Mark Fidrych and the search for meaning

June 23, 2022

As I was waiting for yesterday’s Strat-O-Matic online results to post, I called one of my oldest friends. He isn’t on Twitter or Facebook or anywhere else where I’ve been narrating for several weeks now about the exploits of an imaginary team, but he has caught wind of my doings. After we talked for a while about various things, a Paul McCartney concert he recently attended, the 1977 New York City blackout, national parks we might visit, there was a slight lull in the conversation.

“All right, man,” he said. “So what’s going on? What’s wrong?”


It all ended last night, the whole dream of getting Mark Fidrych 20 wins in an imaginary landscape. He was shaky from the start, allowing multiple baserunners in almost every inning, and after wriggling out of some early jams, the team he was facing started making him pay. The death blow was struck by Jeff Burroughs, who in the 6th inning pounded his second home run of the night with two men on to put Fidrych in a 5-0 hole. He lasted a few more batters and then was sent to the showers by the online game’s computer algorithm, which weighs a pitcher’s endurance against the damage he’s taken.

Earlier that day, as it happened, I’d had a session with my therapist. After many years of avoiding it, I finally started therapy a year or so ago. One area in which I’ve seen progress is in allowing myself to feel some things. Early on, she would ask me how certain things feel, how and where feelings are showing up in my body, and my answer would often be that I didn’t know. I’d numbed myself. Now I’m at least able to sometimes feel some things. It’s not always great, feeling, and I find myself having to guard against my numbness tendencies.

All that to say that when Mark Fidrych was removed from the game, I felt it all through my body, a sour and bristling tightening, like my body was a fist closing. I wrote on Twitter (for I was, as an insane person might do, writing “live tweets” about virtually every moment in the computerized simulation) that I wanted to put my fist through a wall. But the truth was I wanted to smash my whole clenched-fist body through a wall. Or wanted to smash body, wall, everything. I didn’t want to feel what I was feeling. I wanted to feel the other thing, what I’d hoped I’d be feeling. What Mark Fidrych made me feel when I first saw him as an 8-year-old: laughter, connection, happiness, joy. Even love.

If I’d been describing to my therapist the feeling in my body, that clenched fist, that bitter, frustrated drive to smash everything into smithereens, she’d ask me if I could remember the earliest time I’d had that feeling.

I see myself in my room in the house I grew up in, playing Strat-O-Matic alone. I’m edging out of childhood. The law of entropy is at work on my family. We’ll soon all be going our separate ways. And for me, into what? School has started to suck. Suck as in be terrible. Suck as in suck the life from me. I want some life from the dice in my hands.

The dice aren’t cooperating. I keep losing and losing. Powerless, losing. Fuck, fuck, FUCK!


A few years before that, I was in New York City with my brother, visiting our father, when all the lights went out: the 1977 blackout.

“That was a good part in your book,” my friend said over the phone yesterday. He meant Cardboard Gods, I think, though I also talked about the blackout a lot in my book on the 1977 movie The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training. I come back to it a lot.

“When you and your dad and your brother were going up the pitch black stairwell in his apartment building. You were all holding hands.”


My brother and I were about as old in that stairwell as my two sons are now. They’ve never been in a citywide blackout, but they’ve lived through, are living through, a pandemic. Throughout the pandemic, I periodically envisioned what was being lost for them in their one brief childhood by picturing a wooden model car.

From March 2020 on, this wooden model car sat in a Chicago parks district building. It was nearly finished. My older son needed only a couple more sessions of the woodshop class he was taking to finish it up, and then it would be ready for a citywide downhill derby race. That race was cancelled due to the pandemic. And so the car sat in the parks district building for weeks, months, years. If I allowed myself to think about it, it made me want to cry.

A few weeks ago, parks district classes started up again. My son was able to finish off his car. Painting it yellow with black racing stripes. Adding wooden letters on the side: STINGER.

The downhill derby race was rescheduled. This past Friday we all went, the whole family. On the way, I channeled Cyril’s dad in Breaking Away, the one who was always overly ready to comfort Cyril on his apparently inevitable failings.

“There’ll be a lot of other cars there. Who knows how it’ll go,” I said, trying to suggest with my tone that life is mostly about disappointment and losing, so it’s good to be prepared for that. But is it? Is that the attitude Mark Fidrych carried into his major league career? And even after his career was over, and he’d collected a measure of disappointment that few of us can even imagine, did he adopt an attitude of shrinking away from the world and from hope and from joy? It doesn’t seem that he did.

The card at the top of this page is the last of Mark Fidrych’s cards for Topps, not counting special series cards. I was noticing that it seems clearly to be from the same photo shoot as the picture chosen to be on a much later special series card that I used as the card to kick off this whole series. In the more recent card, a photo of a beaming Mark Fidrych is chosen. It more concisely represents Fidrych’s story as a happy one, which it was. But that photo was presumably also available to be used for the 1981 card at the top of this page, and Topps chose instead to use a photo of a more muted Fidrych, which perhaps made more sense to the card creators in the context of the time, as Fidrych at that point was a pitcher who had been struggling mightily for a few years, and who was, after all, about to disappear from the major leagues altogether.

Still, even in the muted 1981 version of Mark Fidrych, he isn’t adopting a stance of numbness or defeat. He isn’t beaming or glowing, but he’s not unhappy. He’s not unhopeful. He’s looking in for the sign. He’s ready to keep trying.


Not all the kids who’d made wooden model cars showed up at the citywide downhill derby. My older son’s woodshop teacher, who was one of the adults running the derby, let him know that he’d be needed not only to drive his own car but as a driver of other cars. Then he asked him what his younger brother’s name was.

“We’ll need him too.”

My older son got immediately pulled into the action as a driver of someone else’s car in the lightweight division. There wasn’t much to do as the driver, as the races were all about gravity: the cars were put at the top of a ramp and then set loose. Still, as Jack’s car kept avoiding elimination in the early heats, he and we became more and more excited. You want to win! You want to have that feeling.

At the beginning of each heat, after handing over a car to the adult manning the top of the ramp, the driver then moved to the end of the runway, to the finish line. As Jack’s car kept surviving heats, Jack began skipping or maybe even more accurately dancing from the starting line to the finish line. His body was electrified.

As I was waiting last night for my Strat-O-Matic results to post, waiting to see if Mark Fidrych could notch his 20th win, I rewatched the famous Monday night game in 1976 when he beat the Yankees. Near the end of the game, Fidrych started moving around exactly like my son. Or put another way, as my son neared the possibility of victory, he was moving around with the same electrified jerkiness of Mark Fidrych, hero of my childhood, hero of childhood, hero of joy.


The downhill derby turned out to be one of the greatest nights in the life of my family. Jack won the lightweight division, and then in the midweight division both he and his brother made the finals, and this time, as if the gods themselves had decided to shine the light of heaven directly on us, my younger boy won first place while Jack took fourth. And in the final race, the heavyweight division, Jack’s Stinger made it all the way to the finals against a strong field of the fastest, sturdiest wooden model cars in Chicago, and in the finals he added a third-place trophy to his winnings. The organizers called over all the first place winners for a photo, and the literal picture of victory was 67% my offspring, their arms overloaded with ribbons and trophies.


I don’t know, despite the title of this post, what any of this means, but I know that just thinking about Mark Fidrych or my son moving around like their veins are full of joy-lightning has swept the clenched-fist feeling from my body. And I know that like Mark Fidrych in the photo at the top of this page I’m going to keep leaning in to look for a sign.


  1. Unfortunately for Bird the future was unequally unkind…such is life.

  2. Congratulations to your two sons.
    Really enjoyed this post and this series in general from start to finish. I think there’s a whole book that could be pulled from the experience should you choose. I’d read it.

  3. After reading your tweets this morning (I would have been live with you if only I had read the blog earlier), I was half hoping the Bird might come in for a relief appearance in game 162 to try and steal that elusive 20th win. But after reading this post, I am much more at peace with the outcome. It was wonderful to hear the success and joy of your sons. You can be sure that joy is in no small part an extension from you!

  4. Thank you for writing this series. I wasn’t quite old enough to experience the phenomenon of The Bird as it was happening in 1976 (I was 5 and not yet really aware of MLB). My first baseball love was the 1979 We R Fam-A-Lee Pittsburgh Pirates. When I learned about The Bird in the early 1980s, I wished I had experienced it live.

  5. Perhaps The Bird was destined to win 19 like 1976. A friend of mine recently replayed the 1976 Tigers. Fidrych was 17-10: https://www.tapatalk.com/groups/stratomaticbaseballvillage/detroit-tigers-patriotic-1976-replay-t19404349.html

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