Right up till the end, Mark Fidrych was living the dream
Fidrych, 54, died on Monday after an accident on his Northboro, Mass., farm
The dump truck under which he was found was one of Fidrych's prized possessions
About 10 years ago he turned down the pitching coach's job at Worcester State
It was one of those 10-wheelers, a huge red beast of a machine, and it snorted through the early light of Central Massachusetts carrying all manner of debris. One such morning the cargo would be gravel. The next, maybe asphalt, or sand, or stone, or topsoil. In the town of Northboro, whenever you needed a whole lot of something moved, the dump truck's owner, Mark Fidrych, would gladly move it for you.
When he first began driving the truck, Fidrych -- known as "The Bird" to most of the world, but Mahk to neighbors -- knew full well that such labor would be hard. He knew that for the 1976 American League Rookie of the Year, in particular, a star who'd been on TV and the covers of Rolling Stone and SI, it might even be unbecoming.
No matter. It never bothered him. The local boy had come home for the long haul, and he had purchased that Mack rig in '86, just a year before the birth of his daughter, Jessica, and he loved it still. "The truck," Mark once said, "has kept the fahm goin' and kept my life goin'."
This week, of course, when trying to piece together all the details of Fidrych's death, one senses the tragic irony forever laced in such an appraisal. On Monday, at age 54, Fidrych passed away on the grounds of that very farm; he died, in fact, precisely because of that truck.
A family friend, Joseph Amorello, had found him at 2:30 p.m., hoping to talk about potential construction jobs coming up this week. Instead, Amorello discovered Fidrych pinned underneath the big rig, apparently having attempted to do repair work in his last moments.
"I dialed 911," Amorello said. "And that's all I could do."
When we eulogize, differences quickly rise into sharp relief. We focus on what makes people distinct. In this case few others in baseball's long history had more supposed quirks and eccentricities than Mark Steven Fidrych.
We remember how, as a floppy-haired kid, he alone accounted for about 400,000 extra customers at Tiger Stadium in 1976. How, over the course of that unforgettable season -- 19-9, 2.34 ERA, an implausible 24 complete games -- he had started the All-Star Game as a rookie. How the Angels, afraid to disappoint a capacity crowd when he'd missed a start, literally put the Bird in a cage on the Anaheim Stadium concourse so he could sign autographs for fans. How, according to Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell, girls would run into barbershops after his haircuts to try and save his dirty blonde curls. How the 21-year-old righty was so transcendent that Michigan legislators introduced a resolution that demanded that the Tigers give him a raise. (He was only making $16,500.)
The Bird was a journalist's dream, in so many words. A quote machine that seemed to have magically appeared in the majors wearing cutoffs and Converse. After Fidrych had held the Yankees to one run in a complete game win on ABC's Monday Night Baseball, he said he didn't know who Thurman Munson was in the postgame interview. He wasn't even joking. At that, the writers all raced off to file their stories.
"In the two years he was here," Hall of Famer Al Kaline would say, "he was probably the most popular Detroit Tiger there has ever been."
But here's the rub: In retrospect, Fidrych wasn't fundamentally that different from the average person. He was humble. He was down-to-earth. His career was cut short by injury. Upon further review, even his most famous oddities largely consisted of injecting workaday common sense into the strangeness of baseball protocol.
Fidrych never hired an agent. He shook his teammates' hands after they turned in a good defensive play. His seemingly manic manicuring of the mound had a simple rationale: He didn't want to work on a hill filled with holes. And while it looked like he was talking to the baseball before his wind-up, imploring that hard slider to dart, he was actually, like so many of us, only jabbering to himself.
After a torn rotator cuff in 1977 effectively ended his career in the big leagues, Fidrych eventually returned home to autumnal Northboro. To pay off his mortgage he set to work pouring cement for swimming pools. He went around town gathering garbage and used it to feed the pigs on his farm on West Street. He cleared lots for houses, chopped wood, laid sewer pipe and, for six months in '85, worked as a traveling liquor salesman.
Then, at last, he bought his Mack truck.
"Nothing had gone to his head," says Tom Cunningham, a local electrician who knew The Bird in his second act, as a fellow independent subcontractor. "What he did, driving that truck? He loved it."
About 10 years ago, Dirk Baker, the baseball coach at D-III Worcester State -- where Fidrych's father played and Jessica is still a student -- asked Mark, who was drafted by the Tigers out of high school, if he wanted to be the team's pitching coach.
"I'm not sure you understand," Fidrych replied, gently and matter-of-factly. "I have all these drop-offs and pick-ups. My customers rely on me."
Appropriately, Mark had even met his wife, Ann, when she was working as a waitress at Chet's, the diner that her family owns and operates. It's an aluminum-topped truck stop on Route 20, and as recently as last year Mark was spotted there working on Fridays.
"He was tending bar in the back, with like two or three stools," says Dave Boothe, who grew up in Northgate, the same neighborhood as Fidrych, right off I-35. "Everyone recognized him, but you just couldn't find a nicer guy."
In June, actually, I had tried to find him myself for an assignment. After days of trying to get hold of The Bird, I almost gave up. Then I realized that Mark Fidrych, of course, was simply listed in the local phone book.
He still is.
"I'm just a 5 a.m.-to-whenever guy," he told me with a laugh.
Last May, Worcester State had invited Fidrych to be the featured speaker at its baseball banquet, held at the local Tatnuck American Legion Post. He strolled in by himself, sporting his trademark floppy hair, dungarees and flannel shirt. "Like he'd just walked out of 1976," Baker recalls.
Fidrych refused to take any money for the appearance. The kids weren't completely sure who The Bird was, but given that he'd arrived 15 minutes early, the guest of honor went ahead and bought the players' star-struck coaches a round at the pub downstairs. Over beers, he was soon asked: So what are you doing with yourself these days?
At that, Mark Fidrych -- a full 32 years removed from the limelight and the awards and the shrieking girls trying to salvage his shorn locks -- took a swig and paused. He could talk about how he didn't get to play much baseball anymore, and mostly just messed around with neighbors' kids in the yard. How he had crops freshly planted on his own 107-acre farm, especially the new acorn squash and zucchini. How every now and again he would do work for the Jimmy Fund and the Special Olympics, or go on one of those celebrity fishing or golf trips and just donate all the money to charity.
How he still made his living driving his Mack rig -- that old 10-wheeler he'd purchased in '86 and later christened JESSICA, with his daughter's name now inscribed proudly on the front bumper.
But he refrained from saying too much.
"I'm just living the dream," said The Bird.
He meant it.