Fidrych has been moved immeasurably in the last year by Jessica's taking an interest in his former occupation. Without a word she started to remove items from the Fidrych attic, which teems, like King Tut's tomb, with the treasures that washed up at Mark's locker throughout the '76 season: epic poems, oil portraits, stuffed birds of every description. These items are slowly providing the decor for the finished basement in which Jessica recently had her first boy-girl party. Not long ago Mark descended the stairs and saw that Jessica had set up a small display of books in which he was prominently featured. "It's like a little hobby of hers," he says, and his eyes go red around the rims. His daughter is proud of him and vice versa: The name of the truck that has "kept my life goin" is emblazoned on the front bumper: JESSICA.
Fidrych is likewise touched by all the strangers who remember him. "I get fan mail every day," he says. "It's neat. Some of 'em are from kids who say, 'My father told me about you.' A lot of 'em are, 'Could you sign this for Father's Day or my dad's birthday?' That's nice, in my eyes. It's a great feeling, and you hope it will come for the rest of your life."
It's almost literally true to say that the Bird was a household name 25 summers ago. "I was like Mr. Clean," Fidrych says earnestly, with no attempt at humor. "Nowadays you got Fantastik and Formula 409 and all kinds of other cleaners, but in the '60s, when I was growin' up, it was just Mr. Clean. That was the cleaner everybody had in the house. And the Bird became as famous as that. People might hear the name Mahk Fidrych and say, 'Never heard of him,' but say the Bird, and everybody knew."
Everybody but Fidrych, who was unaware of the scope of his fame until the '76 season was over. "Everything," he says, "was happening all at once."
He was raised only a few miles from where he lives today, at a time when this farm was, in his words, "the boonies." Fidrych was a hyperactive child who couldn't sit still in a classroom, yet he harnessed his excess energy on the pitcher's mound, where—even as a child—he would get down on his knees and smooth the spike marks from the dirt with his hands and nervously jabber to himself throughout the game.
Because he was held back twice in school, in first and second grade, Fidrych was 19 years old as a senior in high school, ineligible to compete in the public school system. So he transferred to private Worcester Academy, where he could play and whence he was selected by Detroit in the 10th round of the 1974 draft. "It hurts me now when people in society say, 'Let's cut girls' volleyball from the budget,' " he says. "Are you nuts? That's so wrong. That might be the one thing that's keeping a kid in school."
Fidrych was only 20 months removed from high school when the Tigers made him a nonroster invitee to spring training in 1976. "I walked into that big league clubhouse in Lakeland [ Fla.] and went, 'Wow! Free orange juice!' " he recalls. " 'Free chewing gum! Free chewing tobacco! I don't even chew tobacco, but I think I'm gonna start!' I was in heaven. Five pairs of spikes, gloves a dime a dozen, big league uniforms with our names on the back. Audrey, our minor league secretary, gave me writing paper with the Detroit emblem stamped on it so I could write letters home. It made me feel like a big shot."
When, that March, a clubhouse attendant summoned him to the manager's office, Fidrych sat in disbelief as Ralph Houk said, "Kid, we wanna go north with 10 pitchers, and you're one of them. But you're kind of young and we don't want to throw you to the wolves, so you'll come up north and observe from the dugout."
All the while Fidrych's heart raced, and he rocked in his chair, distracted as in grade school, and thought, Are you done talking yet, 'cause I gotta call my parents. Instead he said, "Mistah Houk, how do you gotta dress in the big leagues?"
"In a suit jacket and tie, kid. A suit jacket and tie. Now have a nice day: You just made the big leagues."