their mother's milk. Mark Fidrych lifts it by the back legs and stretches it out on a steel barrel. "It's no skin off my butt," he says. "I just haven't buried it yet."
Pigs and pitching arms die young. Sometimes, when a man grows weary of trying to understand why, his only alternative is indifference. Fidrych pours the slop into a feeding box, flecks of tomato sauce spattering his boots, and watches the pigs bite and shove each other to get to the food. "They're wee-uhd," he says in his New England accent.
Some mornings it almost seems to him as if that dream year never happened. Other times, taking long crunching steps across a minefield of frozen manure on a shivering morning, the question of who he is seems hopelessly clouded by who he was.
"No, I'm not a farmer," he says. "You don't make any money doing this. You do it because it's something to do. You do it because it keeps you going."
He pauses. "I'm in love with my land. I got it all from playing ball. It gives me prestige. Someone says, 'What you got?' I say, 'One hundred and twenty-one acres of nice land.' "
By 8 a.m. Fidrych has the sure thing in his hands, the surest thing since a baseball and glove. "When you have a chain saw in your hands, there's nothin' that can hurt you," he says. "A chain saw goes through anything."
After baseball deserted him for good, in June 1983, his friends would often find him sitting on a woodpile on his farm, staring deep into nothing. "It's over, it's over, it's over" kept rolling in his head. "Why me? Why me?" Sometimes that question rose in his throat as rage, rage against something too large for a man's bare hands. So he would yank the starter on the chain saw and press its angry teeth into the closest and tallest piece of life he could find, leaning into the cut until he felt the wicked satisfaction of the tree's groan and crash. "I'd say to myself, 'See ya. Chop it down. Next tree. See ya. Chop it down. . . .' "
Once a tree was felled, he would reduce it to 16-inch logs and then, still working frantically, drive the splitting maul through the core. But it wasn't enough. "Why me?" is a question of being, and he lived in a country that had no time for that. "What do you do now?"—the question of doing—is the one Americans always ask, and he didn't know how to answer that. "He refuses to tell people he's a farmer," says a friend.
Two years ago Fidrych and two buddies formed a three-man team for a wood-chopping contest in their little town of Northboro, Mass., and Fidrych got to splitting so frenetically he drove the wedge through his friend's arm, chipping a piece off the bone near the elbow, and then split two more logs before he realized what he had done. The competition was canceled.
Some days Fidrych would leave his chain saw and splitting wedge behind, walk into the woods and scream. Just after the dream year, he had looked down at his hands and told a reporter, "I've got a trade now. These hands are vital. I can't pour cement with these hands." Since he left baseball, those hands have poured cement for swimming pools, cleared lots for new houses, fed pigs and chopped wood. He has sold a pig or cow now and then, or a piece of land that he had bought when he was playing ball. A few times a year, someone pays him to speak at a banquet. For six months last year he was a traveling liquor salesman, but the money and the necktie were no good, so he quit. He doesn't need much, just enough to pay the $6,000 in taxes on his mostly wooded farm, with a little left over for hamburger and beer money—and to have an answer for "What do you do?"
So he sips his beer and talks of plans—to buy a bulldozer, a car mechanic's garage, a gas station, a car wash, a limousine service, a trucking company, or maybe he would become a truck driver, a real estate developer. . . . "A hundred and fifty ideas going on at once," says Mark Philbin, a friend. "I'll say, 'Slow down, Mahk. What are you talking about?' "
Fidrych was a country boy and maybe chopping wood and pouring pig slop on his own 121-acre farm was more than he ever would have asked for if a dump truck full of fame hadn't pulled up to his life, buried him in it and then left, letting the wind blow it all away. But the dilemma won't go away. "Why do I need big money?" he asks. "I make 18 to 20 thousand a year. You got a thousand dollars, you got a thousand problems. I've always been small. I just want to stay small."
Then a Miller Lite commercial flickers across the TV screen and he flings the back of his hand at the set and growls, "I could be doing one of those goddamn things, too."
This morning he has two big scratches on his neck from hacking at the brush on his land, clearing it for the house he plans to build. He is 31 and it is time he no longer lived with his parents.
Ten a.m. "Maybe the dream is a vibration that I should try to pitch again. There weren't no outside things in the dream, no score, no outcome. Just me, pitching. Just me, playing." He's back in the truck now, heading to Mike's Donut Shoppe in Northboro to get coffee for the three men helping him clear his land; Sasha and Yella are panting in the back. In the truck his mind wanders. Hell, ever since the doc opened up the right shoulder last summer, sewed up the two tears in the rotator cuff and chiseled down the end of the bone sticking up under his armpit, the wing has felt good again. Once more he can open car doors and drink beer with his right hand. He no longer tosses and turns Sasha awake at three in the morning from the pain. "I know I could get a major league hitter out now," he says. "I know it."
Damn, maybe it could be 1976 all over again. Remember that?
On an April day in Oakland, Ralph Houk, then manager of the Tigers, signaled to the bullpen. On the run, still half unzippered, shoving his shirt and cup into place came a gangly kid with curly blond hair bouncing over his ears, entering his first major league game.
He dropped to his knees and smoothed out all the little holes the other pitcher had left on the mound, like a little kid in his sandbox, lost in an imaginary world. When his infielders or outfielders made a good play, he ran to them to shake their hands in the middle of an inning. He did knee bends and squats on the mound, and when he set himself to pitch, he held the ball in front of him and appeared to talk to it. Of course, he was actually talking to himself, focusing on his task, but in 1976, when a children's game was becoming overrun with attaché-carrying shortstops and talk of holdouts and strikes and agents' percentages, who cared about details like that?
"Never in my 37 years of baseball have I seen a player like him, and never will I again," says the Tigers' president, Jim Campbell. "My gosh, I don't know why we don't see more people like Mark Fidrych. He was what he was. All natural. So hyper, so uninhibited. A minute after he came into my office he'd have one cheek of his butt on the corner of my desk. Before you knew it, he'd be lying on my desk, his head resting in one hand, the other hand gesturing in the air."
"The best young pitcher I've ever had in my career," says Houk.
A 10th-round pick by the Tigers in the '74 draft, Fidrych had stayed in a tent his first few days of Rookie League ball until management talked him into a motel. His fastball and slider were as naturally hyper as he, his control, for a wild kid, was confounding. A minor league manager, assessing Fidrych's tall, gawky body, his plume of hair and free spirit, nicknamed him the Bird after the Sesame Street character Big Bird. The night the Tigers told him he was going north with the big team in '76, he smuggled a girl over the fence of their Lakeland complex, lay down on the mound with her and celebrated.
His salary was $16,500, he didn't have an agent, and the guy in the upper deck didn't need four beers to gaze down at Fidrych and imagine he saw himself. On June 28, before 50,000 fans at Tiger Stadium and a Monday Night Baseball national audience, Fidrych pitched a seven-hit, 5-1 victory over the Yankees. The camera hopped from him apparently talking to the ball to a fan in a yellow bird costume frolicking through the stands, and twice after the game, Fidrych had to make curtain calls for the mob that chanted "Bird! Bird! Bird!" and wouldn't leave.
"Our family, the whole town, felt part of it," says his sister, Carol Ann. Her eyes look off. "We had the best times going to his games. Ahhhh, the best times. About once a month I still go back and look at a video of highlights of him pitching that year. He was the happiest I've ever seen him. On the video you can see it—his face glowed."
He became the second rookie in history to start an All-Star Game, went 19-9 on a next-to-last-place team, led all major league starters in ERA (2.34), was voted Man of the Year by the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, and singlehandedly boosted Tiger attendance by more than 400,000 over the year before. Bird T shirts, buttons and records appeared; helicopters bearing greetings to the Bird circled the stadium. A man named his baby after him, and a resolution was introduced in the Michigan state legislature demanding that the Tigers raise his pay. The Twins delayed a game for nearly half an hour to funnel the huge crowd into one of his games. The Angels, afraid to disappoint a packed house when Fidrych missed a start, put him in a cage in their stadium concourse to sign autographs. Men who had spent their lives trying to become polished and sophisticated fought for postition to get the signature and shake the hand of a man who had remained spontaneous and natural.
Maybe if he could have kept it small, if he could have risen off his knees from the dirt, thrown the hyper fastball by the batter and gone home, it could have lasted longer than a year. Maybe in a country that had become obsessed with building and dismantling celebrities, and expert at turning the natural into the stale, it was better that it didn't. The day after the Monday night game, a man from the William Morris Agency in Manhattan called and soon was lining up commercials and appearances. After a while Fidrych would hide in the stadium until near midnight, then dash for his car, zigzagging to avoid fans leaping onto the hood. The parking lot and hallway of his apartment became so jammed with people that he had to move to another complex in the suburbs with a 24-hour security patrol. "He'd call me and tell me reporters were calling his hotel room at midnight the night before he had to pitch, that people were banging on his hotel door all day," recalls Stephen Pinkus, the William Morris agent. " 'They're driving me nuts,' he'd say. 'Why?' I'd say. 'Because you're a star and that's what happens.' He didn't understand. He was completely out of his league. All he wanted to do was drink beer and listen to rock music and have fun."
Fidrych taped an appearance for Bill Cosby's children's show, during which the director screamed at him when he had trouble reading the cue cards. "Hey, man," Fidrych screamed back, "this isn't my field. I'm a baseball pitcher."
The Tigers asked him to get rid of his two motorcycles. When he accepted a Thunderbird from the Ford Motor Company, a Detroit columnist wrote that Fidrych had lost his innocence. Rolling Stone published a story chronicling his sex life. Every day, no matter whether he pitched or not, a troop of reporters asked him for every detail of things that he had done unconsciously, gnawed on each particular until it stopped seeming natural at all. "I never thought all that would be part of it," Fidrych says. "As soon as people started writing about it, talking about it so much, you think about it."
The daydream in the truck has lasted too long. He pulls onto his farm, surveys the growing piles of cut brush with pleasure and calls the workers to come drink their coffee.
"Hey," one of them asks through the steam from his cup, "we were wondering, Mahk, back when you played, how fast could you throw a ball?"
"In the 90s."
Fidrych's eyes shift. "How much more you think you'll get to today?"
Lunchtime. Chet's Diner. Thank God the blowhard isn't here, the one who can blow an entire lunch away talking about how he wants to make Mahk a pitchah again. Because if the blowhard had been here Mahk would have had to disappear inside himself or out the door, suddenly remembering an appointment, as if Mahk was the kind of guy who made appointments. Then he couldn't have sat and watched that pretty little black-haired bundle of laughter and efficiency, the waitress at Chet's, the Greek man's daughter, Ann, whom he is going to marry in October.
"Need a Chetbuhgah, a Supah Deluxe with no tomatoes and a bread setup, sweetie," she calls to her mother at the grill. "Need a bowl o' chowdah, Dad. How ya doin', guys? Watcha want today? Onion ring-a-lings and a rootin'-tootin' beer? . . . Dad, I said chowdah, not chili. Quick, quick, like a bunny. No, Mothah, no tomatoes on that buhgah. I know, sweetie, isn't life hahd?"
A biochemistry major who graduated from Fairfield University and then decided she'd rather get up at 4:30 every morning and work the diner with her folks, a 30-year-old woman, smart and strong, who went to Algonquin High in Northboro with him but barely even knew him then and never saw him throw a baseball—that's the kind of girl Mark Fidrych needed. For three months, in a little town rampant with gossip peddlers, where everyone knew Mark and everyone knew Ann, no one in town knew about Mark and Ann. Fidrych cloaked their relationship in secrecy, as if afraid of the effect other eyes might have upon something he considered sacred. "It's my thrill, just her and me," he says. "People don't understand. It's better when it's a secret, when no one knows. If baseball could have been that way. . . ."
There was another reason for the secret, too. As soon as everyone knew, it became a commitment. Commitments scare Fidrych. He could sit on a woodpile for weeks, but when he decided to chop, he chopped every bloody limb, human or hickory, that got in his way. He gave so much of himself he couldn't shrug and walk away if the commitment splintered. So he sat on a barstool or the back of the truck and talked about 150 jobs he might do, or, before Ann, ogled the three girls in tight sweaters he might ask out. The first girl he'd ever fallen for had left him, then a 2½-year relationship in Detroit had ended when the woman wouldn't go with him to the minor leagues, or to Northboro. That left the women who recognized him at the bars. "Of course I felt women only liked me because of baseball," he says. "It made me wonder if it was worth giving myself to any woman again. It's hard to be confident about showing feelings.
"Ann doesn't know me, that's probably why we get along so well. You don't understand. I committed myself once. I committed to baseball. . . ."
One-thirty p.m. Fidrych is honking and helloing to the guys in the duckbill caps, waving and joking with the old women coming out of the shops. "What's up, Joe? How ya doin', Steve?" Driving past Pierce's Sunoco, where he used to pump gas, past Murray's Package Store, where they still have the picture of him in his Tiger uniform, past the empty lot where the Cut Off bar used to be before it was condemned, where he and the boys locked themselves into the little bathroom for wrestling matches or had competitions to see who could slide the farthest down the bar on his backside. Little town. Good town. Quiet and simple.
He arrives back at his land and finds the two surveyors, the ones he's paying to plot a road to the site where he will build his new house, taking a break to find batteries for their headsets.
"So we can communicate through the forest," explains one.
"Hell, what's wrong with yellin' and screamin'?" retorts Fidrych.
What a world. He had wanted to be a car mechanic, back in the days when if you heard a car cough, you knew it was either the plugs or points or carburetor. But now the engines are computerized and the mechanics hook up blinking machines to them as if they're coronary patients, and Fidrych doesn't have the heart for it anymore. He had dreamed of owning land, and suddenly, at 22, he had enough to buy a piece you could fit a couple dozen ballfields on, cash on the barrelhead—no loans, man, no interest payments. He wanted to keep life simple. Then came tax time and the accountant looked at him as if he was a lost little boy: 121 acres of pine and birch and not a single stick of shelter.
Pinball used to be good, too. "Five balls for a quahtah, and it didn't take that many points to win a free game," Fidrych says. "Then it became three balls for a quahtah and you needed a million points. Then came Pac-Man and all that crap. Do good and you only get to put your initials next to your score. It ain't what it used to be. Nothin' in life matches up to anything."
God knows, he tried to keep it simple. He turned down the back-slapping jobs he could have had in Detroit and returned to the little town to stay near the dirt and wear torn jeans that showed his underwear. People marveled at the way he still rolled on the ground with dogs and kids. But then he had to shake himself off and get vertical, and the only place verticality had ever meant simplicity was on a hill of dirt, 60'6" from a batter. "Baseball stayed the same," he says. "Three outs an inning, nine innings and the game's over. I remember Alleycat Johnson, a guy who was my teammate in the minor leagues, telling me, 'You know, Mahk, when you're on that mound, you're a master, a scientist. But when you walk off it, you're crazy; no one knows what you'll do. You've got a million-dollar arm and a 10-cent mind.' " Fidrych laughs, then pauses. "He was right. I've never found another place as comfortable as a mound. Never."
The simple life was gone, and every time he returned to Detroit and the baggage handlers ran for his luggage and the Avis folks tried harder, he wondered if he should surrender to it, exploit it. He did promotional work for an auto-parts company long enough to get a bellyful of small talk and a pocketful of business cards, then moved on. He interviewed with a Detroit TV station last summer to do sports commentaries but lost interest when he realized he would have to move there. He did some color commentary for the Tigers' cable TV network in 1984 and received no offer to continue working there. "He'd say anything on the air," recalls Bill Freehan, the ex-Tiger catcher who also did commentary for the network. "He'd yell, 'That pitch was a hooo-rah!' and the guy on the air with him would say, 'Huh?' He'd be talking when it was time to cut to a commercial, and the director would be tapping him on the shoulder, and Mark wouldn't understand what he wanted. But I love the guy. He's fiat-out genuine."
Fidrych considered becoming a pitching coach. "I've got to be honest," says Campbell. "Mark isn't cut from that bolt of cloth." Bob Woolf, the Boston attorney who began to represent him in 1982, arranged a nonspeaking role for Fidrych as a pitcher in a movie called The Slugger's Wife and an interview with the Hyatt Regency in Cambridge, Mass. to do promotional work. The movie bombed, the Hyatt never called back. Fidrych went to New York three times in 1984 to do casting tapes for Miller Lite, auditioning for a commercial in which he talked to a ball at a bar, and froze when the camera rolled and he had to read the cue card. Reading has always been difficult for him. "I've boycotted books," he says. Finally, after 80 takes, he was told the commercial would run during the '84 World Series. It never aired, and no one else called. The reason corporate America loved him when he pitched—he was natural, unsophisticated, real—was the same reason they shunned him when he couldn't pitch.
"Maybe if he'd lasted a few more years . . . " says Wolff. "I've been able to do a lot of things for a lot of athletes, but I've never come up with an answer for one when the people start asking, 'Who did you used to be?' "
"Hey, let's take a plane ride to Michigan," says Fidrych, kicking his boot at the snow. "They recognize you like it was yesterday. That's a plus in my atmosphere, right? It wasn't just one year of publicity. Even when I was sent to the minors, every town I went to, there was my picture in the paper and a story about me. Why didn't they just tell me I'm not good enough to do a commercial? It's obvious I didn't fit in. So I'm not pitching anymore. What in hell's wrong with showing me cutting wood and drinking a Miller Lite or a Coke?"
He remembers that he doesn't want that anyway, that he opted for the simple, uncluttered life. "Look, if it doesn't come, fine," he says. "It's no skin off my butt."
Pinkus, Fidrych's agent at the height of his popularity, estimates that the dream year grossed his former client $125,000 in off-the-field money, mostly from Florida Citrus and Aqua Velva TV ads, some speaking engagements and a book. Ten years later, when the American marketing machine was greased and waxed, another country boy with a nickname, another natural, burst into prominence on a Monday-night nationally televised game. Before his dream year ends, William Perry will make well over a million dollars off the field.
"If Mark had that year in 1986?" says Pinkus. "Oh God. I'd sign him to a five-year with the Tigers at one to one-point-five million per, with an MVP bonus and a 20-win bonus. That's close to two million. Easy. I'd sign him to represent a chicken frankfurter company, which we had contracts all written up for when he got hurt—the Bird Frankfurter line—with a guarantee of $100,000 the first year, $150,000 the second, plus a percentage of the company's profits. That would have made him another million, easy. I'd get him a sporting goods line. He'd probably be a regular on his own TV series, 10 grand an episode. He'd be a national spokesman for something—an airline, a car, a major insurance company. That's at least a quarter million a pop. Do four—it's a million. Personal appearances—$15,000 per. Easy. Kissinger and Ford get $15,000—that shows where America's at. He'd have made 10 to 15 million in the last five years, if he'd maintained who he was. Easy. He'd have been a giant.
"You say he's not working a regular job now? Maybe I could make him a sports announcer or something, pull some strings. Honey, bring me Fidrych's phone number—excuse me, I was talking to my secretary. I have the most extensive Rolodex in the country, got Ronald Reagan's number when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild. What do you mean, it's not there? How could you not have Fidrych in my Rolodex?"
Dusk. Work is done. Fidrych enters through the kitchen door, past the unused living room where the furniture is covered with sheets and all the plaques and trophies from his career rest in darkness. In the attic and cellar are cardboard boxes full of the stuffed birds that fans besieged him with in '76. "I'll put everything out when I move into my new house," he says.
This house is the one Fidrych bought for his parents in '77. He always thought first of family. On a promotional tour with the Tigers that year, he kept running to the phone to see if the oldest of his three sisters had delivered her baby. "When she finally did," recalls Campbell, "he was so excited you'd have sworn he was the father."
Fidrych doesn't eat dinner at home much anymore, now that he's got a girlfriend. Sometimes his dad, Paul, an assistant principal of an elementary school in Worcester who is a year and a half from retirement, intercepts him just after he's showered off the farm dirt, just before he bolts out the door.
"What did you do today, Mahk?"
"Where you goin'?"
"I'll ask him what he's going to do with his life, and he'll say, 'Don't worry about it,' but I do," says his father. "If I mention to him, 'Spring training opened today,' he'll just say, 'Yep.' He doesn't want to hear it from me. He keeps saying that part of his life's over."
It all started with Paul Fidrych, a superb athlete whose dream and thigh bone snapped one day when he was playing football in high school. Rather than talk of what he was or could have been, Paul spent hours hitting ground balls and pop-ups, squatting like a catcher for his only son, quietly feeding the dream to him. He coached Mark's team in Little League and Babe Ruth, and during the hush when his son stood at the foul line in a high school basketball game, you could hear Paul Fidrych holler, "Concentrate, Mahk, concentrate!"
With a baseball in his hand, or a snowball or a rock, Mark could. In a classroom his mind roamed, his fingers and feet fidgeted, the words on the page in front of him danced themselves into a blur. He flunked first grade, then flunked second. A few friends taunted him, but most of them just moved on to the next grade and forgot him. Tall for his age, he towered over classmates two years younger, and when he dominated them at recess, it only made things worse. Patiently his dad tried to tutor him, but the words kept dancing and the boy knew he was disappointing everyone. "I stopped raising my hand in class," he says. "I wanted to disappear. I still have an inferiority complex about it today. I remember my Aunt Nel telling me that you should go into the woods and scream if you felt real bad. I thought she was crazy back then."
Ten or 15 people might show up at his high school baseball games—played when the outfield snow had melted—and sometimes almost that many ground balls skipped by his fielders' gloves. His father urged him not to quit. Says the younger Fidrych, "He'd say, 'Mahk, you're not the smartest kid in the world, and there's money to be made in sports.' Your dad tells you something when you're a kid, you believe him, right?"
Everyone in town thought Mark was just a wild, fun-loving, floppy-haired hyper kid, quick to do 360s in his sister's car on the frozen pond or lie on his back on a barroom dance floor and wriggle to the music. (Why, don't you know, that's The Worm.) Underneath, he often didn't feel that way at all. "Sometimes," he says, "I'd think, 'Why live?' "
His father wanted him to go to college, Mark wanted to do oil changes at Pierce's Sunoco. For his dad, he would do almost anything. His first Scholastic Aptitude Test score was too low for college entrance, so he gave his ID card to a smart buddy who had offered to pinch-hit for the second. The difference was so dramatic that the SAT board officially notified him he was a cheater.
Suddenly, miraculously, came the call from the Detroit Tigers, and Fidrych didn't need the car on the pond to feel himself spin. "All of a sudden I had guys behind me who could field; I just threw strikes and let the other team hit ground balls," he says. "All of a sudden people actually wanted to hear what I had to say!"
After two years in the minors, the dream year came. His father, his shirt buttons straining to accommodate his pride, shuttled to and from Detroit to watch his boy pitch.
By the end of the year, Mark was asking a doctor for something to calm his nerves. "Next year I hope a kid comes along that does better than me," he said then. "Then they'll leave me alone."
A few months later, in March of '77, a fly ball arced toward him and Rusty Staub in the Lakeland outfield.
"You want this one, Rusty?"
"No, kid. You take it."
Exuberantly, as he did everything on a ball field, he streaked beneath the towering fly ball. His left knee popped, tearing cartilage. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED decided not to run his picture on the cover of its baseball issue that year. "What kinda horsebleep's that?" he said. "So I got hurt. I ain't dead. I'll never talk to those bastards again. People using me, man. I'm sick of people using me."
He cried in his hospital bed, as security guards kept the anxious, overwrought fans away. "I've gotta fight back," he said. "Baseball is my whole life. It's the only thing I know."
Ten days after he returned from the disabled list, his right shoulder popped. He went 6-4 that season, plagued by arm pain, and the dream was gone. In his rage he broke the washer and dryer in the Tiger laundry room, then, stricken with remorse, fell to his knees and fixed them.
Nobody knew what caused the crippling pain, but many suspected it was Fidrych's overeagerness to be a superstar pitcher again, that he'd begun throwing too hard too soon after he had injured the knee. "Maybe it was my stupidity," he says. "I kept throwing. I didn't want to give up. If you can't perform, you're gone, so you fool them as much as you can. I had to. I saw what was going on in my life."
Most of the next six years were spent in the minors—the last year and a half with Boston's Triple A team in Pawtucket, R.I. He tried doctors, osteopaths, chiropractors, hypnotists and psychologists, long rests and no rests. He gulped aspirin and anti-inflammation pills by the handful and rubbed all sorts of strange substances on his arm. Fans called and wrote in with miracle cures, suggesting that he stick the troubled arm into a swarm of bees, that he pack it in red Florida clay. An old man with arthritis-swollen knuckles drove to Northboro from New Jersey to give him some red gook that smelled like kerosene. All the old guy wanted was for Fidrych to sign a contract guaranteeing him 10% of his salary once Mark was healed. Fidrych signed the contract, but the stuff only made the shoulder stink as well as hurt.
One night in June 1983, a lonely man with a 2-5 record and a 9.68 ERA called his father from Norfolk, Va. "I'd always wanted to give him a feeling of accomplishment," says Fidrych. "I said to him, 'I'm done, Dad. They've let me go. Thanks for everything you've taught me, but I've got to get out of this game. I did it for you.' "
"I still think you've got it in you, Mahk," said his dad.
"Don't give up this easy. You've got to look in the mirror."
"Dad, I've been looking in the mirror for the last six years."
Sometimes, when Paul Fidrych is watching a ball game these days, he still feels the emotion rising up into his larynx. "I wish he would try it again," he says. "I find myself wondering how far he could have gone. I don't want that question in his mind, the way it's always been in mine since I broke my leg. I think he could do it; he has the desire. Did you see him cut wood today?
"Once in a while he'll be sitting here watching a game and he'll say, 'I had 29 major league victories, that's not too bad,' and I'll say, 'Yeah, Mahk, that's not too bad.' But you know something? Jim Palmer stole the Cy Young Award from Mahk that year. He stole it. The Gold Glove, too—Mahk had no errors. I don't understand why he doesn't get any commercial with him sipping a Coke and not saying a word.
"Listen, I'm going to give you a name: Charles Grogan. He's got the same determination Mahk used to have, never gets tired of practicing. He's big and strong, same way Mahk used to be. He's only eight years old. He's my grandson."
Eight p.m. A deep quiet grips the little town. Ten years ago, Mark Fidrych lived with an urge to roll down the window and pierce the quiet, but he is 31 now, engaged, and his soul howls less and less. "Get a few beers in him and you can still get him going," says his farming partner, Wayne Hey. "He'll wrestle with the pigs and cows when they won't go where he wants them to. He'll go to a few ball games in Boston a year and yell at the ump just like any fan. Last July 4 he started a Roman candle-throwing battle with a friend.
"Deep down, I think he's been completely lost without baseball. A lot of people wouldn't know it, because he's got something to say to almost everyone. Ann is very good for him—she's giving his life some direction."
"He has to be totally honest with himself now," Ann says. "I just ask him direct questions: Are you facing facts or are you avoiding the issue, Mahk?"
Fidrych walks into a Northboro bar and begins methodically drinking beer. Memories come tumbling from him. The child comes back into his voice. "I got Yaz's bat, I got Pete Rose's bat, I got Fred Lynn's bat, I got George Scott's bat—know how I got that? I told Bill Freehan, 'Ask George Scott when he comes to the plate to give me one of his bats, and if he says yes, tell him to look over at me in the dugout and tip his hat.' " Fidrych's eyes widen. "He did! I remember pitching in my third or fourth game against Yaz and Rico Petrocelli. Wow! Those guys were my heroes growin' up. And strikin' out Rico on a 3-2 pitch that was a ball. I said, 'Wow!' And. . . ."
He is reminded of the media people who haunted him and of the fans who mercilessly stalked him. Don't complicate it, his voice begs. "It wasn't the fan who hung all over me," he protests. "The fan had to go home after the game, go to bed and get up for work. The people who did that, they were another person."
No matter how hard he tries, the complications remain. His life has been forever set apart from the others in the town. No matter how many times he enters the forest with his chain saw and splitting wedge, his woodpile will never be cut and stacked the same neat way as those of his friends, the house painter and oil-truck driver and cable TV serviceman.
Maybe settling down and getting married will help. "This commitment will last," he says. "You can be married and have a sore arm, right? But what if the Kansas City Royals call tomorrow and say they need a pitching coach? I still got it in my blood."
Maybe Mark should try to pitch again. "My arm has felt fine since the surgery. The doc finding all those things wrong inside was the best relief of my life. Now I know my problems weren't in my head. I haven't thrown a baseball since, only a snowball. Maybe that dream means I should just play in the Stan Musial League around here and see how it feels. I won't count baseball out. I won't."
Maybe Mark shouldn't try to pitch again. "I'd lose a full five months of my life getting in shape. I don't want to be that dedicated again. What if I say I'll play in the Musial league and I can't make it to a game or enough guys don't show up to play? I can't screw around in life anymore."
Maybe he should have children. "The best thing I loved about playing ball was seeing a little kid's happy face. Yeah, I want kids. But sometimes I feel I wouldn't want to bring a kid into this world. The poor kid. . . . It was so hard for me."
Surely, with the family and fiancée and two dogs who care and the little town that accepts him, he would come through this. After all, it was only one year. . . .
He stands up. It is 11 p.m., early for a 21-year-old idol, late for a 31-year-old pig farmer.
"Ten years," he says. "It's hard to believe. I got no regrets. I'd do it like that all again. I got memories, I'll always keep them alive. I'd tell William Perry to have fun, grab it while you can, 'cause you never know when it's gonna disappear. You can't think about it; you gotta just go until something happens."
He lingers. "You know, I still get fan mail. I wait a week before I answer it, so it builds up. It sounds crazy but it makes me feel more important. Please, just end this story by saying thank you to the people. Thank you to our society."