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Mark Fidrych, 1978

April 16, 2009

1978-tigers-back

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.

12 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing that video, Josh, and for emphasizing the humility and humanity that Fidrych always seemed to display. It’s such a pleasure to see someone taking pure joy in doing their work well.

    {P.S. Belated congratulations on your book plans, too. I’ll be looking forward to it.}


  2. Great pieces here by you and also, the one linked to by Steve Rushin, which is just fantastic and sad. I’m having these crazy experiences here reading this stuff and thinking — I gotta show this one to my dad — and realizing oh, yeah, him too. What a month.


  3. Your blog makes me think of the most fantastic things. I haven’t thought of this in years.

    I remember as a kid I loved my legos. I loved a lot of other toys, but I really liked those legos. This was before every lego box came with a picture and instructions on how to put them together, as if they are nothing more than a model. I would build these fantastic, elaborate (to me) worlds populated with those little lego people.

    My lego world was ruled by a king. It was later that I realized that I used to be a communist. In this kingdom everyone had a family and a job and was happy. Everyone made exactly as much money as they needed for their family, despite what their job was. Nobody got or needed any more than that. Nobody wanted more than that. It was utopia. (I promise I have a point).

    I remember thinking the following (Seriously, I remember the room I was in and what the lego village looked like when I thought this): “I will always want to play with my legos.” I knew that grownups didn’t play with legos, or any of my other favorite toys. I vowed that that wouldn’t happen to me. I will always play with them and I will always want to play with them. I won’t just remember what it felt like. I won’t need to remember because I will still be playing with them. Indefinately.

    I can’t think of a single time (although there surely was) that I played with the legos after that day. I think maybe I thought that because I knew it would never happen. I would grow up just like everyone else and I wouldn’t want to play with my legos anymore and it wasn’t too far off. And, I knew that sucked.

    I think maybe Fidrych somehow never lost his joy the way everyone else seems to. I wish I was more like him.


  4. I kept all my Lego from my childhood and now I play with them all the time with my kids! They love them as much as I did.

    One of the great things about having kids is reliving the toys and joys of your own childhood.

    Don’t even get me started on Hot Wheel tracks!


  5. The only comparison to Mark Fidrych 1976 is the Beatles 1964.


  6. Thanks for such a well-rounded tribute. I bet Fidrych would’ve remembered what it was like to be afraid of the dark, or stand in some little league on-deck circle (although he ,like I, predated the aluminum bat thing).

    “It all goes by so fast”….As someone now past fifty, probably older than most that post here, I gotta tell you it goes faster and faster every year (well, except for the endless winter this year), so like you say, find the things that matter and hold on…tight.

    Also, thanks to your last couple paragraphs, I feel even better about the part of my life spent playing in a kind of anti-cover band cover band that provides about a third of my meager income. I don’t care if it’s minor league; it’s sweet to be in the game, it’s sweet to be on a team (esp. one where everyone likes each other), and it’s sweet to be on a team that finds a way to win (ie keep working). The 50 or so people that got off with us each night last weekend aren’t any less human than the 2,000 that paid a hundred-some bucks a ticket to see the “Lion King” down the street those same nights.


  7. I always loved this card:


  8. Willie Horton gave one of the eulogies today:
    Fidrych’s free spirit honored…

    And here’s an article about yesterday’s visitation:
    Hundreds mourn…


  9. Josh, A big part of my childhood in Detroit was spent at Michigan & Trumball watching games in the cheap seats when I was 7-8 years old. I remember Tito Fuentes tapping his bat on home plate, then spinning it one rotation and catching it perfectly by the handle, Steve Kemp “twirling” his bat before swinging, and Mark “The Bird” Fidrych pitching complete games (when it was still fashionable), while playing in the dirt and talking to himself. I am fortunate enough to still possess not only an unmarked Team Checklist from the 1978 Topps Collection, but a Mark Fidrych card as well! I’m not a card trader or dealer, but an average guy, so I’m not motivated by the sale, but if you are interested, I would be happy to work something out. In terms of “condition”, I would probably call it Near Mint, because there is a slight crease on the bottom left corner. Have no idea what price it is bringing on the market, but happy to offer it if a reasonable amount is offered. Please feel free to follow up with me if you are interested.


  10. seantaffe:
    Thanks very much for your memories of the Tigers players our childhood. I appreciate it. Thanks also for the offer about the ’78 Fidrych. This is probably going to sound weird, but one of the things I love about my collection is its gaps, even the ones that don’t even seem to make sense. (To quote the Violent Femmes: It reminds me of me.)


  11. I confess that the Bird’s passing struck me very hard. I was never a Tigers fan per se. But, like most kids of the 1970′s, everyone loved Fidrych. What a person. What a human being. What a natural personality. So unabashed at showing childlike emotion. So thankkful for everything he had in life (even if dealt some shitty cards). A big part of my childhood dies with the Bird. He is everything baseball should be, and doesn’t seem to be any more. I’m glad, Josh, you addressed his passing with all the grace he deserved . . . I expected nothing less from you. That all-star card (1977) of his does seem to evoke everything the Bird was. I love that card. That moppy care-free hair, and that ever present contagious smile . . . life never dealt Fidrych lemons. Damn he’ll be missed.


  12. This might be an interesting place for all you Fidrych fans to visit.

    http://www.metrowestdailynews.com/features/x1291971655/Northborough-Historical-Society-honors-Mark-The-Bird-Fidrych



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