Once, when his fame was fresh and Mark (The Bird) Fidrych was being smothered by it, he said in a mournful voice, "All I want is to stay the same Mark Fidrych who came into this game."
That was three years ago, in June, the month the gangling kid with the plumage of a peacock, the features of a sparrow and the gait of an ostrich arrived—no, exploded—on the scene. He appeared to talk to the ball before he pitched it. And how well he could pitch it!
Last Wednesday night Fidrych stood in the catacombs of Yankee Stadium. He had made his third start in yet another "comeback" for the Detroit Tigers. New York had shelled him, hitting three two-run home runs in 3? innings, dropping the Bird's record to 0-2 and increasing his ERA to 8.53.
His face was etched with worry. His voice was grave. Now, at 25, there is concern, shared by Fidrych himself, whether he can regain even a semblance of the skills of his 19-9 rookie season, when he won the American League ERA title (2.34) and Rookie of the Year Award.
"I feel fine. I threw with no pain," the Bird said in the dreary corridor. "That's the only thing encouraging to me. I got to get my game plan down. I've been wild. It could be in the stride. The thing I've got to do is find myself."
Then, almost as an afterthought, he said, "At least I can pick up a ball. I'd rather be pitching than sitting on the bench. Do you know what it's like to have to open the door with your left hand all the time? At least I can open the door with my right hand now."
This is pretty somber stuff to those who remember the enchanting Fidrych; the Bird who chirped captivating remarks is a rara avis now. During spring training he even had a picture of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, posted on his locker. "Thank God my arm feels better," he said a few days after hanging the picture, when he threw without pain for the first time in ages. "I've prayed a lot. I've become more religious. But that doesn't mean I've stopped cussing or anything like that."
Clearly two agonizing years of tendinitis in his shoulder have tempered his exuberance. The incessant questioning by reporters—How does it feel, Mark? Do you think you'll be able to pitch again?—has frayed his nerves. The nagging has often made him churlish, rude.
He is no longer the kid who pumped gas and tinkered with engines in Northboro, Mass., who flopped on his back in a disco and wiggled across the floor in a dance he invented and named the Fried Chicken, who sprayed his uniform with tobacco juices—"To prove to the guys that I chew."
"Sure, I've changed," Fidrych says. "Every year I have. Maybe I've calmed down. I've matured. And, yeah, sometimes I'm rude. Aren't you guys sometimes rude when you say bad things about me? Other guys on this team sweat to do their jobs, like Milt Wilcox when he beat the Yankees the other night, and nobody pays attention to them. You all come up to me. Why do you have to talk to somebody that hasn't done anything?