When Mark Fidrych comes back to Michigan, as he did twice this month, he immediately becomes The Bird. He is still famous here, 30 years after he did anything fame-worthy. When people recognize Fidrych, what do they ask about?
"The season," he said.
It needs no clarification. He really had only one.
The year was 1976, which was perfect. If Mark Fidrych had come along 15 years earlier or 15 years later, he would not have had such universal appeal. In 1961, many players and fans would have been appalled by his showmanship; in 1991, they would have figured he was a phony, a self-promoter.
But 1976 was just right for the pitcher they called The Bird. In 1976 a man could be different without being an outcast; he could have long hair and talk to the baseball before he pitched without too much backlash. And ballplayers still were part of the working class. (Fidrych made the major league minimum of $16,500.) They were not the prepackaged image-conscious millionaires who came along later.
Mark Fidrych was the Justin Verlander of 1976. This does not just mean that, 30 years ago, Fidrych did what Verlander is doing -- dominating the American League as a rookie, leading the Tigers to surprising success. He was what Verlander might have been in a more easygoing, lower-budget, less media-savvy era.
Fidrych didn't just talk to the ball. When somebody got a hit off him, he spit out his gum and refused to use that ball again. He jumped over the white lines on his way to the mound. He got his nickname, The Bird, because minor league manager Jeff Hogan said he walked like Big Bird.
He was famously unsophisticated. The stories abounded: He didn't know who Yankees star Thurman Munson was. He always checked the coin slot of pay phones to scrounge loose change. His wardrobe was so raggedy, general manager Jim Campbell had to buy him a suit.
Fidrych had to be seen to be believed. This explains why Tiger Stadium attendance shot up every time he pitched.
Did he see himself as eccentric?
"No," he said last week in his thick Massachusetts accent. "I saw myself as a ballplayah."
So why do people remember him so well?
"Ah," he said, "I was a winnah."
* * *
He was a winner.
He is a truck driver.
And this leads to the next question people ask Fidrych:
"What happened to your arm?"
In 1976, Fidrych was 19-9 with a major league best 2.34 ERA. He started the All-Star Game. He was 22.
The following spring, he appeared on one of the most famous Sports Illustrated covers, alongside Big Bird. The photo shoot took almost four hours. Fidrych and the guy in the Big Bird suit were baffled: four hours for one photo?
Fidrych didn't complain -- he's not much of a complainer, which is good. Because at that moment, after one season, Fidrych's major league career was more than half over. He suffered an injured knee in spring training, came back healthy, and then ...
"I was playing Baltimore in Baltimore, and about the fifth inning something happened," Fidrych said. "The arm just went dead."
He had suffered a torn rotator cuff. He was about to live every pitcher's nightmare, except he didn't know why. Nobody diagnosed the torn rotator cuff until 1985.
By that time, Fidrych had been out of the majors for five years. He started only 27 games after 1976, compared to 29 that year. (Of those 29, he completed 24, which might explain the rotator cuff injury.) Not long after the injury -- when it was clear something was terribly wrong, even though nobody knew what -- pitching coach Roger Craig said to Fidrych, "You're playing defense now instead of offense."
"Yes, I am," The Bird replied. "I don't know how you get out of it."
He never did.
* * *
Fidrych thought about buying an auto repair shop with the money he made in baseball, but by the mid-'80s, cars were becoming more high-tech, and that didn't appeal to him. He bought a dump truck instead.
He has been driving it ever since in his native Massachusetts. On some jobs he helps lay sewer pipe. Once a week, he helps out at his mother-in-law's restaurant, Chet's Diner in Northborough, Mass. Fidrych laughingly calls himself the diner's "sanitation engineer" -- he cleans up and does what nobody else wants to do.
Fidrych likes driving the truck -- even when he was a rookie, he said he wanted to drive one -- but he would like to scale back and do more promotional work. He is 51. He wants to find somebody to help sell The Bird in Tigertown.
He did that so well back in the day. Fidrych's first endorsement deal was with Highland Appliance, a local chain. In one television commercial, Fidrych told the ball to meet him at Highland Appliance, then threw a pitch, which promptly was belted out of the ballpark, and the ball landed at Highland Appliance. He moved on to Aqua-Velva. ("It was a lotion, not an aftershave, because I really wasn't shaving yet," he said.) Then he did commercials for orange juice and toothpaste.
Through it all, Fidrych was still the innocent. He did his own grocery shopping after games. He lived in Michigan year-round -- first in Southgate, then in Belleville.
"I had the sunrise in my bedroom and the sunset on my porch," he said of his Belleville home. "You couldn't beat it."
The sun set quickly on Fidrych -- of course that's as much of his story as his success. So much of sports' appeal lies in the known. We find out, definitively, who has the best team each year, and almost every athlete's contribution is quantifiable: 2.39 ERA; 9.92-second 100-meter dash; 1,532 rushing yards. Maybe that's why Fidrych's story endures: We never found out how good he would have been -- whether he was a one-year wonder or a Hall of Famer.
Mention Mark Fidrych to any baseball fan, and it is immediately 1976 again, with The Bird talking to the ball. And the funny thing is, he was never really talking to the ball. He was talking to himself. Let Fidrych explain, in classic Bird style:
"All I was doing ... it's like walking on a curb. If you step off a curb, when you're not paying attention, you'll fall, right? Have you ever done that? You stumble. Well, it's the same with pitching. If you all of a sudden step in a hole, and you gotta clear another hole, you'll land in there all the time. So you have to have everything smooth and you'll make your own groove. That's what my father taught me to do. I just always talked to myself to tell myself, 'What's going on? What position are we in now? Guy on first, right-handed batter up, left-handed batter coming up next. ...' It was just telling myself what to do."
He'll explain that to anybody who asks. But usually, after they ask about The Season and what happened to his arm, people ask Fidrych about himself. It's as though life ended for him in 1976. (In fact, he got married and has a daughter and seems quite happy.)
They ask: How are you? Is everything OK?
"And you go, 'Yah,' " Fidrych said. " 'Everything is.' They show concern. I'm a lucky guy to have that."