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'He's not a bird, he's a human'

While shagging flies at the Tigers' Florida training camp on March 21, Mark Fidrych, baseball's most refreshing performer last year, tore cartilage in his left knee. Ten days later he underwent corrective surgery and is expected to be out of action until June. But Bird watchers need not despair. Fidrych was a late bloomer in 1976, too, and ended up winning 19 games.

Only a pale suggestion of sunlight relieves the cheerless stone-gray skies above Northboro, Mass. this winter afternoon. The peaked roofs of the houses and churches are blanketed with snow, and the trees, themselves gray in the fading day, are barren, forlorn. Still, the youths, jacketed and blue-jeaned, loiter in the center of town. Some are half sloshed on beer quaffed in the back seats of cars: most are just hanging out. On a large tree stump next to the old brick town hall, crude wooden signs indicate with some poignancy Northboro's distance from more exotic communities, PARIS 4250 reads an arrow pointing due east. CALCUTTA 8301 advises one aimed in the opposite direction. Boston is not far away, less than an hour's drive, but it, too, is a world apart, because Northboro (pop. 9,218) is as resolutely small-town as was another New England village, Thornton Wilder's fictional Grover's Corners. The arrows on the tree stump are indeed poignant, but they are also symptomatic of a mild xenophobia. All of those other places—Rio, Madrid, Casablanca—are as foreign to the Northboro state of mind as they are distant in miles. The signs seem to admonish the wool-gathering youths to keep their feet on the ground and not forget where they come from. This is Mark Fidrych's hometown.

Route 20, narrowed to a sliver of ice by the encroaching snowbanks, jabs through the tiny town center and passes a succession of little roadhouse bars where the local boys are inclined to spend an evening. Despite their dilapidated facades, the taverns are cheerful oases from the cold, clubhouses really, where the boys can watch a little television, play the pinball machines and the juke box, argue about sports and college and deplore the absence from their company of women of quality and dimension. These lamentations continue unabated even when the local girls—not a bad lot—are there, hanging out themselves, deploring, no doubt, the absence of men of substance and breeding. They all speak in the tongue of the Kennedys: "Baaaastin," "Cuber," "streetcaaaas." They are having a good time. These are Mark Fidrych's people.

At Ted's Café, near Pierce's Sunoco station, where Fidrych pumped gas, and a mile or so from the Cut Off, which is where Fidrych hangs out most frequently. Bill Gauvin is downing a Budweiser. At Ted's or anywhere else in Northboro, the famous pitcher for the Detroit Tigers is not the Bird, as he is called in the rest of the country and, for all anyone knows, in Paris and Calcutta, but Fid, the scrawny kid they all grew up with.

"We gave Fid a roast here [that's pronounced heah] right after the season up at the White Cliffs restaurant," Gauvin says between sips. He is a good-looking, good-natured kid about Fidrych's age, which is 22. "We had a case of Heineken right behind his chair at the head of the table. Most of us went to school with Fid, and we could hardly believe it when he got so famous in baseball. The Monday night when he pitched on TV, my mother broke down and cried. Then all this Bird stuff started [stahted]. Well, I slipped up one day and asked another guy if he was goin' to the big party [pahty] for the Bird. 'Bird,' he says, shocked. 'For Chrissake, he's Fid. The name's Fid. Don't give me any of this Bird stuff.' And he was the same old Fid at the banquet, dressed just like me in a shirt and jeans. Hell, a kid from this town, he don't know what to do in public. If Fid hadn't made it in baseball, he'd be right back here pumping gas and hanging out at the center like everybody else."

Mark Fidrych is lying carelessly on a couch in his one-bedroom apartment in the Detroit suburb of Belleville. He is a lanky 6'3". 175 pounds and so eternally restless that he looks as uncomfortable in repose as someone bound and gagged. He is wearing his uniform—blue jeans, a T shirt with FLEETWOOD DINER written across the front and no shoes. Above his quizzical young face, curly blond hair rises in a coiffure accurately likened to Harpo Marx's. Fidrych always looks as if he is about to ask, "How come?"

A rerun of I Love Lucy is on television, an episode filmed about the time Fidrych was born. He is eating strawberry yogurt in great unhappy gulps, glancing nervously out a window at a view of unrelieved snow-white nothingness. The lake where he keeps his boat is frozen solid, a marble corridor into the void. Fidrych rises to switch off the antic figures on television and replace their considerable noise with the even more clamorous sounds of Led Zeppelin on his stereo. A huge stuffed owl perches menacingly atop one of the speakers, a gift from some misguided fan. Everybody sends the Bird birds. They peer out at him from every cranny of the small apartment, monsters his celebrity has created. Nevermore. Nevermore.

"I don't like being in the city," he says, explaining his flight to suburban Belleville. "Action? Naw, all I'm lookin' for mainly is to play pool and the pinball machines and, maybe, dance. I don't care what kind of people I'm around as long as I'm havin' a good time. The guy that owns me [Detroit Tigers owner John Fetzer] took me to L.A. in December for the baseball meetings. He wanted to educate me. So all I see there is guys, and all they're doin' is talkin' about baseball. Baseball, baseball, baseball. Night and day. That ain't for me. Those guys live and die baseball. My dad would probably enjoy that. He always reads sports and stuff, doesn't go to bars every night like a lot of others. Me, I just wanna goof around. But these guys are askin' me, what d'ya think of this and that? Hey, I say, I don't know. I'm just playin'.

"I've met Elton John and the Beach Boys. That was a thrill to me. Out in L.A. I got to meet Cary Grant, Monty Hall, Don Rickles and Frank Sinatra. That's more for my folks. I mean, what am I supposed to say to Frank Sinatra: 'Hi there, Old Blue Eyes'?

"I had to get up and give a speech in L.A. when they gave me this award. I was really sweatin' it. These lights were shinin' on me so I couldn't see one person. It was like one big black mess out there, like talking into nothing. Really weird [weeee-ud]. I just said thanks a lot and goofed around a little. I mean, I'm not gonna prepare a speech or nothing. What do they wanna hear? They wanna hear about me, right? I don't have to write that down."

Fidrych was right. Baseball's bosses did want to hear about him, because few rookies have had the impact on the game he had last year. His 19 wins (he lost nine) were the most by a Tiger rookie in 68 years. His earned run average of 2.34 was the lowest in the major leagues for a starting pitcher. His 24 complete games and his 1.000 fielding average (78 chances) led the American League. He was only the second rookie pitcher to start an All-Star Game. He was the American League's Rookie of the Year, and he was named major league Man of the Year by the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the award he accepted under the blinding lights in Los Angeles.

As impressive as Fidrych's statistics are, they account only in small measure for his extraordinary popularity, not merely in Detroit but throughout the country. In games he started at home, the average attendance was an astonishing 33,649. In games without him, the average was only 13,893. On the road he attracted an average of 26,869 fans, so that in 29 starts at home and away he drew 901,239 spectators, an average of 31,077. And with less than two full seasons of minor-league experience, Fidrych had not even been listed on the Tigers' regular-season roster when training began last spring. He did not start a game until May 15, when he beat Cleveland 2-1, and he did not become a star until June 28, when he defeated the Yankees 5-1 on Monday-night television. It was his seventh consecutive win, and his performance that evening enchanted a huge nationwide audience. In his three subsequent starts, he drew crowds of 51,032, 51,041 and 45,905. Not since Sandy Koufax has there been a pitcher with such drawing power.

Fidrych was new and very good but, more important, he had a quality that is in very short supply in these days of the plutocrat athlete—color. His small-town naivete and candor charmed an audience grown disillusioned with the litigious sorts who now people our playing fields. He talked not about how much he could make out of the game but of how much pleasure he got playing it. He spoke of how nice it was of the Tigers to sign him. He spoke of loyalty. Best of all, he did not seem to care much about money. In fact, he was earning what was then the minimum salary. $16,500 a year, though he would be handsomely rewarded with bonuses at the end of the season.

But the real source of his almost unprecedented fan appeal was his behavior on the mound, which, by any evaluation, was distinctly odd. He ran to his position, uncommonly eager to get on with the game. He knelt on the mound to pat the earth in front of him and smooth out the opposing pitcher's spike holes. He bolted from the mound to shake the hands of fielders whose play behind him seemed to call for some demonstration of his gratitude. And—the coup d'estime—he talked to the baseball! You could see him standing out there on the mound, holding that ball before him and actually speaking to it, as if he were Hamlet addressing poor Yorick's skull. Who, in the name of Walter Johnson, had ever done that before?

Fidrych also came with a ready-made and highly marketable nickname, the Bird. This now-deplored appellation was inflicted upon him by one of his minor league coaches, Jeff Hogan, who observed that Fidrych's awkward, arm-flapping gait was reminiscent of Big Bird on the children's television program, Sesame Street. And it was as the Bird that he took flight on network television. He became a household word, the most refreshing eccentric to enter baseball since Dizzy Dean. In the past, such zanies were known as characters; the ongoing word is flake, and Fidrych seemed the biggest flake of them all.

The parents of this newly beloved eccentric, Paul and Virginia Fidrych, live just south of the center of Northboro in a house they have occupied for the last 23 years. He is gray-haired, a little heavy, and quiet. She is blonde, slight and as fidgety as her son, whom she calls Markie (Maaackie). They have three daughters, one older, two younger than Markie. Paul Fidrych is an assistant principal, teacher and coach at the Heard Street School in nearby Worcester. He coached his son until the boy entered Algonquin High School (Mark graduated from the Worcester Academy). To the townspeople, the Fidryches are known as Mr. and Mrs. Fid. When Markie is home, he and his mother often watch television together. "He likes The Brady Bunch, The Waltons, Happy Days and The Partridge Family," she says, the irony of his enthusiasm for the last show apparently lost on her.

"I don't like this Bird thing at all," says Mrs. Fid. "Markie's not a bird. He's a human being. He's my only son."

"It's just a nickname," says Mr. Fid, mildly remonstrating with her. "When I was growing up, we all had nicknames."

"And," says Mrs. Fid, warming to the battle, "I don't know what this flake business means. To me, my son is not flaky. He's just got a lot of nervous energy. He's on the ball all the time. He knows mechanics. He's human. I don't go for flaky and the Bird."

"The boy'll do whatever comes into his head," says Mr. Fid. "If it isn't what another person likes, he doesn't care. He's just having fun in life. I think he has feelings that nobody knows about. He just doesn't release them to anyone. I don't think he knows how to express his feelings. He just keeps them in."

One thing Mark Fidrych does not keep inside him is laughter. Like Scaramouche, he has a gift for it and a sense that the world, not he, is flaky. Talking to the ball, he protests, "is something I've done all my life. A batter tips his hat and hits his spikes and nobody pays attention. My pitching coach says I can go out there and stand on my head if it'll help me. What I'm really doin' is taikin' out loud to myself, not the ball. I'll tell myself to bring my arm down, things like that. Haven't you ever talked to yourself walkin' down the street? Yeah, but if I went 9-19 instead of 19-9, they'd be sayin', 'Put this kid in the loony bin.' "

The Bird thing has gotten out of hand and into the bush leagues, says the Bird. "I go out to a game with the Twins in Minnesota, and they bring 13 pigeons out to the mound just as I'm ready to pitch. Then this guy on the P.A. system says to me—big voice all over the stadium talkin' to me—that he hopes I'm not superstitious. It was weee-ud. Here's this guy I didn't even see talkin' to me like the voice of God, and I'm sayin' to myself, 'I thought we were here to play ball.' In Cleveland they spread birdseed on the mound. A guy throws seed on the mound in New York—and he goes two innings, I go seven. A K.C. player comes up talkin' to his bat. Next year I hope a kid comes along that does better than me. Then they'll leave me alone.

"When I come home now, my friends say to me, 'Hey, man, what're they doin' to you?' Making the big leagues is great, but all this.... Man! I look around and I see Bird bumper stickers and Bird T shirts. I'm supposed to be writin' a book, and I can hardly read. It was neat in the beginning, but you know how things get burned out. I got nervous, man. I had no privacy. My phone would ring all day. I'd go to the ball park, and it'd be like flies around me—and you know what flies like to hang around. I'd be riding down the road, and somebody in the next car would be taking a picture of me. About the beginning of September, I went to see a doc and asked him to give me something to calm me down.

"They look for you to change, too. One guy wrote he hoped Mark Fidrych stays the same. Then the Ford people give me a car to drive around, a '76 Thunderbird, and he writes, 'Look, he's changed. He's spoiled.' They try to tell you you're changin'. They say people'll catch on to your act the second year. What act? Hey, I'm just tryin' to live in this world. I can't name one of my friends who has what I have. If I want to go to Australia tomorrow, I can do it. That's what's changed. That's the only thing. I still like to go home and goof around."

A week before last season ended, Fidrych, accompanied by his father, walked into the office of Tiger Executive Vice-President Jim Campbell and, with a minimum of discussion, signed a three-year contract at a salary unannounced but acknowledged by all parties to be appropriate to his newfound eminence. Fidrych has a deal with the William Morris Agency to oversee his extracurricular affairs, but he has no agent to negotiate baseball matters for him. "The worst thing for me publicity-wise," he says wisely, "is to get an agent. Everybody'd say I was in it only for the money. I don't need no agent. The people of Detroit are my agent."

Campbell was considerably relieved when the question of Fidrych's wages was settled so tidily. Not that Fidrych himself was pestering him about being underpaid. Everyone else was. Last July a resolution was even introduced in the Michigan legislature calling for the Tigers to give the Bird an immediate raise above the minimum salary. "The legislator who authored it called me a penny pincher," says Campbell ruefully. Some fans, outraged by the Tigers' apparent miserliness, organized a campaign called Bucks for the Bird to send checks to the team so that poor Fidrych might have pocket money. It cost the front office many hours to send the money back. It was a difficult time, to say the least, for the man in control of the company coffers. Never in recent years had the public been known to complain that a player was being paid too little for his services. But Campbell, reluctant Scrooge to Fidrych's Cratchit, held fast to the cause of niggardliness.

"If we compensated every player who is on a hot streak," he says, "we'd be opening Pandora's Box. I kept telling people that Mark would be adequately compensated at the end of the season. As it was, the minimum salary went up to $19,000 in August, and Mark received about $7,500 more for moving up three categories from Double A to Triple A to the majors in one year. And we gave him a very substantial bonus—I say that conservatively—at the end of the season. When it came time to sign a new contract, he and his father were reasonable. So were we."

Contractual matters may be settled, but the business of indulging Fidrych's fans goes on, although they no longer send checks. And so does the concern about whether he will change. "I worry about Fid," says Dave Pierce, a bearded 31-year-old who was Fidrych's boss at Pierce Oil and Gas, "but I think he's all right. When he comes here and explains what's happening to him, I know he's all right. He's just not used to being in public. He's just a boy. Flaky? I can't even define that word. What were you like when you were 21, 22 years old?"

Mark Fidrych is on his feet again, this time to replace Led Zeppelin with Stevie Wonder. ("Markie loves music," Mrs. Fid often says.) He runs his long fingers through the Harpo hairdo. He pops himself a Strohs beer and, laughing, says, "When I took my physical with the Tigers, the doc asked me how much I drank. I said about a six-pack a night. He looks at me funny. I says, 'Oh, maybe it's only four or five.' I never thought about it much, but, hell, I drank beer because there wasn't much else to do at home." He flops on the couch again, there being nothing much else to do.

"I didn't learn anything last year except how to lose and not blow my composure," he says. "I'm not a smart man. A guy in the minors told me, 'You got a 10¢ mind and a million-dollar arm.' Well, I'll take those two. I don't think there's been a time when I wasn't confused. But that's good—it keeps you wary. What you don't know is good for you."

He searches for some illustration of his unworldliness. "Look," he says, "on national TV I said to a guy interviewing me, 'That's a lot of bullshit.' It just slipped out. Everybody was lookin' at me funny, then I realized. Whoa there. So I said in the microphone, 'Hey, people, I'm sorry. I'm really sorry I said bullshit.' It just slipped out again. I can't use big words to express myself. Educated people can do that. Me, I say bullshit.

"Next winter, though, I wanna go to school. No, I don't want no English or πr². I mean automobile school, technical school. I spent this whole winter doin' things for the ball club and the public. It got so I felt like saying, 'Hey, it's my vacation, let me vacate.' So next winter I wanna go to school. Someday my job here is gonna end. And baseball, to me, is a job. How can you call it fun? My fun in baseball left in high school. I thought baseball ended in high school. In the big leagues, it's either do or die, and if you die, where are you?

"I can't even have an involvement with a girl. I'm glad I'm single. If I had a wife, there'd be a lot of things she wouldn't like, things like me sitting with her in a booth in a bar and a girl jumping on my lap and asking me to dance.

"But the three-year contract means I'm sure to stay around long enough to get the pension, so when I'm finished with baseball—say, when I'm 30—I won't have to go to work right away. In '74 and '75 I was skeptical, know what I mean? But I've got a trade now. These hands are vital. You don't pour concrete with these hands. These are pianoist's hands. But this job is going to end. Then I'd like to have my own little garage. I'd take my time fixing things. I'd do a good job. I'd really be established. I used to dream a lot when I was a kid in school. I've still got so many dreams...."

And they are no different—if now infinitely more attainable—than the dreams of the guys at the Cut Off bar. It is early evening, but the boys are there in force. At nine o'clock a duo known as Dave and Ron will play, but someone has jumbled the letters on the sign announcing their performance so that it reads RAVE AND NOD. Bill Cazaropoul, a sophomore at Boston State whose family runs the place, is bartending. He went to Algonquin High with Fid. So did Richard DeFosse, whose curly mop is coiffed Fidishly. There are Fid clippings on the walls and mirrors, along with a sign that reads: THIS IS A CLASS PLACE. ACT RESPECTABLE.

"It's really weee-ud having Fid make it like this," says DeFosse. "But he's still the same. It didn't go to his head. He was just in here a few days ago. The little kids in town flipped over him. My mother never watched baseball before. Now she watches it like a soap opera."

Two girls, a brunette and a redhead, stride in unattended and almost unacknowledged. Local stuff. The redhead, a nurse named Karen, says, "Fid told me he met a girl in Florida who took him to a place where they put hot pepper in the food. He got sick. When he came home, he told me he didn't want any more girls who made him sick. He wanted the other kind. 'Fix me up with a nurse,' he said."

Karen and her friend finally get a greeting, a mingled chorus of cheers and catcalls. They plop down on stools at the end of the bar, not even remotely offended. It is their usual reception. "Hey," a boy Fid's age calls out to the only stranger in the place, "when you get out of this town, send us back some real girls, will you? Blonde ones with tans."

A dark-haired boy in a blue jacket shrugs in dismay at this blatantly unchivalrous reaction to the bar's only distaff clientele. "I guess you can see why everybody in baseball calls Fid weee-ud," he says. "Look what he's been hanging out with." He laughs and includes the room in a generous gesture. "We're all weee-ud, too."

Maybe, or like their famous friend, just young and trying to have a good time despite the mystery of it all.