Mark Fidrych, 1979February 23, 2009
“Whenever you think you’ve got it made, that you’re irreplaceable, you’re wrong.” – Mark Fidrych
I chose the first baseball card to ever feature on this site by reaching blindly into my unsorted box of old baseball cards. Amazingly, I pulled out the card I might have chosen if I had a lifetime to think about the choice: my one and only Mark Fidrych card. I tried to write about how happy he made me when I was eight years old, in 1976, and about how his card from 1980, the year I edged unwillingly from boyhood to something else altogether, seemed to suggest the feeling that the fleeting joy he’d authored over the course of one beautiful summer had slipped from his fingers for good.
A few weeks ago my old boarding school buddy, Ben, added this 1979 card to my collection. The back of the card leans with less smothering intensity on the player’s lone spectacular season (i.e., there are no cartoons or bullet text lists about 1976), and the card also has no evidence of any loss of effectiveness in the ensuing seasons, just injury troubles: as of 1979, Fidrych, despite being riddled with arm woes that had limited him to 81 and 22 innings in 1977 and 1978, respectively, had yet to post an ERA above 3.00. His lifetime ERA of 2.47 and his age (he was still just 24), gave the back of the card, despite the shrinking yearly stats, a small but undeniable aura of hope.
But the front of the card photo pushes that hope into something closer to desperation. Here is a guy just trying to hang on, banished to the far edge of the field, the screen thrown up to guard him from foul balls seemingly as flimsy and haphazardly placed as the sparse mustache on his face. You can see Fidrych breathing, his furred lips pursed, forcing the breath out instead of letting it come and go naturally, doubts tumbling in his mind.
Imagine being forced to leave it all behind. You’ll cling to the margins. You’ll try to throw a few pitches without wincing, a few pitches that might allow you to move back across that white chalk line, back into the only world you ever loved.
As I understand it, Fidrych returned to his home in Massachusetts when it was all over and found a way to make a living and make a life. He always seemed like a good guy, generous of spirit and without a mean bone in his body, and he still seems to be that same good guy. The most recent reference to him I can find in the news is a small Michigan newspaper reporting that Fidrych, all these years after fading from the Tigers’ plans just as they were climbing toward glory, returns every year to Michigan to support the Special Olympics through a charity founded by Vic Wertz called The Wertz Warriors.
His essential good nature shines through in the video clip below, a 1985 interview with him that also shows Fidrych expressing some of the pain and even bitterness he felt upon being forced out of the game. But even when talking of dealing with his first dark days back home after his career had ended by going on chainsaw-weilding tree-massacres, Fidrych still has a gleam in his eyes, as if he knows not to take anything too seriously. He’s still at heart the same frizzy-haired kid shown bounding around the field during the interview in clips from the golden year of 1976.
I wanted to find video that showed more of him during that season, but the only other video clip I could find of Fidrych was from years later, a short recap of a game he pitched in the minor leagues in 1982, still trying to hang on. At first I was disappointed I couldn’t find visual evidence of Mark Fidrych at his best, but then I saw how the video ended, with a man who was no longer young still bounding around in the center of celebrating teammates, still happy, still The Bird. Everyone’s going to have to move from one world to the next eventually, but maybe there are things that can’t be taken from you at the border.