Mark Fidrych, 1978April 16, 2009
I don’t understand this life. For example, I don’t understand my baseball card collection. For example, I don’t understand why I have a Tigers team card from 1978 with the box next to Mark Fidrych’s name filled in without having a 1978 Mark Fidrych card in my collection.
There hadn’t been a Mark Fidrych card in 1976, the year he suddenly appeared at the center of the baseball world as if from thin air. I must have spent the summer of 1977 hoping for a Mark Fidrych card, but I know I never got one because my 1977 Tigers team card has a blank check box next to his name. The check box on this 1978 Tigers team card suggests that in 1978 I finally got my first Mark Fidrych card. I don’t understand why I no longer have this card.
I doubt I’m the only one who has spent the last couple days reading stories about Mark Fidrych, whose funeral will be held tomorrow. (According to MLB.com there will be a visitation today at a church in his hometown; please see the MLB.com story for information on the charities the family is encouraging people to give to in lieu of flowers.) One recurring element of the stories I’ve been reading is that you can’t hang on to anything. Mark Fidrych said it best himself, in a great 2001 Sports Illustrated article by Steve Rushin: “It all goes by so fast.”
When he uttered those words, he was talking not about his fame or his brilliant pitching skills, but about how he was trying to spend as much time with his wife and daughter as possible. He was talking about life. That’s the other element that keeps coming up in the stories about Mark Fidrych. Even though it’s impossible to hang onto anything forever, Mark Fidrych hung on tight as long as he could to the things that mattered.
When I was a kid I vowed that I’d hang on to my childhood by remembering everything. I said this to myself because it seemed to me that adults didn’t remember what it was like to be a kid. I was going to be different. When I grow up, I vowed, I’m going to still have everything I ever had. I’m going to remember what it felt like to stand in the on deck circle and hold an aluminum bat with fraying black tape on the handle. I’m going to remember what it felt like to eat runny scrambled eggs at a neighbor’s house. I’m going to remember what it felt like to be scared of the dark. I’m going to remember what it felt like to listen for the first time to my brand new 45 of Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s A Winner.” I’m going to remember what it felt like to watch Mark Fidrych pitch.
I’m going to remember what it felt like to get my first Mark Fidrych card.
Incredibly enough, the most beautiful part of the brief, wondrous life of Mark Fidrych was not the dream summer he gave as a gift to us all in 1976 but rather how he dealt with the viciously quick dissolution of that dream. In all the “Where are they now?” stories, Fidrych comes across as a humble, friendly man devoted to his family and friends. He’s not some homily-spouting robot either, but flesh and blood, a guy capable of admitting that it hurt badly to have his baseball days behind him. This kind of hurt, coupled with the obvious fact that because of injuries and the history of salaries and surgery that he’d barely missed gaining the kind of wealth that grants immunity from having to bust ass to make ends meet, could easily have made Fidrych bitter. Who would have blamed him? But even when he expressed a flicker of bitterness, such as when in a TV special from the mid-1980s he rued the fact that he hadn’t ever been called to do a cameo on Magnum P.I., it comes across as one more magic trick from the Bird, the metallic sheen of bitterness turned human, harmless, even humorous.
And so this is all that’s left of my first Mark Fidrych card: a faint crude pencil-scribble on the back of a photo of the Tigers. I don’t remember the moment I filled in the check box. I don’t remember the card. I certainly don’t remember losing the card.
What do you do when the thing you value most starts slipping from your grasp? When this happened to the Bird, he hung on. He hung on to the dream of being a major league baseball player even in the face of debilitating injuries and the ignominy of having to scuffle in the minors. I think it’s important to note that he hung on not to fame and glory but to the game itself, and more specifically to his love of the game. I’ve posted this video below before, but it’s worth taking another look to see how Fidrych reacts at the end of a 1982 minor league win.
By 1982 he was far removed from being the most famous and celebrated athlete in the country, the Rolling Stone cover-boy, far removed from having electrifying stuff, far removed, it seems, from even being able to record the final out without stumbling to the ground like a rec league player who’s downed a six of Strohs during the course of the game. But he knows how sweet it is to be in the game, to be on a team, and to be on a team lucky enough to find a way to win that day. His instinct is not to shrug off the victory as if it doesn’t matter, as if a minor league win is somehow below him, and neither is it to exult in the self-aggrandizing style of many current pro athletes, as if he had won the game all by himself. His instinct is to be happy and, since happiness only exists when shared, to immediately share that happiness with his teammates, bounding into the scrum of minor league nobodies. He was always this way, even at the height of his fame. We did it, he always seemed to be saying, passing on thanks to as many people as he could get his hands on, not merely slapping backs and palms but reaching out to everyone and with a grateful happy grip hanging on.