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THE BIRD FELL TO EARTH
Gary Smith
April 07, 1986
For one fairy-tale year, Mark Fidrych was king of baseball, but the reign ended far too soon
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April 07, 1986

The Bird Fell To Earth

For one fairy-tale year, Mark Fidrych was king of baseball, but the reign ended far too soon

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"Ann doesn't know me, that's probably why we get along so well. You don't understand. I committed myself once. I committed to baseball...."

One-thirty p.m. Fidrych is honking and helloing to the guys in the duckbill caps, waving and joking with the old women coming out of the shops. "What's up, Joe? How ya doin', Steve?" Driving past Pierce's Sunoco, where he used to pump gas, past Murray's Package Store, where they still have the picture of him in his Tiger uniform, past the empty lot where the Cut Off bar used to be before it was condemned, where he and the boys locked themselves into the little bathroom for wrestling matches or had competitions to see who could slide the farthest down the bar on his backside. Little town. Good town. Quiet and simple.

He arrives back at his land and finds the two surveyors, the ones he's paying to plot a road to the site where he will build his new house, taking a break to find batteries for their headsets.

"So we can communicate through the forest," explains one.

"Hell, what's wrong with yellin' and screamin'?" retorts Fidrych.

What a world. He had wanted to be a car mechanic, back in the days when if you heard a car cough, you knew it was either the plugs or points or carburetor. But now the engines are computerized and the mechanics hook up blinking machines to them as if they're coronary patients, and Fidrych doesn't have the heart for it anymore. He had dreamed of owning land, and suddenly, at 22, he had enough to buy a piece you could fit a couple dozen ballfields on, cash on the barrelhead—no loans, man, no interest payments. He wanted to keep life simple. Then came tax time and the accountant looked at him as if he was a lost little boy: 121 acres of pine and birch and not a single stick of shelter.

Pinball used to be good, too. "Five balls for a quahtah, and it didn't take that many points to win a free game," Fidrych says. "Then it became three balls for a quahtah and you needed a million points. Then came Pac-Man and all that crap. Do good and you only get to put your initials next to your score. It ain't what it used to be. Nothin' in life matches up to anything."

God knows, he tried to keep it simple. He turned down the back-slapping jobs he could have had in Detroit and returned to the little town to stay near the dirt and wear torn jeans that showed his underwear. People marveled at the way he still rolled on the ground with dogs and kids. But then he had to shake himself off and get vertical, and the only place verticality had ever meant simplicity was on a hill of dirt, 60'6" from a batter. "Baseball stayed the same," he says. "Three outs an inning, nine innings and the game's over. I remember Alleycat Johnson, a guy who was my teammate in the minor leagues, telling me, 'You know, Mahk, when you're on that mound, you're a master, a scientist. But when you walk off it, you're crazy; no one knows what you'll do. You've got a million-dollar arm and a 10-cent mind.' " Fidrych laughs, then pauses. "He was right. I've never found another place as comfortable as a mound. Never."

The simple life was gone, and every time he returned to Detroit and the baggage handlers ran for his luggage and the Avis folks tried harder, he wondered if he should surrender to it, exploit it. He did promotional work for an auto-parts company long enough to get a bellyful of small talk and a pocketful of business cards, then moved on. He interviewed with a Detroit TV station last summer to do sports commentaries but lost interest when he realized he would have to move there. He did some color commentary for the Tigers' cable TV network in 1984 and received no offer to continue working there. "He'd say anything on the air," recalls Bill Freehan, the ex-Tiger catcher who also did commentary for the network. "He'd yell, 'That pitch was a hooo-rah!' and the guy on the air with him would say, 'Huh?' He'd be talking when it was time to cut to a commercial, and the director would be tapping him on the shoulder, and Mark wouldn't understand what he wanted. But I love the guy. He's fiat-out genuine."

Fidrych considered becoming a pitching coach. "I've got to be honest," says Campbell. "Mark isn't cut from that bolt of cloth." Bob Woolf, the Boston attorney who began to represent him in 1982, arranged a nonspeaking role for Fidrych as a pitcher in a movie called The Slugger's Wife and an interview with the Hyatt Regency in Cambridge, Mass. to do promotional work. The movie bombed, the Hyatt never called back. Fidrych went to New York three times in 1984 to do casting tapes for Miller Lite, auditioning for a commercial in which he talked to a ball at a bar, and froze when the camera rolled and he had to read the cue card. Reading has always been difficult for him. "I've boycotted books," he says. Finally, after 80 takes, he was told the commercial would run during the '84 World Series. It never aired, and no one else called. The reason corporate America loved him when he pitched—he was natural, unsophisticated, real—was the same reason they shunned him when he couldn't pitch.

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