Mark Fidrych Remembered (8/14/54-4/13/09)
Instead, the way he tells his story, it is flecked with anecdotes, like the times when his teammates, Rusty Staub and Mickey Stanley, helped him out, coached him like fathers, and the time his manager went out and bought him several suits to replace the T-shirts and cutoffs he was known for wearing between games. (“You know,” he says. laughing, “like the leisure suits with the big lapels?”)
Neither does he leave out the night of July 26, 1977, when there were 50,000 fans at Tiger Stadium, all of them there to see him pitch, praying he could regain the form that had made him a star. And he couldn’t do it. The arm just wouldn’t work. A rookie named Jack Morris, in his major league debut, came in to pitch. And, as Mark tells it, “It was his turn then. He pitched a hell of a game. The fans got their money’s worth that night.”
If you walk into his house, you do not see any sign that Mark Fidrych had played professional baseball. There is no trophy room, no framed photographs of himself with President Ford or Ralph Houk. Not that these things aren’t important to him, but he really hasn’t had the time. He keeps all the awards and magazine articles upstairs in a box in the attic. “People ask me why, and I don’t have an answer. Even back when I was playing, I never had anything around my apartments. I just never got into that.”
When his career was all over, Mark could have stayed in baseball, coaching or doing any of the myriad jobs that retired players often do, but Mark wanted to get away. “I wanted to get back to the real world,” he says.
The real world was Northborough, Massachusetts, the town where he had grown up, the town where his parents still lived. While he was pitching in Detroit, his older teammates advised him. “It’s not always going to be there for you. Mark. You gotta have something to fall back on.”
Mark missed the era of huge money in sports. Endorsements in those days meant free gloves and free sneakers. The most he ever made as a major-league player was $125,000, a piddling sum compared with today’s multimillion-dollar contracts, but it was a lot of money to Mark. “A ton of money in my eyes,” says the man who was famous for poking his finger into the coin return slot every time he passed a pay phone. “I was a pack rat with it.”
When he came back home after that big Season, he bought this land. Over the years he had seen houses built on the places in the woods where he and his friends built tree forts. The town was changing, but he still loved it. He got a job selling booze, and one day he met a girl named Ann at the diner. She had grown up in Northborough, but they had not known each other. On October 12, 1986, they were married, and soon after, they built this house, high on the hill. Broad and majestic, with fieldstone fireplace, vaulting high ceilings, and enormous windows, it is his refuge, where he can see the lights of Boston and watch the area in between grow bigger buildings and shine brighter lights. “But I’m safe here. This I can control,” he says of his small kingdom. There is a pond where he and his daughter, Jessica, who is 13 now, can skate. The only coaching he does is for Jessica’s soccer team. “Because she’s my daughter.” he says.
Fidrych lives on more than a hundred acres a mile and a half from the little house where he and his three sisters had grown up, the house where, in the backyard, his father had taught him to play ball. In spite of the many coaches he had as his career blossomed, he still credits his father with having taught him the game and with being his greatest inspiration. His father died three years ago. Mark has trouble talking about him without his eyes misting up.
He could have stayed in Michigan, where people still stop him on the street and remind him of his past. “But I wasn’t really a city folk. There were a lot of things that people would have hired me for. But when I got out of the game, I also wanted to get away from it.”
Mark often goes to Michigan, for appearances and fund-raisers. “‘When I get in a plane and it starts flying over Michigan, things just start flashing — I just start thinking of things that have gone on there. Michigan will always be in my life. Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if I had stayed in Michigan.”