Mark Fidrych Remembered (8/14/54-4/13/09)
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.”
But Northborough was home, will always be home. Down in the sheep pen, the big ewe is moving restlessly around in the hay, her eyes slightly startled when Mark enters. Ten Corriedales stomp around him as he checks the confined mother-to-be. “That’s one of the things that Father Roberts taught me,” he says. “Keep her confined and she won’t walk away from her baby.” Father Roberts is a priest from the local abbey and a good friend of Mark’s. As in baseball, Mark gives credit to those who have shown him the way. He knew nothing of farming when he started out in the 1980s. He started big, with cows and sheep and pigs. When he was growing up. Mark used to like to watch Bonanza on television. “That was my dream, you know, to be like the Ponderosa. But then when I lost the arm and this and that, and the money flow wasn’t coming in, then it became all about money.”
He cut and sold firewood for a while, but he found that the best money he couId make was driving a truck. So he bought himself a ten-wheeler and taught himself to drive it. With his name on the door and his daughter Jessica’s name painted in scroll on the grill, Mark’s truck is a familiar sight on the roads around Worcester, hauling asphalt for a local paving firm throughout the spring, summer, and fall. With the trucking, he’s not able to keep so many animals. ”I’m up at five and I’m not home again until five. So it’s a long day.”
But not a hard day, not a day he dislikes. And even now, “People see me in my truck and they want to know, ‘How’s your life? Is it OK?’ And that’s a nice feeling.”
He plans to clear another section of the woods for more pasture, and he’d like to build a new bam. “But Father Roberts tells me this one’s OK, the sheep have shelter, it’s fine. So I put plastic up to cut the wind. Yeah, it’s fine. I’m happy.”
A long-legged, yellow-eyed goat nudges against him, and with his big pitcher’s hands. Mark Fidrych massages the goat’s shoulders. Baseball is not a big part of his life now: He doesn’t coach it or play it or even watch it very much or follow it in the news. “I never was a rabid fan, even when I was a kid. I just liked to play it,” he says.
His career was over so quickly, he could feel cheated. But he knows it is a world where anything can happen. “This is my paradise here. Life is always changing. I’m fortunate to have what I have. How could I feel cheated when, if it wasn’t for baseball, I wouldn’t be standing here? Baseball gave me a big start in life. Baseball is everything to me. It amazes me that fans are still there; they write and tell me the things that they remember.”