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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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At 5:50 a.m. the alarm clock rings, and the dream he has started having recently—the one in which he keeps throwing strike after strike after strike; no crowd, no cameras, no reporters, just he and his body back in that sweet sweaty rut—comes to an end. Sasha, his ancient black mutt, lifts her grizzled face from the single bed they share and blinks.

He pulls on his long Johns, tattered jeans, boots, red flannel jacket and the blue denim jacket with four rips on the right sleeve, then plops an old brown hat on his head of tangled hair. There are three puncture marks on his right shoulder, a little wariness in his brown eyes and the frailest footprints of crow around his eyes, but the face is still young and the dirty blond curls still fall around it.

Yella, the half St. Bernard, half collie evicted from the single bed because of overcrowding, shakes himself down and falls into line behind his master and Sasha. They shuffle quietly past the room of his sleeping parents. "You stay," he orders Sasha. It is too cold for the old mutt, and she doesn't fight the order.

Out the kitchen door they walk into the flat gray dawn, his boots crunching old snow, the late February chill sneaking in through each hole in his sleeve. Ten years ago, almost to this very day, on a sunny morning in Lakeland, Fla., Mark Fidrych entered the dream year. Today he enters his beat-up blue Chevy pickup with Yella, pulls up to the back door of a restaurant called The Grille and muscles two garbage cans full of pig slop onto the truck bed.

He drives the scraps back to his farm, where there are 20 pigs, 12 cows, three sheep, two goats, six chickens and six geese. One of the baby pigs is dead, smothered perhaps in the litter's crush for their mother's milk. Mark Fidrych lifts it by the back legs and stretches it out on a steel barrel. "It's no skin off my butt," he says. "I just haven't buried it yet."

Pigs and pitching arms die young. Sometimes, when a man grows weary of trying to understand why, his only alternative is indifference. Fidrych pours the slop into a feeding box, flecks of tomato sauce spattering his boots, and watches the pigs bite and shove each other to get to the food. "They're wee-uhd," he says in his New England accent.

Some mornings it almost seems to him as if that dream year never happened. Other times, taking long crunching steps across a minefield of frozen manure on a shivering morning, the question of who he is seems hopelessly clouded by who he was.

"No, I'm not a farmer," he says. "You don't make any money doing this. You do it because it's something to do. You do it because it keeps you going."

He pauses. "I'm in love with my land. I got it all from playing ball. It gives me prestige. Someone says, 'What you got?' I say, 'One hundred and twenty-one acres of nice land.' "

By 8 a.m. Fidrych has the sure thing in his hands, the surest thing since a baseball and glove. "When you have a chain saw in your hands, there's nothin' that can hurt you," he says. "A chain saw goes through anything."

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