Rain falls on the roof of the red wooden porch, making a sound
like God gently drumming his fingertips. "It's neat goin' to
Fenway Pahk, drinkin' a beer, havin' a blast," says Mark (the
Bird) Fidrych, for whom baseball has been but a spectator sport
for 18 years now. "I love to pretend I'm the manager. I'll scream
at the TV, 'I can't believe you didn't bunt the guy ovah! I know
you're lookin' for the big inning, but you gotta hit-and-run
This is an article from the July 2, 2001 issue
He takes a pull on a Coors Light, his second of this Sunday
afternoon, and says, "Yeah, I miss playin' ball. I miss it like
you read about." Then the Bird--disarmingly open, devoid of
pretense--stands on the stoop of his red wooden porch and takes a
whiz on the weeds below.
The porch fronts a small shack on the Fidrych farm, which rolls,
like a rucked green carpet, over 90 acres in Northboro, Mass. The
Bird bought the property in 1980 with cash he'd accumulated
during his brief but memorable major league career. Beyond the
porch is a pond, and beyond the pond, up a gentle slope, is the
house he built in '86, the year he got married to Ann Pantazis.
"That's when the bank found out I didn't pitch in the big leagues
anymore," says Fidrych, winner of 19 games for the fifth-place
Detroit Tigers in 1976, when he was named American League Rookie
of the Year. "They looked at the loan application and said, 'We
want all your land.' For whaddyacallit, collateral. It's
called"--Fidrych fumbles for the phrase--"building up equity."
So he signed over the acreage to the Hudson (Mass.) Savings Bank
and soon found himself with his new father-in-law, Jim, on the
highest point of the property, examining his life this way and
that, as if it were an exotic piece of produce. "Pops," said
Fidrych, "I used to own all this land outright. Now the bank
"Mahk," replied Pops, "it sounds to me like you're goin'
"I never laughed so hahd," says the 46-year-old Fidrych after
volunteering the story in the chowdah-thick accent of Greatah
Woostah. He speaks of himself not in the third person, as do so
many athletes, but rather as a third person, as if Mark Fidrych
were some wholly other creature, fashioned primarily for
mankind's comic relief.
To feed the hungry furnace of his mortgage, for instance, he now
works as an independent subcontractor, laying sewer pipe and
doing road repair with the aid of a 10-wheel Mack dump truck he
bought in 1986 for $88,000. "The truck has kept the fahm goin'
and kept my life goin'," he says. The other day, though, on a
road repair job at afternoon drive time, he accidentally dug into
a water main that had been mismarked on the macadam. Which is how
Fidrych--perhaps the most famous man in America during its
bicentennial summer--found himself standing, forlornly, in the
slapstick spray of God's seltzer bottle. "I don't know if you've
evah seen a broken watah main," he says, "but 100 pounds of
pressure through an eight-inch opening, that ain't no small
thing." No, indeed, and thus there appeared a geysah ovah
LIFE IS A BATCH OF MIX, says the asphalt company slogan on his
T-shirt. And is it ever. At the height of his fame Fidrych was
photographed by Annie Leibovitz for the cover of Rolling Stone.
On the other hand, 14-year-old Jessica, the only child of Mark
and Ann, knows her father exclusively as a truck driver and
assistant soccer coach. ("My job is to make sure the balls are in
the bag," says her dad.) Jessica never knew the other Mark
Fidrych, who consorted with Big Bird and Gerald Ford; who drew an
average of 18,268 extra fans to Tiger Stadium on the days he
started in 1976; who--because he wasn't scheduled to pitch during
one series in Anaheim--sat in a giant cage and signed autographs,
the better to forestall a fan riot.
"Jess and I, we have heated arguments," says Fidrych, who seems
incapable of anything but candor, answering questions as if under
oath or the influence of sodium pentothol. "She listens to her
mother. When I try to tell her somethin', she says, 'Get outta
here.' Her mother has Jess wrapped around her baby finger. But
Jess has me wrapped around her baby finger."
This dynamic is evident later, in the kitchen, where Jess has her
right arm hooked around Ann's waist. Ann, a biochemistry major
who graduated from Fairfield (Conn.) University, is the director
of nutrition at a local HMO. "We were going to give Mark a Palm
Pilot," Ann says, as Jessica begins to giggle, "but he'd never
use it." Mark shakes his head in mock beleaguerment. He looks,
for the moment, like a put-upon sitcom dad.
Fidrych has been moved immeasurably in the last year by Jessica's
taking an interest in his former occupation. Without a word she
started to remove items from the Fidrych attic, which teems, like
King Tut's tomb, with the treasures that washed up at Mark's
locker throughout the '76 season: epic poems, oil portraits,
stuffed birds of every description. These items are slowly
providing the decor for the finished basement in which Jessica
recently had her first boy-girl party. Not long ago Mark
descended the stairs and saw that Jessica had set up a small
display of books in which he was prominently featured. "It's like
a little hobby of hers," he says, and his eyes go red around the
rims. His daughter is proud of him and vice versa: The name of
the truck that has "kept my life goin'" is emblazoned on the
front bumper: JESSICA.
Fidrych is likewise touched by all the strangers who remember
him. "I get fan mail every day," he says. "It's neat. Some of 'em
are from kids who say, 'My father told me about you.' A lot of
'em are, 'Could you sign this for Father's Day or my dad's
birthday?' That's nice, in my eyes. It's a great feeling, and you
hope it will come for the rest of your life."
It's almost literally true to say that the Bird was a household
name 25 summers ago. "I was like Mr. Clean," Fidrych says
earnestly, with no attempt at humor. "Nowadays you got Fantastik
and Formula 409 and all kinds of other cleaners, but in the '60s,
when I was growin' up, it was just Mr. Clean. That was the
cleaner everybody had in the house. And the Bird became as famous
as that. People might hear the name Mahk Fidrych and say, 'Never
heard of him,' but say the Bird, and everybody knew."
Everybody but Fidrych, who was unaware of the scope of his fame
until the '76 season was over. "Everything," he says, "was
happening all at once."
He was raised only a few miles from where he lives today, at a
time when this farm was, in his words, "the boonies." Fidrych was
a hyperactive child who couldn't sit still in a classroom, yet he
harnessed his excess energy on the pitcher's mound, where--even as
a child--he would get down on his knees and smooth the spike marks
from the dirt with his hands and nervously jabber to himself
throughout the game.
Because he was held back twice in school, in first and second
grade, Fidrych was 19 years old as a senior in high school,
ineligible to compete in the public school system. So he
transferred to private Worcester Academy, where he could play and
whence he was selected by Detroit in the 10th round of the 1974
draft. "It hurts me now when people in society say, 'Let's cut
girls' volleyball from the budget,'" he says. "Are you nuts?
That's so wrong. That might be the one thing that's keeping a kid
Fidrych was only 20 months removed from high school when the
Tigers made him a nonroster invitee to spring training in 1976.
"I walked into that big league clubhouse in Lakeland [Fla.] and
went, 'Wow! Free orange juice!'" he recalls. "'Free chewing gum!
Free chewing tobacco! I don't even chew tobacco, but I think I'm
gonna start!' I was in heaven. Five pairs of spikes, gloves a
dime a dozen, big league uniforms with our names on the back.
Audrey, our minor league secretary, gave me writing paper with
the Detroit emblem stamped on it so I could write letters home.
It made me feel like a big shot."
When, that March, a clubhouse attendant summoned him to the
manager's office, Fidrych sat in disbelief as Ralph Houk said,
"Kid, we wanna go north with 10 pitchers, and you're one of them.
But you're kind of young and we don't want to throw you to the
wolves, so you'll come up north and observe from the dugout."
All the while Fidrych's heart raced, and he rocked in his chair,
distracted as in grade school, and thought, Are you done talking
yet, 'cause I gotta call my parents. Instead he said, "Mistah
Houk, how do you gotta dress in the big leagues?"
"In a suit jacket and tie, kid. A suit jacket and tie. Now have a
nice day: You just made the big leagues."
Fidrych called his parents from a pay phone in the clubhouse.
"Dad," he told his father, Paul, an elementary school assistant
principal, "thanks for all the work you did with me, 'cause it
happened. It's gonna be in the papers tomorrow. You're gonna see
it in the Telegram-Gazette: MAHK FIDRYCH OF NORTHBORO IS GOING TO
THE BIG LEAGUES."
Snapping out of this reverie on his red wooden porch, Fidrych is
again animated--indeed, he looks literally so. Or at the very
least like the Muppet for whom a minor league coach nicknamed him
in his first professional season, with the rookie ball Bristol
(Va.) Tigers of the Appalachian League. He begins to talk of his
elevation to the major leagues, and he can't pause, seeing it all
again in wide-eyed wonderment, like one continuous Steadicam shot
from a Scorsese film.
"One of our pitchers, Joe Coleman, was from Natick," says
Fidrych, "and he became my roommate till he got traded. He saw in
Lakeland that I still used my spikes and glove from the minors,
and he said, 'You got no contracts?' So he took me to a Mr.
Christopher of Wilson and said, 'Here's a kid who just made the
big leagues, and he wants a contract or he'll go to Rawlings.'
And Mr. Christopher said, 'How many gloves do you need?' And I
said, 'I only need one glove.' And everyone laughed, and he said,
'Take as many as you want.' So I asked if I could get a catcher's
mitt, because my sister had a son who played catcher. And they
gave me a catcher's mitt, and I sent it to my nephew. Then they
gave me spikes, and Brooks and Adidas gave me spikes too. Then
Coleman told me how you take the spikes home, don't leave 'em in
your locker, so it will look like you've only got two pair. Then
they'll give you more.
"Wow, O.K., so this is the big leagues. Now I'm gonna be flyin'
first class so I want to look right. So our general managah, Mr.
[Jim] Campbell--he was a god to the minor league players--he calls
me into his office and says, 'I'm sending you to a friend of mine
who'll set you up with suits and ties.' Because all I owned were
cutoffs and Converse.
"So I get to the address that Mr. Campbell gave me, and these
suits were, like, $200. I told 'em, 'Whoa, this isn't quite my
category.' The man there said, 'Maybe you should go down
to'--Myrick's I think it was called. It was like a JCPenney. So I
thumbed it back home to Fetzer Hall, where the minor leaguers
stayed. The big leaguers all stayed at the Holiday Inn in
Lakeland. Audrey sees me coming and says, 'Mr. Campbell, Mahk's
got nothing under his ahms.' See, everyone was waiting there to
see what I'd bought. I was supposed to do a little fashion show
for 'em when I got back.
"So Mr. Campbell says to get in his car, we're goin' back to the
store. I said, 'But I gotta tell ya, Mr. Campbell, it's a little
overpriced.' He said, 'Mahk, what was your signing bonus as a
10th-round pick?' I told him $3,000. He said, 'Consider this a
part of your bonus. Pick out whatever you want, and the Tigers
will pick up the tab.' So I got three leisure suits, a brown
London Fog coat, belts, socks and shoes. Underwear was the only
thing I didn't need. Mr. Campbell said, 'You're coming back to
the office now and doing a fashion show.' So we walked into the
office, and I did a little fashion show for 'em. Audrey was
there, and Mr. Campbell and his secretary, Alice."
During the telling of the story, the Bird's eyes have gone as
glassy as the pond beyond the porch. "See, these people watched
out for me when I was far away from home," says Fidrych. "I've
always thought that was a beautiful thing."
Contrary to his manager's intention, Fidrych was instantly thrown
to the wolves. He made a couple of appearances as what he calls a
"reliefer," hand-smoothing the mound in Oakland, talking himself
through an inning against the Minnesota Twins, all per his
custom. Fans, however, thought he was talking to the baseball,
and the press did little to disabuse them of that notion.
Fidrych, with his Framptonian nest of hair, quickly became a hero
And that's when the world met him. On June 28 he was 7-1 with a
2.18 ERA and had become the ace of the Tigers' rotation, and that
evening he started against the New York Yankees on ABC's Monday
Night Baseball. Fidrych recalls driving to Tiger Stadium that
afternoon with a teammate who lived in the same apartment
complex. When they arrived, four hours before game time,
thousands of fans were congregating outside the gates. "Mark,"
said his carpool companion, "these people aren't here to see
Tommy Veryzer play shortstop."
Throwing his 90-mph sinking fastball and hard slider, Fidrych
defeated the Yankees 5-1 on seven hits to a series of
increasingly raucous ovations that sounded like thunder. His
teammates pushed him out of the dugout for one curtain call, then
another. Nearly 50,000 people chanted "Bird! Bird! Bird!" and
refused to leave the stadium. "It was electrifying," says
Fidrych. "That's when it all took off."
In the clubhouse Coleman drew him aside and said, "Kid, that was
awesome." Veryzer told him, "Thanks. I may never get to play in a
World Series, but that's what it must be like." Bullpen coach Jim
(Pie) Hegan, a veteran of 33 major league seasons as a player and
coach, simply slapped Fidrych with his mitt and barked, "Good
game, kid." But the old coach had gooseflesh.
Later, at his locker, the Bird was asked by the New York press
corps what he had to say to Yankees catcher Thurman Munson, who
had sat out the game but had nonetheless called Fidrych
"fly-by-night" and "a showboat" after the game. "Who's Thurman
Munson?" Fidrych replied.
"When I said that, the writers left," says Fidrych. "They didn't
ask me another question; they just went running out of the
clubhouse. I look over at Pie, and he's laughin' so hahd. He
said, 'Mahk, I know you. But those guys don't. I hate to tell
you, but Thurman Munson may be the best catcher in the big
leagues, and tomorrow, all the papers in New York will say BIRD
TO YANKEES: THURMAN WHO?"
Fidrych had genuinely never heard of Munson. The Bird was then,
as he is now, without guile, the opposite of the calculating
showboat that Munson had thought him to be. Munson realized that
pretty quickly. Two weeks after his defeat of the Yankees,
Fidrych became only the second rookie pitcher to start an
All-Star Game. Munson was his catcher.
"He came over to me and said, 'How you doin, Mahk?'" recalls
Fidrych. "He was laughin' and shakin' his head. He said, 'That
was a pretty good quote you had about me.' After that, whenever
we would see each other, it was like, 'Hey, Mahk,' 'Hey,
Thurman.' We had kind of like this friendship."
After the Monday Night Baseball game, fans began to follow
Fidrych home. He did all his grocery shopping after midnight at a
24-hour store. A resolution was introduced in the Michigan state
legislature to raise his pay (from $16,500). A man named his
newborn son after him. The Twins delayed one of his starts by 30
minutes to accommodate the walk-up throng. He finished the season
19-9 with a 2.34 ERA and 24 complete games. "I just think I was
in exactly the right place at exactly the right time," says
Fidrych. "I didn't really know how big it was until the season
Before he could get used to it--to things like meeting Frank
Sinatra, taking delivery of a free Thunderbird, filming an Aqua
Velva commercial and running away with the National Association
of Professional Baseball Leagues' Man of the Year award--his fame
began to flee. In his second spring training, while shagging
flies, he tore cartilage in his left knee. Five-and-a-half weeks
after returning from the disabled list, in a game in Baltimore,
he tore the rotator cuff in his right shoulder, an injury from
which he never fully recovered. Fidrych finished the 1977 season
with a 6-4 record and spent most of the next six years in the
minor leagues, retiring in '83 after a season and a half with the
Triple A Pawtucket (R.I.) Red Sox.
Fidrych floundered in his first years without baseball. "I raised
pigs with my buddy Wayne," he says. "For a while I was puttin' in
swimmin' pools with my buddy Wayne, but I thought, Do I really
wanna do pools? I was a booze salesman for a little while, but
that was goin' nowhere." While selling booze to Chet's Diner in
Northboro, however, he met the owners' daughter--Ann the
waitress--and married her within a year. In another year, after
the house was built and the truck was bought, Jessica was born.
He enjoys his life now, filled with family and friends, and the
odd leisurely leak on his land. Baseball built his farm and
bought his truck, and Fidrych remains fiercely in love with the
game--and all New England sports. "That's me at the Gahden," he
says, pointing to a picture of a charity basketball game he
played in. "Can you believe they let me on the pahkay floor?"
A couple of years ago he won, in a charity golf tournament, four
tickets to sit in Boston Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette's
box at Fenway. "Fenway Pahk, with the loyal fans, for a day game,
it was neat," says Fidrych. "Duquette wasn't in the box, so my
buddy Don gets on the phone: 'Get 'em up in the bullpen!' My
buddies were like little guys in a candy store. 'I'm gonna call
in a righthandah!' It was a good game and a good day. Don and
Stan and me, we had a ton of fun. It was a neat thing to cherish,
goin' to Fenway Pahk with great friends."
Fidrych says he still makes "15 to 20 thousand" a year as the
Bird, appearing at store openings and minor league games. He
annually returns to Michigan, where a baggage handler recently
greeted him at the gate with his luggage and a stack of baseball
cards to be signed. The first time Ann accompanied him to
Detroit, she remarked at how many friends he seemed to have
there. "I don't know any of these people," Mark confessed. But he
felt as if he did. "Life can't get any better than that," he says
of his many well-wishers. "Michigan people are beautiful people."
Down in the basement that Jessica is decorating with mementos
from her father's career, Mark points out a hole in the wall
where a boy threw a shoe during that boy-girl party. Jessica
turned 14 in June, and Mark can scarcely believe it. Which
reminds him of a story.
One weekend in the early '90s Fidrych made a charity appearance
in Columbus, Ohio. He had planned to return to Northboro on
Monday night and report for work on Tuesday morning while Ann and
Jessica were spending the week on Cape Cod. Upon hearing of this,
an old man in Columbus said to Fidrych, "You mean a man of your
status won't take the week off of work to be with your family?
You know, your daughter will be gone just like that." And the old
guy snapped his fingers.
"A man of your status'," says Fidrych with a laugh. "He kept
saying that: 'A man of your status.'"
So Mark drove down to the Cape in the morning and surprised his
wife and daughter on the beach. They told him they were glad that
he had come. "And so was I," says Fidrych. "Because it all goes
by so fast, you know?"
Fidrych, "I went, 'Wow! Free orange juice!'"
"but that ain't no small thing."
which her father is prominently featured.
the right place at exactly the right time."