Fidrych called his parents from a pay phone in the clubhouse. "Dad," he told his father, Paul, an elementary school assistant principal, "thanks for all the work you did with me, 'cause it happened. It's gonna be in the papers tomorrow. You're gonna see it in the Telegram-Gazette: MAHK FIDRYCH OF NORTHBORO IS GOING TO THE BIG LEAGUES."
Snapping out of this reverie on his red wooden porch, Fidrych is again animated—indeed, he looks literally so. Or at the very least like the Muppet for whom a minor league coach nicknamed him in his first professional season, with the rookie ball Bristol (Va.) Tigers of the Appalachian League. He begins to talk of his elevation to the major leagues, and he can't pause, seeing it all again in wide-eyed wonderment, like one continuous Steadicam shot from a Scorsese film.
"One of our pitchers, Joe Coleman, was from Natick," says Fidrych, "and he became my roommate till he got traded. He saw in Lakeland that I still used my spikes and glove from the minors, and he said, 'You got no contracts?' So he took me to a Mr. Christopher of Wilson and said, 'Here's a kid who just made the big leagues, and he wants a contract or he'll go to Rawlings.' And Mr. Christopher said, 'How many gloves do you need?' And I said, I only need one glove.' And everyone laughed, and he said, 'Take as many as you want.' So I asked if I could get a catcher's mitt, because my sister had a son who played catcher. And they gave me a catcher's mitt, and I sent it to my nephew. Then they gave me spikes, and Brooks and Adidas gave me spikes too. Then Coleman told me how you take the spikes home, don't leave 'em in your locker, so it will look like you've only got two pair. Then they'll give you more.
"Wow, O.K., so this is the big leagues. Now I'm gonna be flyin' first class so I want to look right. So our general managah, Mr. [Jim] Campbell—he was a god to the minor league players—he calls me into his office and says, 'I'm sending you to a friend of mine who'll set you up with suits and ties.' Because all I owned were cutoffs and Converse.
"So I get to the address that Mr. Campbell gave me, and these suits were, like, $200.1 told 'em, 'Whoa, this isn't quite my category.' The man there said, 'Maybe you should go down to'—Myrick's I think it was called. It was like a JCPenney. So I thumbed it back home to Fetzer Hall, where the minor leaguers stayed. The big leaguers all stayed at the Holiday Inn in Lakeland. Audrey sees me coming and says, 'Mr. Campbell, Mahk's got nothing under his ahms.' See, everyone was waiting there to see what I'd bought. I was supposed to do a little fashion show for 'em when I got back.
"So Mr. Campbell says to get in his car, we're goin' back to the store. I said, 'But I gotta tell ya, Mr. Campbell, it's a little overpriced.' He said, 'Mahk, what was your signing bonus as a 10th-round pick?' I told him $3,000. He said, 'Consider this a part of your bonus. Pick out whatever you want, and the Tigers will pick up the tab.' So I got three leisure suits, a brown London Fog coat, belts, socks and shoes. Underwear was the only thing I didn't need. Mr. Campbell said, 'You're coming back to the office now and doing a fashion show.' So we walked into the office, and I did a little fashion show for 'em. Audrey was there, and Mr. Campbell and his secretary, Alice."
During the telling of the story, the Bird's eyes have gone as glassy as the pond beyond the porch. "See, these people watched out for me when I was far away from home," says Fidrych. "I've always thought that was a beautiful thing."
Contrary to his manager's intention, Fidrych was instantly thrown to the wolves. He made a couple of appearances as what he calls a "reliefer," hand-smoothing the mound in Oakland, talking himself through an inning against the Minnesota Twins, all per his custom. Fans, however, thought he was talking to the baseball, and the press did little to disabuse them of that notion. Fidrych, with his Framptonian nest of hair, quickly became a hero in Detroit.
And that's when the world met him. On June 28 he was 7-1 with a 2.18 ERA and had become the ace of the Tigers' rotation, and that evening he started against the New York Yankees on ABC's Monday Night Baseball. Fidrych recalls driving to Tiger Stadium that afternoon with a teammate who lived in the same apartment complex. When they arrived, four hours before game time, thousands of fans were congregating outside the gates. "Mark," said his carpool companion, "these people aren't here to see Tommy Veryzer play shortstop."
Throwing his 90-mph sinking fastball and hard slider, Fidrych defeated the Yankees 5-1 on seven hits to a series of increasingly raucous ovations that sounded like thunder. His teammates pushed him out of the dugout for one curtain call, then another. Nearly 50,000 people chanted "Bird! Bird! Bird!" and refused to leave the stadium. "It was electrifying," says Fidrych. "That's when it all took off."