While shagging flies at the Tigers' Florida training camp on March 21, Mark Fidrych, baseball's most refreshing performer last year, tore cartilage in his left knee. Ten days later he underwent corrective surgery and is expected to be out of action until June. But Bird watchers need not despair. Fidrych was a late bloomer in 1976, too, and ended up winning 19 games.
Only a pale suggestion of sunlight relieves the cheerless stone-gray skies above Northboro, Mass. this winter afternoon. The peaked roofs of the houses and churches are blanketed with snow, and the trees, themselves gray in the fading day, are barren, forlorn. Still, the youths, jacketed and blue-jeaned, loiter in the center of town. Some are half sloshed on beer quaffed in the back seats of cars: most are just hanging out. On a large tree stump next to the old brick town hall, crude wooden signs indicate with some poignancy Northboro's distance from more exotic communities, PARIS 4250 reads an arrow pointing due east. CALCUTTA 8301 advises one aimed in the opposite direction. Boston is not far away, less than an hour's drive, but it, too, is a world apart, because Northboro (pop. 9,218) is as resolutely small-town as was another New England village, Thornton Wilder's fictional Grover's Corners. The arrows on the tree stump are indeed poignant, but they are also symptomatic of a mild xenophobia. All of those other places—Rio, Madrid, Casablanca—are as foreign to the Northboro state of mind as they are distant in miles. The signs seem to admonish the wool-gathering youths to keep their feet on the ground and not forget where they come from. This is Mark Fidrych's hometown.
Route 20, narrowed to a sliver of ice by the encroaching snowbanks, jabs through the tiny town center and passes a succession of little roadhouse bars where the local boys are inclined to spend an evening. Despite their dilapidated facades, the taverns are cheerful oases from the cold, clubhouses really, where the boys can watch a little television, play the pinball machines and the juke box, argue about sports and college and deplore the absence from their company of women of quality and dimension. These lamentations continue unabated even when the local girls—not a bad lot—are there, hanging out themselves, deploring, no doubt, the absence of men of substance and breeding. They all speak in the tongue of the Kennedys: "Baaaastin," "Cuber," "streetcaaaas." They are having a good time. These are Mark Fidrych's people.
At Ted's Caf�, near Pierce's Sunoco station, where Fidrych pumped gas, and a mile or so from the Cut Off, which is where Fidrych hangs out most frequently. Bill Gauvin is downing a Budweiser. At Ted's or anywhere else in Northboro, the famous pitcher for the Detroit Tigers is not the Bird, as he is called in the rest of the country and, for all anyone knows, in Paris and Calcutta, but Fid, the scrawny kid they all grew up with.
"We gave Fid a roast here [that's pronounced heah] right after the season up at the White Cliffs restaurant," Gauvin says between sips. He is a good-looking, good-natured kid about Fidrych's age, which is 22. "We had a case of Heineken right behind his chair at the head of the table. Most of us went to school with Fid, and we could hardly believe it when he got so famous in baseball. The Monday night when he pitched on TV, my mother broke down and cried. Then all this Bird stuff started [stahted]. Well, I slipped up one day and asked another guy if he was goin' to the big party [pahty] for the Bird. 'Bird,' he says, shocked. 'For Chrissake, he's Fid. The name's Fid. Don't give me any of this Bird stuff.' And he was the same old Fid at the banquet, dressed just like me in a shirt and jeans. Hell, a kid from this town, he don't know what to do in public. If Fid hadn't made it in baseball, he'd be right back here pumping gas and hanging out at the center like everybody else."
Mark Fidrych is lying carelessly on a couch in his one-bedroom apartment in the Detroit suburb of Belleville. He is a lanky 6'3". 175 pounds and so eternally restless that he looks as uncomfortable in repose as someone bound and gagged. He is wearing his uniform—blue jeans, a T shirt with FLEETWOOD DINER written across the front and no shoes. Above his quizzical young face, curly blond hair rises in a coiffure accurately likened to Harpo Marx's. Fidrych always looks as if he is about to ask, "How come?"
A rerun of I Love Lucy is on television, an episode filmed about the time Fidrych was born. He is eating strawberry yogurt in great unhappy gulps, glancing nervously out a window at a view of unrelieved snow-white nothingness. The lake where he keeps his boat is frozen solid, a marble corridor into the void. Fidrych rises to switch off the antic figures on television and replace their considerable noise with the even more clamorous sounds of Led Zeppelin on his stereo. A huge stuffed owl perches menacingly atop one of the speakers, a gift from some misguided fan. Everybody sends the Bird birds. They peer out at him from every cranny of the small apartment, monsters his celebrity has created. Nevermore. Nevermore.
"I don't like being in the city," he says, explaining his flight to suburban Belleville. "Action? Naw, all I'm lookin' for mainly is to play pool and the pinball machines and, maybe, dance. I don't care what kind of people I'm around as long as I'm havin' a good time. The guy that owns me [ Detroit Tigers owner John Fetzer] took me to L.A. in December for the baseball meetings. He wanted to educate me. So all I see there is guys, and all they're doin' is talkin' about baseball. Baseball, baseball, baseball. Night and day. That ain't for me. Those guys live and die baseball. My dad would probably enjoy that. He always reads sports and stuff, doesn't go to bars every night like a lot of others. Me, I just wanna goof around. But these guys are askin' me, what d'ya think of this and that? Hey, I say, I don't know. I'm just playin'.
"I've met Elton John and the Beach Boys. That was a thrill to me. Out in L.A. I got to meet Cary Grant, Monty Hall, Don Rickles and Frank Sinatra. That's more for my folks. I mean, what am I supposed to say to Frank Sinatra: 'Hi there, Old Blue Eyes'?
"I had to get up and give a speech in L.A. when they gave me this award. I was really sweatin' it. These lights were shinin' on me so I couldn't see one person. It was like one big black mess out there, like talking into nothing. Really weird [weeee-ud]. I just said thanks a lot and goofed around a little. I mean, I'm not gonna prepare a speech or nothing. What do they wanna hear? They wanna hear about me, right? I don't have to write that down."