Archive for the ‘Mark Fidrych’ Category

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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.

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How to watch Mark Fidrych go for 20 wins

June 22, 2022

As reported last night, the Worcester Birds have been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. But one meaningful game remains. Mark Fidrych has won his last 3 starts to push his record to 19 wins and 7 losses, and he will start game 161.

In real life, he fell just shy of 20 games in his dream season of 1976, and injuries scuttled any hopes of his ever getting anywhere close to that again. I’m rooting for the virtual avatar based on his 1977 season to achieve this landmark as hard as I’ve rooted for anything for a while. I want to imagine him mowing them down one last time at the center of the world. I want to imagine him at the end in the middle of a happy pile-on at the mound.

The game will not be available to follow on TV or radio, of course, because it’s not actually happening, but as soon as it’s available to view on the Strat-O-Matic Online site, I’ll be on Twitter (@josh_wilker) relaying the moment-by-moment results as the game unfolds before my eyes. The Strat-O-Matic online games are usually posted around 11 P.M. ET/ 10 P.M. CT. As soon as I see them up there I’ll send out a heads-up tweet that I’ll be cracking open the game-view engine 10 minutes later so that, if you happen to be interested in seeing how this all plays out, you’ll have time to finish up your marathon Wednesday night lovemaking session or clipping your toenails or whatever.

If you’re not up for venturing into the hellscape that is Twitter, I also hope to post a recap on this page tomorrow, if I haven’t wandered off weeping into the wilderness. Either way, thanks for following along this far. It’s made a lifelong solitary compulsion into something closer to joy, which of course only ever exists when shared. For that I thank you, and I thank Mark Fidrych.

Game time (approximate)

  • 11 P.M. ET/10 P.M. CT

Pitchers

  • Mark Fidrych, 19-7, 4.06 ERA
  • Mike Flanagan, 13-15, 4.47 ERA

Lineup, Bronx Dream Team (visitor)

  • Lenny Randle, 2B
  • Steve Ontiveros, 3B
  • Tim McCarver, C
  • Jim Rice, LF
  • Jeff Burroughs, RF
  • Lou Piniella, 1B
  • Alvis Woods, DH
  • Bill Almon, SS
  • Paul Dade, CF

Lineup, Worcester Birds (home)

  • Glenn Burke, DH
  • Joe Morgan, 2B
  • Ken Singleton, RF
  • Eric Soderholm, 3B
  • Thurman Munson, C
  • Lyman Bostock, LF
  • Ron Jackson, 1B
  • César Gerónimo, CF
  • Larry Bowa, SS
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Box score, game 156

June 21, 2022

The Birds got trounced in games 154 and 155 and fell to 2 games behind in their division. Another loss would put them either 2 or 3 games out with just 6 to go. They needed a strong start from their ace to stay alive. Here’s what happened:

Their division rivals lost their own game 156, so Mark Fidrych’s 19th win brings the Worcester Birds back to one game out of the division lead with 6 to play.

***

Worcester Birds game notes:

  • G154: L 5-0
    • The Birds fan 12 times against Jerry Koosman.
  • G155: L 10-4
    • How can this team even be in the race at all with flammable rookie Mario Soto (8 runs in 1.1 innings) starting big games?
  • G156: W 10-1 (Fidrych 19-7)
    • Soderholm hits a grand slam to back a complete game victory for Fidrych. Still alive, but the future is iffy. One game back on the standings, plus Morgan is hurt and will miss game 157. Also, Bird can only start one more game, which means some wins are needed from the other starting pitchers, Tiant, Capilla, Moskau, and Soto, whose salaries are all lower than each of the pitchers they’ll be facing, whose combined salary is lower than two of the six opposing pitchers, and whose “you get what you pay for” ERAs are 5.42, 6.91, 4.98, and 6.83, respectively.

***

Standings after 156 games:

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Mark Fidrych: What If?

June 9, 2022

After stopping a losing streak for my imaginary Worcester Birds squad with his 5th straight win in his last 5 starts, Mark Fidrych’s win-loss record now stands at 15-6. Barring injury (always a distinct possibility  with the brittleness embedded in the Strat-O-Matic card based on his 1977 season), Fidrych will get 9 more starts, i.e., 9 chances to collect the 5 wins needed to reach the 20-win plateau.

Who cares? It’s not real, for one thing, and for another, the 20-win mark isn’t seen the way it used to be. It used to be everything, and now it, or win totals in general, are viewed by many as a somewhat arbitrary echo of a pitcher’s performance, the decibal level of the echo leaning heavily on factors beyond the control of whatever original yawp was made by the pitcher. Jacob deGrom’s exploits in recent years, for example, revealed that judging his performance by his wins, or lack thereof, would be in the same neighborhood of illogical thinking as deeming Buddy Biancalana as a better shortstop than Ernie Banks because the former was, unlike the latter, a “World Series winner.”

But I still care about pitcher wins, at least in the context of this experiment. I want Fidrych to reach the 20-win milestone he fell just short of in 1976, and I think I’m also trying to prove, or at least suggest, that if Fidrych hadn’t gotten hurt, he would have gone on to have a good career.

There are some indications against this, chiefly Fidrych’s low strikeout rate, along with a very low batting average by opponents in 1976 against Fidrych on balls hit in play. Virtually every pitcher who has had a long, productive career has had, at the start of their careers, a significantly higher strikeout rate than Fidrych. (I am almost positive I learned this from the great baseball writer Rob Neyer, but I can’t find the article in which I remember him exploring vividly the disillusioning indications of Fidrych’s strikeout rate.) And batting average on balls hit in play seems to level off into a general average for all pitchers, a fairly clear indication that Fidrych was, in 1976 (and in Strat-O-Matic terms), getting all the rolls, something that surely would have leveled off as the years went on.

That’s why his 1977 Strat-O-Matic card is the better starting point for a “what if” experiment than his 1976 card. In 1977, his great control and his ability to limit the number of home runs he allowed are still in play, but more hits were falling in safely than they had the previous year. He wasn’t blowing anyone away. But could his approach—basically, throw strikes at the knees over the black edges of the plate—have carried him through a productive career if injuries hadn’t intervened?

Indications thus far through my online Strat-O-Matic season are that he just might have pulled that off. Of course, some middle aged schmo’s online fantasy team results hardly rate as compelling evidence, but if you can take a leap of faith into considering them as such, the Strat-O-Matic card at the top of this page adds an interesting extension to that evidence. It’s a Strat-O-Matic representation of Lew Burdette’s 1958 season, one of Burdette’s best in a long, successful career, and it’s virtually identical to Fidrych’s 1977 card: no walks, no home runs, and a fair but not overwhelming number of hits.

Through his career, Burdette generally allowed more hits than innings pitched, didn’t strike out many guys, didn’t walk many guys, and didn’t allow a lot of home runs. He pitched like Mark Fidrych. This isn’t just a statistical mirroring. Burdette was, like Fidrych, exceedingly fidgety on the mound, often to the distraction of batters, and as he navigated his way through games he talked out loud to himself, which is what Fidrych was doing when people thought he was talking to the ball. Burdette stayed healthy, unlike Fidrych, and piled up 203 career wins, including two 20-win seasons.

The most fascinating element in playing “what if” with Mark Fidrych is that when injures were erasing him from the game, a tremendous core of young players was materializing on his team, the Tigers. What’s more, they were exactly what a pitcher who relies heavily on his defense would pray for: gold-glove-level fielding at every position in the middle of the field: Lance Parrish at catcher, Chet Lemon in centerfield, and Hall-of-Fame shortstop Alan Trammell and his (should be) Hall-of-Fame partner at second base, Lou Whitaker. The only up-the-middle defense equal to what Fidrych would have had behind him was that of the Big Red Machine.

Half of that Reds core, Joe Morgan and César Gerónimo, is backing Fidrych on my imaginary team, and they’re joined by fellow gold glove winners Thurman Munson and Larry Bowa. With this core behind him, a core similar to what he would had in Detroit had he been able to stay healthy, Fidrych’s record stands at 15-6.

Based on this, I see an alternative history taking shape, not for my benefit but because I wish it for Fidrych, who deserved more than what he got. I see several seasons, none of them as golden as 1976 but good and full of winning, sometimes deep into October.

Fidrych’s predecessor in statistics and Strat-O-Matic cards and twitches and self-babble, Lew Burdette, once won three games in a single World Series.

What if Mark Fidrych had gotten that far, with Whitaker and Trammell behind him? Is it so hard to imagine him winning and winning and winning?

***

Worcester Birds game notes:

  • G112: L 6-0
    • A reliever I don’t remember, Bruce Taylor, tosses 4 scoreless innings to help Dennis Martinez totally stifle the Birds.
  • G113: L 5-2
    • Another weak offensive showing, and Lee struggles, dropping to 2-7.
  • G114: L 9-0
    • The team follows its return to first in its previous series with its weakest series of the year, getting outscored 20 to 2 (and dropping like a rock out of first). 
  • G115: L 4-1
    • Stagnant hitting (now with 3 runs in 36 innings) wastes a decent start by Tiant. 
  • G116: W 4-3 (Fidrych 15-6)
    • Fidrych stops the losing streak with 1 earned run in 6 innings, notching his 5th win in his last 5 starts. Singleton homers and drives in 2.
  • G117: W 9-5
    • Bostock leads a revived offense with 3 runs, 2 hits, and 4 RBI. Campbell hurls 4 scoreless innings for save.

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Happiness

June 1, 2022

This video clip of a few minutes of a young man playing ball (shared out recently in a tweet by the peerless 1970s baseball raconteur Dan Epstein) is nothing special, and that’s the most amazing thing about it. Mark Fidrych only ever existed to most of us at the center of a glowing, cacophonous cultural phenomenon. You could see within that phenomenon his sincerity, his genuine enthusiasm, his humanity, but you also heard the cheers and chanting surrounding him, crashing down on him, saw the crackling heat lightning of a pop culture explosion, felt in the crowd that you joined instantly and completely something sunny but nonetheless ravenous, something like need. All of that is mostly absent from this clip, save for a few moments during which Fidrych signs a few autographs for kids. For the most part it’s just a guy doing something he loves. If you’re reading this you love it too, most likely, even if you haven’t done it in a while. Waiting your turn, and then taking it, gripping a bat in your hands, the pitch coming in, the crack of connection. What’s better?

You don’t know how much time you’re going to get in the box, and if you’re not careful you waste most of it worrying about things that don’t matter that much. Roger Angell, the great baseball writer, lived to 101. Mark Fidrych’s time was cut a lot shorter, but like Angell he made the most of the time he had. Angell and Fidrych crossed paths occasionally in the 1970s, and in one of those moments, during the Bird’s spectacular 1976 season, Angell did what he did best: he payed attention to what matters. A bunch of writers had surrounded Fidrych, and one of them asked the rookie about endorsements.

“What’s come your way so far, Mark?”

Fidrych thought for an instant and then smiled almost shyly. “Happiness,” he said.

from Five Seasons, by Roger Angell

***

Worcester Birds game notes:

  • G91: L 7-6 (Fidrych 10-6)
    • Staked to a 3-1 lead, Fidrych delivers a stinkbomb, surrendering 12 hits and 5 runs in 4.1 innings
  • G92: W 6-5 (15 innings)
    • Nothing is coming easy anymore. Tekulve pitches 3 scoreless for the win, and Munson collects 5 hits, including the hit that starts a 2-run game-tying rally in the 9th.
  • G93: L 8-2
    • Kucek is injured early and will be out for a while; Campbell is shelled; and Singleton keeps up his specialty of hitting well throughout the team’s tailspin.
  • G94: L 9-4
    • Doug Bird is battered, and he, the injured Kucek, and Larry Dierker are all on the chopping block. But why? Replacing their shitty pitching with other shitty pitching is probably not going to keep this ship from sinking.
  • G95: W 5-4
    • Another rare win, and another of the rare wins that’s a one-run squeaker. The heroes today are Morgan with 3 hits and McClure with 3 scoreless innings for the save.      
  • G96: W 3-0 (Fidrych 11-6)
    • Two wins in a row! And a winning margin of more than one run! And a Fidrych win on top of it! Marring things a little is the decision by the Ostrich to remove the Bird with two outs in the 9th, robbing him of a chance to earn his second shutout. (Geronimo, who collected two hits in the game, secures the last out with a spectacular catch in center field.) After the game, injured Jack Kucek and profoundly ineffective Doug Bird (7.09 ERA) and Larry Dierker (7.97 ERA) are cut and replaced by three other even cheaper options, collectively, all with a significant presence in the Cardboard Gods archives:
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in and out of the garden he goes

May 12, 2022

This image is from an MLB documentary on Mark Fidrych. If you’re familiar with a particular musical terrain, you’ll recognize the band associated with the skull and roses design on his shirt, even if you can’t make out the lettering around the design. As you can see, Fidrych is smiling, if not beaming. You might guess that he’s describing a high point in one of the concerts of this favorite band of his. But in fact at this point in the documentary he’s in the middle of looking back at and describing the spring training injury in 1977 that proved to be the beginning of the end of his time at the very top of major league baseball and American pop culture and some kind of miraculous expression of joy. Those of us who love Mark Fidrych always want this part to have gone differently. We want him to have been able to keep pitching like he did in 1976, keep showing us the way to life as a game to be grateful for and to enjoy. He surely wanted it to go differently too. He was a fierce competitor, for one thing. Also, he knew right from the start the gift he was given, and he didn’t want to squander it. I’ve been trying to bring him back in hopes of extending his moment of pristine excellence, but it’s been more ambivalent than that so far, with glimpses of the untouchable Bird occluded by messy pummelings, and maybe that’s just as well, because it pushes me deeper into the mystery of Mark Fidrych. He was in the garden, pure, perfect, and then he wasn’t. But he kept trying to get back for years, even spending two seasons beyond his last major league game struggling at minor league Pawtucket. More than that, beyond that, he seems to have kept a hold on the gratitude and capacity for love and happiness that he expressed to the world during 1976. How did he continue to push on through? How did he get to the other side? He was in the garden, pure, perfect, and he goofily leapt for a lazy, fungo fly ball and landed somewhere else, outside that garden, somewhere much closer to where most of us spend our days. What’s your secret, Bird? How can you look back on what was lost and still smile?

***

As for the Bird’s imaginary team: I could use some help. In the Strat-O-Matic online league I’m in, you can dump a guy through game 42 and be able to apply 95% of their salary to picking up a free agent. Between game 43 and game 81, you get 90% of a cut player’s salary, and after game 81 you get 80%. The Worcester Birds are through 36 games, so if I’m going to make any moves, I’d be wise to make them now. The team is in first, barely, and they’ve been generally doing what they’ve been designed to do, on a team level: hit well and field well behind Mark Fidrych. Fidrych, for his part, has been up and down, great at home and lousy on the road (see game notes below), and anyway he’s certainly not going anywhere. But I am considering moves involving a couple of the underperforming hitters.

If you want to general manage along with me, the Worcester Birds stats are here.

In addition to the stats, I’m considering if the player has a message to add to this exercise in reading the dice rolls throughout a season to try to figure out my own life. I don’t know if you can help with that, but for example dropping a struggling Keith Hernandez for Ed Kranepool appeals to me not just because it would free up some salary for other trouble spots (such as possibly replacing doomed Dan Thomas in the lineup, possibly with offseason gravedigger and Massachusetts native Richie Hebner, and upgrading run-hemorrhagers Mike Marshall and Bob Stanley on the pitching staff) but also because I don’t have any strong personal associations with Keith Hernandez, while Ed Kranepool pulls me to 1977, Shea Stadium, sitting beside my brother and my father, the latter oblivious to the terrible baseball unfolding on the field below, instead reading the New York Times through the whole game and plugging his ears and grimacing every few minutes as a LaGuardia jet roars overhead.

***

Worcester Birds notes, games 31 through 36:

  • G31: L 12-2
    • Fidrych surrenders 7 hits and 3 runs in 4, earning the loss, and Mingori mops up with a filthy mop (11 hits and 9 runs in 4 innings).
  • G32: L 3-2
    • Lee leaves the game in the 8th with the score 1-1, but the runner he left on second is allowed in by the bullpen, and he gets his third hard-luck loss. He’s 0-3, the only pitcher on the team without a win, despite having the lowest ERA of any starter.
  • G33: L 6-3
    • Marshall gives up 5 runs in 5 innings. Burke with 3 hits in loss.  
  • G34: L 6-4
    •  Tiant extends his scoreless streak to 19 innings but then falters, hitting the showers in the 6th, and Tekulve serves up a gopher ball to Evans in the 8th to decide the game.
  • G35: W 6-4
    • The team stops a season-high 5-game losing streak by rallying furiously with 3 runs in the bottom of the 8th and a game-winning two-run homer by Bostock in the bottom of the 9th. McClure pitches 2 scoreless innings for the win.
  • G36: W 4-0
    • Fidrych and Campbell combine on a 4-hit shutout. Fidrych, now 4-3 on the season, is two different pitchers so far: great at home (2.55 ERA), lost on the road (5.74 ERA).

Standings:

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Through Eight

May 5, 2022

Through eight innings, Mark Fidrych has not allowed a hit.

This breathless moment of anticipation and hope never actually happened in real life. But what even is real life? Everything is always changing, even things that have already happened, so maybe what we think of as “what really happened” is merely a first draft, and there are infinite revisions of that draft. In one revision that’s currently unfolding in a simulated baseball league and in my mind and in these words, Mark Fidrych is through eight innings and has not allowed a hit.

In his actual career, the closest he came to a no-hitter was the first time he started a major league game, on May 15, 1976, when he racked up 6 no-hit innings against the Cleveland Indians before Buddy Bell opened the seventh with a single, and Rick Manning followed with another single, and that was about it for the Indians that day. That 2-hitter that launched the Bird’s magical 1976 run would still be standing at the end of his career as his game with the fewest hits allowed in any of his 56 major league starts. He had a lot of talent as a pitcher, but he wasn’t unhittable. His astounding success in 1976, in which he went from a complete unknown to the best pitcher in baseball, rested on his ability to lock in, to flap and pace and pump himself into a goofy magnetic shamanic trance, which in turn enabled his near flawless execution of the simple impossible Prime Directive of Pitching: keep the ball low and throw fuckin strikes.

He didn’t have Nolan Ryan’s stomach-hollowing 100-MPH fastball, Steve Carlton’s brutal, misanthropic slider, Bert Blyleven’s limb-locking curveball, Phil Niekro’s irrational, decentering knuckleball, Gaylord Perry’s lawless, diving spitter. He didn’t glower and terrify like Goose Gossage or spin and hesitate and obfuscate like Luis Tiant. He didn’t overpower anyone or trick anyone or confuse anyone. He just threw pitch after pitch that traced a sizzling line at the knees of the batter and over the black stripe on one side or another of the plate. And while that was enough for him to pitch better than anyone in the world for one year, it didn’t strip from opposing hitters the ability to make contact with his pitches. He was never unhittable.

That was one of the beautiful things about the summer of the Bird. He knew he couldn’t do it alone. When a teammate made a good play for him he bubbled over with appreciation, pointing, gesturing, smiling, talking. Always talking! Waving to the fans, beaming, amazed—of course he couldn’t do it without us either. Shaking hands with the ump! Shaking hands with the cop! Talking, always talking. Even to the ball, of course to the ball. The most famous thing about him: he talked to the ball! And why not? Isn’t there a beating spirit alive in everything, all things, all beings? Isn’t this world all one thing in a million billion pieces, held together—if it’s held together and not falling apart—by love?

I was a kid when I saw all that, and I’ve never gotten over it, and I never want to. I was a curly-headed boy, eight years old, weird and happy and scared and overpowered and in love with baseball and the world. He was me, I was him. It was the same story for anyone who saw him—he was us, the way we wanted to be and the way we wanted the world to be.

He started flickering out the next year, and soon enough after that he was gone.

Except he’s not gone. That was the first draft, and we’ve been finding new ways to revise him ever since. I found a new way myself the other night, lying in bed. Before going to sleep, I checked to see if the latest three games for my Strat-O-Matic online baseball league had been posted, and they had, so I checked the score of the first game, a 14-inning win, and imagined that the dramatic nature of that win, along with the team’s early sprint toward the top of their division, built extra electricity for the following game, Mark Fidrych’s third start. His first start had gone poorly, and the second start had been decent, good enough for a win. Nothing spectacular yet, no signs of the Bird in full flight. But maybe this game would be different.

Instead of going straight to the box score for the result of the game, I clicked on the replay feature, in which the game unfolds in a gradual, no-frills readout of batters’ and pitchers’ names and at-bat results and the progression of runners around the bases. I lay there in the dark next to my curly-headed younger son, who had fallen asleep between my wife and me. My wife played a Tetris-like game on her phone, her end-of-day ritual. My son was on his stomach, and his back rose and fell slowly with his breathing.

Inning gave way to inning without a hit for the opposing team. I imagined the building din around the frenetic broad-shouldered stalking concentration of the Bird, imagined his appreciation for Geronimo making a running over-the-shoulder grab, for Bowa making a tremendous backhanded stop and throw to a fully-extended Hernandez at first. It wasn’t a flawless game for the Bird. He made an error in the first, surrendered a walk in the sixth. And in the bottom of the eighth, after Hernandez botched a grounder, allowing Paul Blair to reach, he seemed to lose focus altogether and walked two men to load the bases. At this point I was barely breathing at all. I imagined Thurman Munson rising from behind the plate and walking slowly, grumpily, to the mound. Can you see this? I can, or I’m trying to. The lean excitable long-haired smooth-cheeked pitcher jerky, shifty, unspooling, spinning out, the lumpy unshaven catcher not moving at all, glowering, trying to look his pitcher in the eye. Finally he thumps him in the chest with his mitt, and not lightly, to bring the pitcher’s darting gaze to his own. Now he can deliver his message clean and clear: Keep the ball low and throw fuckin strikes.  

And so Fidrych gets the next batter, a soft looper to Bowa, to end the eighth inning, stranding a runner at every base. Can you see it? The Bird applauds Bowa again, points to Munson (who ignores him, or appears to), and bounds toward the dugout in a way that makes it seem that beneath the stadium turf is an enormous trampoline. The whole place is going absolutely berserk.

Through eight innings, Mark Fidrych has not allowed a hit.

***

Part of me wants to leave it there, with the possibility still alive that he’s going to make it all the way, that three more outs will come and go without a hit, that the team will swarm Mark Fidrych and carry him off on their shoulders. But what actually happens is maybe also OK. Maybe it’s more like real life, but still with some magic. He gives up a hit to the lead-off batter, Bob Watson. He gives up a hit to the next guy too, George Foster, and two outs later, he gives up a third hit, to Paul Blair, and once again the bases are loaded. Once again Munson goes to the mound, but this time I see it all differently.

“I got it, Cap,” Fidrych says. “Don’t worry, don’t worry. We got it.”

He gets Jose Cardenal to ground to Bowa to end the game, and that’s that. No ecstatic swarm on the mound, no lifting the hero and carrying him off. The last out doesn’t make the place explode like it might have if there had been no hits at all, but in the moments after the last out the sound from the crowd builds, feeding on Fidrych, who is in the middle of the diamond thanking everyone around him and then turning to the crowd and pointing and waving, thanking everyone, absolutely everyone, and the sound keeps building and building.

We don’t carry him. He carries us.

***

Additional Worcester Birds notes, games 7 through 12:

  • G7: W 10-6
    • Soderholm homers twice; Thomas triples again and drives in 2. Tekulve continues bullpen’s success with 2 scoreless innings.
  • G8: W 8-4
    • Bostock (4 hits) and Hairston (3 hits) lead 17-hit barrage. Campbell and McClure (notching second save) log 4 shoutout innings in relief
  • G9: L 6-3
    • Mike Marshall struggles, but team is in it until Campbell gives up a 3-run blast to Pops Stargell in the 8th (all unearned due to Soderholm lead-off error)
  • G10: W 4-3 (14 innings)
    • Tekulve with 4 hitless innings; Mingori with 4 scoreless innings. Cruz starts comeback with 2-run homer in 6th. Bowa drives in Hairston with a single in 14th
  • G11: W 9-0 (Fidrych 2-1)
    • Fidrych carries a no-hitter into 9th. Glenn Burke with 2 hits, 2 RBI, and a steal. No-hitter broken up by Bob Watson (like Enos Cabell, who ruined the Bird’s first start, Watson is a key figure, perhaps the key figure—given that he’s the one who says, “C’mon, let the kids play!”—of The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training) (and his notable hit in this imaginary universe comes on the anniversary of the day he was celebrated by Tootsie Rolls as the scorer of major league baseball’s one millionth run) (what I’m saying is, if it had to be anyone, I’m glad it was Bob Watson), followed by 2 more hits, but Fidrych retires Don Money to leave the bases loaded and preserve the shutout.
  • G12: L 2-1 (10 innings)
    • In the loss, Bill Campbell extends an inexplicably brilliant start to the season for the low-priced bullpen with 1 run scored in 5 innings (through 12 games, the reliever corps of Campbell, Mingori, Tekulve, and McClure have given up 4 earned runs in 44 innings for a 0.82 ERA)
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Mark Fidrych

April 29, 2022

Fidrych

I am building a team around Mark Fidrych. You can do this. You can do everything now. You can bring the Bird back to life. That’s what I’m hoping anyway.

I’m doing this through a portal that I’ve been relying on since 1981 to avoid limitations and endings. That’s the year after the limitations of Mark Fidrych’s often-injured body led to the end of his major league career. Really it ended for him just about as quickly as it began. In 1976, as a rookie, he was the best pitcher in the world (and, as I said on the first-ever post on this ancient blog, the all-time single-season leader in joy), and the following year, 1977, injuries limited him to just 11 starts, and he managed fewer than that in the following three seasons, pitching his last innings on a major league mound in 1980. The next year, when I was 13, I got my first set of Strat-O-Matic cards.

I occasionally, very occasionally, played Strat-O-Matic with others, but almost from the beginning it was a solitary pursuit. I used the game to simulate baseball games and seasons and to dissolve myself out of the world I was living in and into another one. I liked rolling the dice and tracking the action on my handwritten scorecards and adding up the stats and not feeling anything except the buzzing pull of strikeouts and home runs and stolen bases and diving catches and wins. It released some numbing chemical in my brain, I’m sure, except when it didn’t, which it didn’t when the dice didn’t conform to whatever I was hoping to see unfold in the cards and in my mind, or when I simply had been playing too much and it all seemed lifeless and empty. I did this for years, all through my adolescence, and only really let it go when I took on other, stronger methods for numbing myself. Marijuana for a while until it got in the way of my writing, beer for longer. A few years ago I stopped with the beer.

But I have kept on with the Strat-O-Matic, which I started up with again in the early 2000s when the game moved online. The online game doesn’t have the roll of the dice and the handwritten scorecards, but this makes it fit better into the smaller spaces I have available for it now than I did as a teen when I had whole wide aching afternoons to numb. It doesn’t have the dice and the handwritten scorecards, but it’s got enough. I can dissolve into the cards, into compulsive looping thoughts on lineups and platoons and starting rotations and trades and players to waive and other players to add.

I have thought at various times of giving it up. It’s one of those “on your deathbed” things. On your deathbed, are you going to look back on all the hours simulating baseball games as a good use of the preposterous gift of life? Asshole? But then there’s also, life is fucking hard. Take your pleasures where you can. Or actually there’s just: I don’t really want to feel anything right now, so I’m going to check on my Strat-O-Matic team.

For almost exactly as long as I’ve been playing Strat-O-Matic, using Strat-O-Matic, I’ve been writing, filling up journals at first, then writing all kinds of shit, poems, stories, blog posts, books, and always filling up more journals. All of it is a way, imperfectly and haltingly, to try to push back on my compulsion to numb myself. I write to try to feel something, to try to know what it is, and, ultimately, to connect to someone else. To connect with you, whoever you are. Maybe even to find in that connection some joy.

The greatest baseball player I ever saw in terms of making a joyous connection with others was Mark Fidrych. I want to bring him back to life. Recently the Strat-O-Matic online game brought out a 1977 game. They have a 1970s game that I play a lot, but it includes only the players that logged relatively steady playing time for a few seasons, and so the Bird does not exist within it. In the 1977 version, he does exist. And during that season, his performance on an inning by inning basis was not that far off from his legendary 1976 campaign. His limited playing time is reflected in the online Strat-O-Matic game by his being limited to start every fifth day, rather than every fourth day, and he may suffer an injury, but he also may get luckier in that regard than he did in real life.

I ranked him very high in my pre-draft rankings, after only Joe Morgan, and I got him. Immediately after the automated draft, another player in the league offered me a trade for Fidrych, and I explained in my declining of the trade that I was here for the Bird. He said he was too and was hoping to build his team around Fidrych. We got into a conversation where he shared that he had been 9 years old in Detroit in 1976, and I shared that I wrote a book in which the Bird was the brightest-shining hero. The reason I’m telling you this is that in the 18 years I’ve been numbing myself with online Strat-O-Matic, it was the first time I’d ever made a connection with any of the strangers I play against. For once it wasn’t only a solitary numbing. The Bird made this happen.

Like the other Strat-O-Matic online player who wanted him on his team, I built my team around Fidrych. I backed him with excellent fielding, put him in a pitcher-friendly park, and created a lineup that can score him some runs in that park. I don’t care as much what happens in the games he doesn’t start. I care a little though, because the Bird has opened something up for me. Maybe I can write about this lifelong compulsion, this thing that has always felt adjacent to writing but going in an opposite direction, away from actual life rather than toward it. Maybe not just Bird but the other players on my team from 1977 can help me see the world as it was then and the world as it is now.

The best part of a Strat-O-Matic online season is before it begins, when you can dissolve into endless imagining about different shapes your roster could take. I was mostly guided in my own roster creation by my goal of trying to get Mark Fidrych 20 wins, but after a certain point I started making choices of who to drop and who to keep by wondering what it would be like to follow them through the imaginary season and write about them. Thus, El Tiante and Spaceman are among those making up the threadbare pitching staff around Fidrych. Thus, Sundown Danny Thomas and Glenn Burke will see some action.

Thus, Lyman Bostock.

And in the middle of all the stories and all the endings and all the possibilities, there’s Mark Fidrych.

He’s back. And I’ll write about it.

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Mark Fidrych

August 14, 2011

Today would be Mark Fidrych’s 57th birthday. At left is the autograph of the 1976 Rookie of the Year, a great gift sent along to me recently by Carl A., a fan of my book. Carl’s father got him the autograph one early spring at a motor inn in Lansing, Michigan, along with a few other Tigers autographs. In all but one of the other Tigers autographs, the players mentioned the father’s son by name and included a brief message:

To Carl
My Best Regards
Always
Ron LeFlore

To Carl
BEST Wishes!

Benjamin Oglivie

To Carl,
Best Always
Gates Brown

In addition to those signatures, all written on Hospitality Motor Inn stationery, Carl’s dad also got Al Kaline’s autograph (no message) on a smaller slip. But the scrawl of a Tiger all-time great could not have had more impact than the sideways scribble of Mark Fidrych. I imagine he and Kaline were unable to include personal wishes because their tables were besieged by fans, and if they were to personalize every message they would have been there all night. The presence among the signers of Ben Oglivie suggests that the signing occurred in 1977, Oglivie’s last with the Tigers, and a spring 1977 sighting of Fidrych, the reigning Rookie of the Year, must have caused quite a stir. He wouldn’t have had time to write the name of every father’s son on a slip of paper or to wish them the best, but he didn’t have to. Every father’s son from those days knew that the Bird was pitching for us and sending us his best. He was our way into the center of the action because he was exactly like us, a boy in love with the game.

This morning I roamed the Internet a bit in search of stories about meeting Mark Fidrych. There were glimpses of him long after his playing days were over, giving himself over to charity work, and glimpses of him crossing over into the world of comic books, and glimpses of him gazing backward with some hurt and confusion but also humility and gratitude.

The best glimpse of him that I found on this day, his birthday, was one taken by a photographer, Joe McNally, who—like most who ever seemed to spend even a little time with Fidrych—came to think of the big-hearted pitcher as his friend. Check out McNally’s touching tribute if you’ve got a second, and raise a glass today to the Bird.

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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. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Mark Fidrych, 1954-2009

April 13, 2009

1978-tigers

This 1978 card and another team card from 1977 are the last possible traces in my incomplete collection of the all-time single season leader in joy. I believe the Bird is in the back row, second from right. I’ve talked about him before on this site, but I don’t feel as if I’ve approached the singular effect he had on my childhood. To me, he was everything good from the 1970s wrapped up into one inimitable package. He’s the Pet Rock, mood rings, Morganna the Kissing Bandit, CB radio, Sasquatch. He’s Saturday morning cartoons and spaghettios and good-natured fun-loving longhaired yahoos piling into a customized van to go to the Foghat concert. He’s the magic of Doug Henning and the bright-colored fantasies of HR Puffnstuff and the glossy neon of Dynamite magazine. He’s Alfred E. Neuman. He’s that moment when you’re a kid and you start laughing about something and you don’t think you’ll ever be able to stop. He’s the moment when you realize you’re no longer a kid. I never knew him but to smile at him on TV and in magazines and, of course, baseball cards, but when I heard he was found dead today, underneath a pickup truck he was apparently trying to fix, I couldn’t breathe. For a couple seconds I couldn’t fucking breathe.

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Mark Fidrych, 1979

February 23, 2009

mark-fidrych-79

“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.

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Mark Fidrych

September 10, 2006

In this picture, taken in 1980, Mark Fidrych attempts to simultaneously hide and caress a baseball in his hands as if cradling a beloved and terminally ill pet in a veterinary waiting room. He is four years and several trips to the disabled list removed from giving the world, in terms of sheer joy, the greatest single-season performance in baseball history. The marginalia on the back of this card clings desperately to that year, 1976, like a profoundly lonely middle-aged man still masturbating to the image of a beautiful woman he somehow lucked into a brief fling with the summer after college ended. Fidrych’s rookie of the year award for 1976 is mentioned, as is his 2 innings pitched in the 1976 all-star game, and the space-filling cartoon along the left-hand border features a baseball player, generic except for the curly Fid-fro billowing out from under the hat, holding a giant trophy entitled “1976 MAJOR LEAGUE MAN OF THE YEAR,” an award I’ve never heard of (and I’ve wasted much of my life poring over the baseball encyclopedia like a rabbi reading the Torah). The statistics alone are left to tell about the other years: in 1977 he pitched in only 11 games; the next year he pitched in only 3; and in 1979, the last season listed on the back of this card, Fidrych pitched his fewest innings yet, just 15, losing three games, winning none, and getting battered for 17 runs, all earned. In this picture, taken in 1980, it is over. I was 12 years old when I first looked at this card, in which the fallen god, the all-time single-season leader in joy, seems to have literally signed his name as “Mush.”