Rain falls on the roof of the red wooden porch, making a sound like God gently drumming his fingertips. "It's neat goin' to Fenway Pahk, drinkin' a beer, havin' a blast," says Mark (the Bird) Fidrych, for whom baseball has been but a spectator sport for 18 years now. "I love to pretend I'm the manager. I'll scream at the TV, 'I can't believe you didn't bunt the guy ovah! I know you're lookin' for the big inning, but you gotta hit-and-run there!' "
He takes a pull on a Coors Light, his second of this Sunday afternoon, and says, "Yeah, I miss playin' ball. I miss it like you read about." Then the Bird—disarmingly open, devoid of pretense-stands on the stoop of his red wooden porch and takes a whiz on the weeds below.
The porch fronts a small shack on the Fidrych farm, which rolls, like a rucked green carpet, over 90 acres in Northboro, Mass. The Bird bought the property in 1980 with cash he'd accumulated during his brief but memorable major league career. Beyond the porch is a pond, and beyond the pond, up a gentle slope, is the house he built in '86, the year he got married to Ann Pantazis. "That's when the bank found out I didn't pitch in the big leagues anymore," says Fidrych, winner of 19 games for the fifth-place Detroit Tigers in 1976, when he was named American League Rookie of the Year. "They looked at the loan application and said, 'We want all your land.' For whaddyacallit, collateral. It's called"—Fidrych fumbles for the phrase—"building up equity."
So he signed over the acreage to the Hudson (Mass.) Savings Bank and soon found himself with his new father-in-law, Jim, on the highest point of the property, examining his life this way and that, as if it were an exotic piece of produce. "Pops," said Fidrych, "I used to own all this land outright. Now the bank does."
"Mahk," replied Pops, "it sounds to me like you're goin' backwahds."
"I never laughed so hahd," says the 46-year-old Fidrych after volunteering the story in the chowdah-thick accent of Greatah Woostah. He speaks of himself not in the third person, as do so many athletes, but rather as a third person, as if Mark Fidrych were some wholly other creature, fashioned primarily for mankind's comic relief.
To feed the hungry furnace of his mortgage, for instance, he now works as an independent subcontractor, laying sewer pipe and doing road repair with the aid of a 10-wheel Mack dump truck he bought in 1986 for $88,000. "The truck has kept the fahm goin' and kept my life goin'," he says. The other day, though, on a road repair job at afternoon drive time, he accidentally dug into a water main that had been mismarked on the macadam. Which is how Fidrych—perhaps the most famous man in America during its bicentennial summer—found himself standing, forlornly, in the slapstick spray of God's seltzer bottle. "I don't know if you've evah seen a broken watah main," he says, "but 100 pounds of pressure through an eight-inch opening, that ain't no small thing." No, indeed, and thus there appeared a geysah ovah Woostah.
Life is a batch of mix, says the asphalt company slogan on his T-shirt. And is it ever. At the height of his fame Fidrych was photographed by Annie Leibovitz for the cover of Rolling Stone. On the other hand, 14-year-old Jessica, the only child of Mark and Ann, knows her father exclusively as a truck driver and assistant soccer coach. ("My job is to make sure the balls are in the bag," says her dad.) Jessica never knew the other Mark Fidrych, who consorted with Big Bird and Gerald Ford; who drew an average of 18,268 extra fans to Tiger Stadium on the days he started in 1976; who—because he wasn't scheduled to pitch during one series in Anaheim—sat in a giant cage and signed autographs, the better to forestall a fan riot.
"Jess and I, we have heated arguments," says Fidrych, who seems incapable of anything but candor, answering questions as if under oath or the influence of sodium pentothol. "She listens to her mother. When I try to tell her some-thin', she says, 'Get outta here.' Her mother has Jess wrapped around her baby finger. But Jess has me wrapped around her baby finger."
This dynamic is evident later, in the kitchen, where Jess has her right arm hooked around Ann's waist. Ann, a biochemistry major who graduated from Fairfield ( Conn.) University, is the director of nutrition at a local HMO. "We were going to give Mark a Palm Pilot," Ann says, as Jessica begins to giggle, "but he'd never use it." Mark shakes his head in mock beleaguerment. He looks, for the moment, like a put-upon sitcom dad.