Book excerpt

The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych

Doug Wilson

St. Martin's Press

1
 

Northboro
The story of Mark Fidrych is unique to the annals of baseball history. It’s easy now to look back and wonder how it all could have happened; to be amazed at the innocence and lack of technologic sophistication of the era. How could a baseball player suddenly emerge from absolute obscurity and capture the nation’s affection so completely over such a short period of time? Of course, in this present day of media overload—of Web sites that rate the best prepubescent players in the country, of a multitude of national baseball tournaments for kids from the time they are able to first play the game, of agents who squeeze every dollar out of teams before signing the first contract—it could never happen. But back then, there was a small window of opportunity; just the right ingredients.
Fans had not yet lost every ounce of optimistic naiveté due to endless stories of selfish multimillion-dollar athletes involved in one scandal after another. It was a time when people not only believed in miracles, they wanted to believe in miracles. It was a time of exploding cultural change, when people held a fascination for things new and unusual, while at the same time others held an unmistakable anxiety over the irretrievable loss of certain values—and it was a time when a player with a one-of-a-kind personality and talent could show up and unwittingly satisfy both. The remarkable story of Mark Fidrych, how he achieved his fantastic level of popularity, and what he did afterward is worth revisiting, because it is unlikely to ever occur again. To understand it all, it is necessary, of course, to start at the beginning.
Before Mark Fidrych was The Bird, he was Fid. Fid from Northboro. Just one of the guys growing up in a small town. There is no mystery to the source of Mark Fidrych. Everything he would become later had its roots in this setting, which gave him the outlook on life and values that endured over time: the solid foundation of a blue-collar work ethic and the trinity that marked his life of family, friends, and fun. Everything about Mark that would later be celebrated by fans and the press can be traced to a small house on Chesterfield Avenue in a neighborhood called Northgate.
Paul Fidrych was of Polish heritage, one generation removed from immigration from the old country through Ellis Island. As with many children of parents who appreciated the opportunity America presented, Paul knew the value of hard work. It was a value he would later pass to his children by example. Growing up in Worcester, the second largest city in Massachusetts, Paul was big, outgoing, and loved sports, particularly baseball and football. A standout football player in high school, he dreamed of playing the game professionally. One day, while swimming with friends, he misjudged the depth of the water as he jumped from a bridge, resulting in a leg and hip injury that ended his football career. He was still good enough in baseball to play for hometown Worcester College, however.
While in college, Paul met and fell in love with Virginia Madsen, a petite woman who shared his outgoing personality and zest for life. There was one problem, which was not insignificant in those days: he was Catholic and she was Protestant. She didn’t want to convert, and he respected her opinion. Virginia signed a document promising to raise her children in the Catholic Church. The signed document made the church happy, and the couple was married in the rectory. Virginia would later keep her word to the church, and although not attending herself, she would adopt certain Catholic customs such as the rosary beads she would nervously destroy on a routine basis while watching her son play baseball.
Upon graduation from college, Paul took a job teaching at a junior high school in Worcester, where the couple lived in a small apartment. Paul and Virginia had a daughter, Paula, in 1952. A son, named Mark Steven Fidrych, was born two years later on August 14, 1954.
Soon after Mark was born, Paul and Virginia moved their family to nearby Northboro, a quiet town of less than ten thousand located about fifty miles west of Boston. Although settlers in the area date back to the mid-1600s, Northboro was still fairly undeveloped and was considered to be out in the country, containing only a single blinking light. Northboro was right on the old Post Road, later called Route 20, which led early settlers from Boston to western Massachusetts. Paul and Virginia bought a house in the new Northgate section of Northboro. Situated on land that only a few years earlier had been a potato farm, Northgate was a new type of development—similar to many developments that had sprung up across the country in the postwar years, modeled after the more famous Levittown in New York—a mass-produced, planned suburb. The same simple, easy-to-build floor plans allowed the neighborhoods to be constructed quickly and at lower cost. They offered workers and veterans a chance to own their own land and house—a place to raise their baby boomers. The houses in Northgate were all the same—called Capes, short for Cape Cods. The Capes were compact two-story houses with wooden shutters and a characteristic steep, perfectly pitched roof that would give the inhabitants a headache if they stood up too quickly away from the exact center of the upstairs room. The houses were close together with small unfenced yards. Paul and Virginia’s Cape cost the grand sum of $9,000.
The town of Northboro held a hardworking, generally well-educated, middle-class population. Northgate was a homogeneous community in which no one was really much better off than anyone else. Everyone had everything they needed—maybe not everything they wanted, but everything they needed. All the kids in the neighborhood were equal. The homogeneous houses of Northgate held homogeneous families: two-parent families with the father working and the mother tending to the house and kids. Being a new community, almost every house had kids. There were lots of kids. Households with six or eight kids were not uncommon. The fathers made modifications to their Capes to wedge more living space into the attics and cellars for their growing families. Northgate was a tight-knit community in which the young inhabitants would remain close far into their adult years and retain a sense of belonging even after they had moved away. It was the kind of community in which everyone knew everyone else; the type where kids knew they could never get away with anything because someone else’s mom would surely see them, and when they did, they would surely call their mom, and there would surely be heck to pay when they got home. People left their doors unlocked and there was little thought of crime. The parents regularly got together for cards or golf or bowling. Northgate was not a place for loners. There was always someone to play with. It was baby boomer paradise; classic postwar American suburbia—a great place to grow up.
The Fidryches’ Cape grew crowded as Paula and Mark were followed by Carol, four years after Mark, and finally Lorie, six years after Carol. It soon became apparent that young Mark was an active child. The world was full of mystery and exciting things, and the happy little guy seemed determined to explore them all. He had a likeable personality—always smiling, always having fun, but he was active. Very active. Years later, his mother would tell reporters about the time he got lost in a department store when he was three and they found him playing in the display window. Then there was the time he poured Comet cleanser all over her maple coffee table and rubbed it in. “He was in the cupboard all the time,” she would tell them.
Active little boys receive a rude welcome when they arrive in elementary school and are suddenly thrust into a world dominated by women telling them to sit still and be quiet. Sitting still and being quiet were not exactly Mark’s strong points, but he tried. Mark always wanted to please people. He wanted to do well in school and make his parents happy, but for some reason, he just couldn’t. Listening to tales of Mark’s activity level from family and former teachers, an observer could safely conclude that nowadays Mark would certainly be labeled as having attention deficit disorder. In 1960, there were no labels—only bad-conduct grades in school. Conduct grades became the bane of Mark’s existence at Fannie Proctor Elementary School. Good little boys got plusses in conduct. Minuses meant there was a problem. Mark got more than his share of minuses the first few years. “My father was always going, ‘What’s the minus for?’” Mark would later explain. “And the teachers were saying, ‘It’s like this, Mr. Fidrych, he likes throwing Chiclets, he likes throwing raisins, he likes talking in class.’”
Mark struggled mightily in school—reading seemed impossible. The letters appeared to be a jumble to his active eyes. Mark repeated first grade. Then he repeated second grade. He sadly watched as his friends moved two grades ahead of him. Already tall for his age, Mark towered over his new classmates, making it impossible not to stand out. “I stopped raising my hand in class,” Mark later said. “I wanted to disappear.” Paul, the schoolteacher, was determined to help his son and got tutors for him over the summers to work with his reading, but it was something Mark would struggle with for years. The accepted medical definition of dyslexia is a difficulty in reading comprehension in an otherwise normally intelligent child. By this definition, Mark most likely had dyslexia, which is often mistakenly thought to involve reversing letters and words. In the early sixties, schools were not equipped to give special help to children with reading disabilities—the kids were passed on and forced to make do the best they could. And that’s what Mark Fidrych did; he did the best he could. “Later in life, you say, ‘Maybe it will come eventually,’” Mark said sadly in 2000 while discussing his reading problems. “But it never really did.”
Mark’s reputation as a behavioral handful grew in the teachers’ lounge at Proctor. “Teachers always seemed to know about me even before I got there,” Mark said. “Sometimes they would get me in their class and say, ‘You’re not as bad as I heard.’” But teachers realized that Mark was not mean-spirited, just active. Teachers couldn’t help but like Mark because of his irrepressible personality and the fact that he kept them laughing. Things just seemed to happen to Mark. Like the time on the playground when he was bouncing an acorn off the sidewalk. It took an unexpected bounce and landed in the cup of a passing teacher—splashing coffee all over her clothes. Mark was the type of student a teacher would never forget; the type of student a teacher liked, but liked even better the next year when he was in someone else’s class.
Fortunately for Mark, there was another world besides school; another world not ruled by people telling you to be quiet and sit still; a world where you could be as active as you wanted—the world outside. A large gang of neighborhood kids Mark’s age played together constantly during their childhood and adolescent years. Back then, kids played outside all the time. Computers? Video games? Hadn’t been invented yet. Television? Only three channels, and besides, Mom wouldn’t let you back in the house during the day and most moms had a rule against TV before dinnertime. Winters were spent sledding down any number of great hills in the neighborhood—the big one behind Proctor Elementary School was a particular favorite—and having snowball fights. Summers were a time of constant play outside; they would leave the house after breakfast and not come home until dinner. They spent a lot of time in the nearby woods, playing army and building forts. There were kickball games in the streets, cops and robbers games on bikes, and hide-and-seek games around half-built houses. There was a standing mom rule in the neighborhood that kids had to be home by the time the streetlights came on, but otherwise, it was free range.
Because of the times and the community in which they lived, Mark and his friends enjoyed a sense of freedom that modern children and parents would be unable to fathom. School was within walking distance. The small downtown commercial area of Northboro and the baseball fields were easy bike rides from the neighborhood. Every kid had a bike and they roamed the area in packs. Saturdays they would ride to Sawyer’s Bowladrome in town and hang out all morning. When it was really hot, there was the community pool, and, years later, Northboro residents would remember the ritual of always checking the coin return slot on the pay phone at the pool (a common practice among all the kids, but one that years later would cause second looks when performed by a major league baseball player). When kids felt mischievous, they might ring door bells and run off.
While enjoying these other pursuits, for the boys, it was mostly sports that dominated their time. They enjoyed whatever particular sport was in season, but baseball was clearly the favorite—everybody played baseball. Nothing else held such a hallowed place in the hearts of kids of that era as baseball. Perhaps the contemporary philosopher Foghorn Leghorn said it best at the time, voicing what most kids felt: “There’s something kind of eee-yew about a kid that’s never played baseball.”
Often the gang would play baseball in the school yard, but when that became too crowded, they built their own field. Mark, about ten at the time, and his friends borrowed tools from their fathers, cleared an empty field near his house, and laid out a diamond. They made base paths, a mound, and even a backstop. The outfield end of the field stopped at a neighbor’s fence—the perfect distance for a home run (although sometimes the lady beyond the fence refused to give the home run balls back). “It was a neighborhood project for kids,” says Jim Jablonski, Mark’s next-door neighbor on Chesterfield Avenue. “We would work on the field half the day and play baseball the other half.”
The field backed up to the house of Ray Dumas. Ray’s kids, Ray and Kevin were part of Mark’s group. Mr. Dumas was a lifetime baseball lover. He had played semipro ball when younger and still played a mean game of softball. Dumas helped the kids construct the backstop on their field. He was also an umpire who worked area games, Little League through Legion, for over thirty-five years. He had a front-row view of young Mark’s progress on the baseball field over the years. “He was always a happy kid,” says Dumas. “He was always into something. A very good ballplayer even when he was little, he always had a strong arm. The kids would play baseball out there in the field every day in the summers. If there weren’t enough kids to have a real game, they would play hot box or some other type of baseball game.” Perhaps surprising to modern parents, their games raged gloriously without interference from adults—the kids policed their own games and made their own rules.
Paul Fidrych was also a baseball lover. He was determined to give his son every chance he never had. Paul spent hours with young Mark, teaching him the finer points of the game in endless backyard sessions—catching him, hitting him grounders, encouraging the active child to stay focused while playing baseball. “His dad was always out in the yard with him,” says Jablonski. “Not just playing catch, but Mark pitching to him. That’s where he developed his control. There wasn’t a fence, and if Mark threw a pitch his dad couldn’t catch, he had to go get it. So that was a good incentive to have good control.” Unlike the classroom, Mark could still move and be hyperactive on the baseball field as long as he could focus on the task at hand. There was no one on the baseball field telling him to be still and be quiet. Mark fell in love with sports, particularly baseball.
Paul Fidrych was always there, a partner in Mark’s baseball development. He coached many of Mark’s teams in Little League and Babe Ruth League. “He knew a lot about baseball; he was a good coach. Very competitive but a nice guy,” says Kevin Dumas.
“He was a tough guy as a coach, a disciplinarian, demanding but not overly so,” says Dan Coakley, another member of their group. “He expected a lot, communicated well. Not afraid to tell you the way it was. He was also a nice guy. I respected Paul Fidrych.”
*   *   *
While they were living in the middle of Red Sox Nation, Mark, unlike his father and neighbors, was not particularly a rabid fan of the Red Sox. Actually Mark wasn’t really a fan of professional baseball at all. Because reading was such hard work, he didn’t spend his time reading Sports Illustrated and the Sporting News like his father. He was too active to sit still and watch a game on television. He was too busy playing himself to be bothered with others playing the game elsewhere. Even in his teens, the only Red Sox players Mark knew about were Carl Yastrzemski (you couldn’t live in Massachusetts and not know about Yaz) and George Scott (because he heard he drove a cool car). Playing baseball was the thing; not reading about it or watching it—playing it was where the true fun was for Mark.
In the sixties, baseball was the only sport deemed important enough by adults in the area to have organized leagues for kids. Northboro had a great Little League program with well-maintained fields and lots of parental support. The Opening Day festivities and parade down Main Street were a highlight for the whole town each year. Absolutely nothing in the world was more grown-up looking, more cool, more of a sign of being an unqualified success in the world than the thick wool Little League uniform with the team name in script across the chest, the baggy pants, and the crumpled hat—especially when it was being worn by your big brother. Every kid in town looked forward to the day when he was old enough to play Little League baseball. The Northboro Little League was a community endeavor. Adults without any kids playing often watched the games or even coached. Kids showed up when they weren’t playing—to watch their buddies play and to see everyone else. There were no travel teams in those days to siphon off the best talent—everyone played in town. The games were unapologetically competitive. At the end of the year, the best players were picked to compete on the All-Star teams—the pride of Northboro taking on the best of neighboring towns.
Kids soon learned, without being told, who the best players in the league were. Everyone knew who was leading the league in home runs. They knew which pitchers they hoped to avoid and which ones they hoped they would face. Paul Fidrych’s boy had the reputation as the former. He was a hard thrower. “I played on the same team with Mark in the Minor League as a nine- and ten-year-old,” says Mark’s friend Paul Beals. “We won the championship one year. Mark pitched or played shortstop. He was a good athlete. When he pitched, it was an easy day for me at first base. Usually in a six-inning game, of the eighteen outs, probably thirteen or fourteen would be strikeouts. He was good. Does anybody really think they’ll make the pros at that time? That is something that happens to other people. But Mark was good.”
“But he wasn’t really identified as that much better than everyone else at a young age,” says Jim Jablonski. “He was an All-Star, but there were a lot of really good baseball players in that neighborhood. That’s all we did most of the time, and there were a lot of guys who were good.”
“I joked with him that he needed to work on his home run trot,” continues Jablonski. “Once he hit a grand slam, and he jumped up and down more than he ran around the bases.”
“Not too many people got hits off Mark,” says his catcher, David Miles. “He didn’t have great control then—does anybody at nine? He’d either strike everybody out or walk them or hit them. He was pretty high-strung. I don’t remember him talking to the ball, but he had similar mannerisms.”
Ah yes, the mannerisms. The antics. They were there all right. Mark’s hyperactivity manifested itself on the mound at the earliest age. Even as a nine-year-old, Mark’s mound behavior was full of movement. Tall for his age and gangly, he was a peculiar sight on the mound. “He was always moving,” says Beals. “Maybe it was nervous energy, but he was just a fidgety guy.” Smoothing the mound with his hands, talking (whether to himself or the ball)—it was all there as a kid. But the other kids didn’t make a big deal about it. That was just Mark being Mark. Besides, when someone is striking out most of the other team, he can do about anything he wants before throwing the ball. The little boy who could not sit still in class was remarkably focused on the baseball field. It was almost as if he realized at that young age that by doing the same things, incorporating them into a routine, and constantly reminding himself of what needed to be done (by talking to himself), he could keep himself zeroed in; a response to the encouragement of his father who, well aware of his son’s activity level, continually urged him on with the mantra, “Focus, Mark.”
Mr. Dumas, who was a good friend of Paul Fidrych, recalls that it was Paul who taught Mark to smooth the mound. “His father always told him to be comfortable on the mound; he’d tell him, ‘Make sure the mound is just right.’ He didn’t want him stepping in the other pitcher’s hole. He’d say, ‘Make your own hole.’”
*   *   *
The Fidrych house held a close family with lots of laughter, parents who were involved with their children, and an endless assortment of animals, birds, and domestic rodents. Mark’s favorite pet was a dalmatian named Domino. The three sisters remember watching Saturday morning cartoons while sitting on the couch with their brother and Sunday family dinners—one o’clock sharp, no excuse for missing it. There were a lot of family traditions such as the annual Easter egg battle. Each person hard-boiled an egg and colored it. Then they tapped the other person’s egg on the end. The last egg to crack was the winner. The sisters warmly recall fishing trips and family vacations; four kids packed into a station wagon driving to places like Niagra Falls.
Youngest sister Lorie learned at an early age to keep a wary eye as she moved through the house—an attack of noogies could come from her big brother at any time. “But I always managed to get him back,” she says. “I would spray him down with perfume when he was getting ready for a date or pour chocolate syrup on him when he was in the shower.
“What you saw out on the mound in the majors—that was just him,” continues Lorie. “If you ever came over for dinner—it was talk, talk, talk, constant energy and movement. That’s how he was.”
Mark was close to his parents and would remain so through adulthood. While during the sixties it was not uncommon for fathers and sons to have great conflicts as their opinions and outlooks on the world grew in divergent directions, there was apparently little of that in the Fidrych household. Paul had a profound effect on his growing son. “Mark and Dad were always in the backyard playing,” says Paula. “My dad was the one who saw the potential in Mark. Mark was a good guy, but academically he was not a scholar. My dad said, ‘That’s okay, because you have a gift for baseball.’” Paul was also an excellent candlepin bowler and passed on that skill to Mark, who won a regional television bowling competition in his early teens.
While Mark shared sports and work with his father, he had a different kind of closeness with his mother. Virginia was short, thin, very outgoing, and hyper like her son. She was frequently exasperated by Mark’s actions but could not stay mad at him. “She felt ‘Marky’ couldn’t do anything wrong,” says Paula. “I think he was probably the favorite. He was the only boy in the family. She would always fix him special dishes and cakes. Mark always sent her roses on her birthday when he got older.”
It is important in understanding his personality to know that Mark’s parents filled him with old-school values and a strong work ethic but did not discourage him from expressing his individuality. And Mark Fidrych possessed a plethora of individuality just waiting to be expressed.
But things just seemed to happen to Mark. Once, on a vacation, he was teasing his sister by pretending to throw her shoes—brand-new Stride Rites—out the back window. One shoe slipped and he accidently threw it out. The terrified kids waited about ten miles before mustering up the courage to tell the parents what had happened. It was chalked up to the growing legend of Mark.
“We did give our parents some headaches,” says Paula. “It was innocent fun.” Like the time Paula and Mark asked their parents if they could convert their bedroom into a haunted house for Halloween. “They said, ‘Sure,’” says Paula. “We were going to charge our friends twenty-five cents to go through it. Mark put a butcher knife in the headboard of the bed, and we poured ketchup all over the white sheets. When we brought our parents up, I thought they were going to die.
“Things just always seemed to happen to Mark,” adds Paula.
There was the time when Mark was five and he and Paula were rushing down the stairs to the basement. “Mark said, ‘I can fly,’” remembers Paula. “I said, ‘You can’t fly.’ But he wouldn’t believe me. So I pushed him.” Unfortunately, Mark found out that his big sister was right, he couldn’t fly. He fell down and broke his leg.
Then there was the time a little later when some friends came to the door as the family was eating. Mark was so excited to go play that he forgot to put down his fork before he bolted through the door. He tripped on the step, fell down, and the fork punctured the skin under his eye. “The sharp end of the fork actually curved under his eyeball,” explains Paula. “My mother went out there, and when he turned around the fork looked like it was sticking out of his eye. You could hear her screaming all over the neighborhood.”
Once when Paul had a large fire of burning trash at a construction site, Mark was having fun rolling down a nearby hill. He misjudged the landing and rolled through the fire, burning his face. “We were always going to the hospital,” laughs Carol. “Our childhood was full of scratches and bandages, mostly on Mark.”
While most of the scratches and bandages were on Mark, family and friends received their share of scrapes and scares in Mark’s adventures. Once while at the lake fishing, Mark got bored and decided to wait in the family Oldsmobile. The car mysteriously slipped out of gear. It rolled down the hill into the lake with Paul chasing after it. Fortunately, the car came to a stop in the shallow water.
Then, there was the time in their early teens when friend Dan Coakley was teaching Mark to play golf in Dan’s backyard. “I’ve got a seven-stitch scar in my head from that golf lesson,” laughs Dan. “I showed him how to swing a few times, then he goes, ‘Okay, I got it, I got it.’ Then he swung the club and hit me in the head. I was bleeding all over the place. Mark was really upset. He ran into my house yelling, ‘Mrs. Coakley, I’ve killed Dan.’”
When Mark was a little older he bought a minibike. He proudly put his mother on and showed her how to start it. Unfortunately, she gunned it and took off before he had a chance to tell her other details—like how to stop. Mark chased his terrified mother as she zigzagged, screaming, all over the yard and across the street, finally catching her up against a neighbor’s garage. Good times. Good times.
Paula will never forget her first car. “It was an old Volkswagen,” she says. “I got it for five hundred dollars when I was eighteen (1970). Mark had just got his license, and he begged and begged for me to let him take the car out with his friends. I knew better, but I finally said, ‘Okay.’ When he came back, the whole side of the car was damaged. I asked him what happened, and he said, ‘Well, we were driving it on the ice and I think I took the corner too fast.’ They had been out sliding on the ice for fun. My dad told him he had to fix it up. Mark felt real bad about it. He said, ‘I’ll fix it up for you so good you won’t even recognize it, I promise.’ Well, he was right. When Mark and his friends brought it back, I didn’t recognize it. They had taken out the backseat and put in an American flag backseat. They had changed the horn so that when you pushed the button it went aaoooooga. They gave me a go-kart steering wheel and painted the fenders different colors. We still laughed over that car whenever we would get together thirty years later.”
There was rarely any sitting around in the Fidrych household. When not playing sports or going to the hospital, Mark had work to do. He learned the old-fashioned New England respect for money and frugality from his father: if you want something, earn it; don’t expect something for nothing and don’t waste your money once you get it. Paul Fidrych worked a second job pouring concrete and often took Mark with him. There were also trips to the junkyard for scrap metal to earn extra money. Mark worked regularly growing up. First, there was a paper route; waking up early and strapping on the canvas bag full of papers, then riding his bike through the neighborhood and showing off his arm. The hardest part of that job was collection day—knocking on doors to get the payment and recording it in the little spiral notebook, dealing with the same deadbeats each time who always seemed to be out of money on collection days and had to be hounded. Mark later bagged groceries to supplement his income. In the summers, there was money to be made caddying at the Juniper Hills Golf Course, which was a short bike ride from the Fidrych house.
When Mark was fourteen, his father helped him get a job at the gas station of a friend. Mark had always enjoyed tinkering with engines—lawnmowers, cars, motorcycles—anything with a motor. He loved working at the garage. He saved up the money from this first real job and bought his own motorcycle. A few years later, he went to work at Pierce Oil and Gas in the middle of Northboro because the bearded midtwenties Dave Pierce offered to pay him $2.25 an hour and didn’t care whether or not he got his hair cut. Dave Pierce became a mentor of sorts to Mark, teaching him how to fix motorcycles and work on engines. Mark threw as much energy into his work at the gas station as he did on the baseball field. “Mark was one of the hardest-working people I ever met in my life,” says high school friend Brad Ostiguy. “When he worked at the gas station, he would sprint out to your car, clean all the windows, check the oil—he was just full of energy and full of life in everything he did.”
It was this idyllic childhood that set the foundation for Mark Fidrych: a combination of Norman Rockwell and Leave It to Beaver, with a dash of Huck Finn tossed in; the good part of Huck Finn—the good-natured, adventurous, inquisitive kid much more comfortable with the freedom of the great outdoors than in the classroom. No matter where life would take Mark in the future, Northboro would always be home, and he would always plan to return.
*   *   *
Mark was a good athlete in all sports as he got older. Taller than most kids, he was wiry and gangly, but surprisingly coordinated. He played on a town youth football team in seventh and eighth grade called the Northboro Steelers. The Steelers were undefeated in his second season. Mark was a receiver and defensive end and showed the traits that were becoming characteristic of him—enthusiasm and emotion. Friends and teammates recall that he played all out until the whistle blew. In his last game Mark caught a touchdown pass—his first one. Few witnesses remember the score of the game, but everyone remembers the emotion Mark showed as he broke into tears after the catch.
By the time Mark reached Babe Ruth League as a thirteen-year-old, he was an accomplished pitcher and definitely one of the best in the area. Fred LeClaire was the All-Star coach for the Northboro Babe Ruth League. “Mark was great in Babe Ruth League,” he recalls. “No one could touch him. He was overpowering. He was a good, coachable kid too. Paid attention when you would teach him stuff. But he didn’t really need much teaching by then. His dad had taught him everything he needed. He was very close to his dad. Mark was always laughing and liked to have fun, but he was respectful of his elders. I remember one game in the All-Star tournament, we were playing a good team and needed to win. Mark walked the first three batters. The only problem he ever had was that he was so good, sometimes he would drift off. I went out there and reminded him how important the game was. So then he struck out the next three batters. He just blew them away.”
*   *   *
Mark Fidrych grew up during an era of great social change, but the kids in his circle of friends didn’t seem too concerned with the outside world. The one concession to the changing attitudes involved their hair. Mark wore his in a crew cut throughout the midsixties; however, in junior high he began to let his hair grow out as was becoming the fashion. As he did, a funny thing happened. “It came in curly,” says Paula. “He had this huge head of the most gorgeous curls I’d ever seen. I was so jealous. I wanted to go to the hairdresser and get mine curled like that. He would just run his hand through it—that’s all he needed to do to comb it.” Paula didn’t know it at the time, but in a few years, those gorgeous curls would become part of the most famous head of hair in the country.
*   *   *
Mark showed up at Algonquin Regional High School in the fall of 1970. Talk to anyone who knew Mark Fidrych in high school and the phrase “never a dull moment” appears, as if by magic, within thirty seconds. In the classroom he was still very active. He drove a few teachers nuts, but he was nice about it. “He was so friendly and had such a fun-loving personality you just had to like him,” says Robert Boberg, his ninth-grade English teacher. “But you were constantly saying, ‘Mark, will you PLEASE sit down.’”
“Mark was in my tenth-grade biology class,” recalls science teacher and baseball coach Jack Wallace. “He was active in class, but he would work at it. He was pretty cooperative. And he was a good kid. Once Mark was scrambling down the hall and the chemistry teacher happened to step out into the hall at the wrong time. Mark just flattened her. It was an accident. He was very apologetic. She was okay, but he helped her up and kept apologizing until the next class took place. He was very sincere about it. We talked about it later and, being a teacher first, I was impressed that he apologized and helped her. It kind of defined his character. Most of the teachers liked him. He was active, but was polite to adults.”
Most kids at Algonquin knew Mark Fidrych—tall, lanky, all arms and legs, with a big personality—he stood out. If you had to put him in a group, it would have been the jocks, but he was friendly with everyone. There was no hint of a pampered arrogant athlete. “Back then, Mark was exactly the same as you later saw with the Tigers,” says high school friend and baseball teammate Jeff Henningson. “Always a character. Lots of energy. It wasn’t an act, it was just Mark.”
Mark was known for being a little wild, a little eccentric, definitely extroverted, and a fun-loving guy. He was also known as a guy who would befriend anyone, regardless of social status. He would not only talk to new kids in school, but would show them around and maybe give them a ride home. He is remembered by freshman baseball players for being nice to them and making them feel like a part of the team when he was an upperclassman. “Mark had absolutely no prejudices,” says Paula. “He would talk to and make friends with anyone.”
Diane Bonnell will never forget her first day at Algonquin. Rushing into a class wearing the short skirt and sandals of the time, she tripped and slid into the front of the room. She was saved from embarrassment when a tall curly-haired kid in the front row jumped up, spread his arms wide with his palms facing the ground, and yelled, “Safe!”
“I remember once in school, I was sick and missed a few days,” says Dan Coakley. “Mark came over and hung around with me. It was the kind of thing that was unusual for someone that age to think about doing for a friend. But that’s the way he was. He always thought about other people.”
Mark was immediately recognized as a very good athlete in all sports in high school. Back then, before the era of year-round specialization, the best athletes played two or three sports in school. “He was a very good basketball player,” says Brad Ostiguy, who played both baseball and basketball with Mark. “He would never give up. He would just keeping fighting and fighting for rebounds. The basketball coach, Phil Phillips, and the baseball coach, Jack Wallace, were both very tough and demanding. You either accepted that and played harder, or you couldn’t take it. Mark was an extremely hardworking guy. He didn’t have any trouble with the coaches. He kept us laughing, but not around Coach Wallace.”
Confident in his abilities, Mark also allowed himself to dream. “He always said from the time I met him when we were fourteen that he was going to pitch in the major leagues,” says Ostiguy.
“I can remember when we were sophomores, Mark saying, ‘Someday I’m going to be a bonus baby,’” says Coakley. “We laughed at him. But his father knew he had talent. He was well taught. Mark was very good, but never the kind of athlete who had the golden spoon. He worked hard.”
As with most similarly sized towns, activities for high-school-aged kids included hanging out, driving around, and goofing off—mostly hanging out. In Northboro, the favorite place to hang out was a field down a long dirt road back in the woods. It was called by everyone, imaginatively enough, “The Field.” At The Field, kids gathered around bonfires, sat on the hoods of their cars, cranked up the stereos in their cars, and let the good times roll—a pre-Internet style of social networking.
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While Mark distinguished himself as one of the best high school pitchers in the area as a sophomore at Algonquin, American Legion ball is where he really built a reputation. The high school baseball seasons in Massachusetts were fairly short—it’s hard to play baseball when snow is on the ground. Most of the best baseball was played in American Legion. Back then, every town had a man like Ted Rolfe. He worked for the state employment agency, but he lived for baseball. Rolfe had played semipro baseball in the area years earlier after graduating from Boston University, and then he had turned to coaching kids. A thin guy, kind of hyper, always chewing gum, always talking, he had a passion for the game and passed it on to his players. A good teacher who enjoyed interacting with his players, he had fun practices, but he got his point across and stressed fundamentals. He was a fiery competitor and could be combative to umpires guilty of being nearsighted. Rolfe was in his midforties when Mark played for him, in the midst of a three-decade career of managing American Legion programs in Northboro and nearby Marlboro.
The Legion team in Northboro drew kids from surrounding towns. Only the best local players got to be on the team. In fact, some years there were only one or two guys from Northboro. Mark made the Legion team the first year he tried out as a fifteen-year-old, but, as one of the youngest players on the team, he was a seldom-used shortstop. According to legend, the first time Rolfe saw Mark pitch the next year, he asked him, “Why didn’t you tell me you were a pitcher?”
“You didn’t ask,” was the reply.
The next two years, Mark was the ace of the pitching staff. “Mark was very unique—there was nobody like him,” says Legion teammate David Veinot, who also faced him during the school year while playing for Marlboro. “He was very competitive. He was a good guy to have on your team, but no one wanted to bat off him when he pitched batting practice. He was definitely a standout in the league.”
The first game Mark pitched in Legion ball, on June 19, 1972, against Fitchburg, he threw a no-hitter while walking only two and striking out fourteen. “He was a real good pitcher then, right from the start,” Rolfe said in 1976. “Unlike that first game, he was never the super strikeout pitcher, though he was very fast. But he always had the game under control. He did all the things he does now to concentrate. He’d go through a whole season of talking to the ball, but we didn’t think anything of it. He was a free spirit. He did what he wanted, but he never caused any trouble.” Mark was also noted at the time for his zeal in rushing to congratulate teammates after good plays, even if they were in the outfield.
Mark didn’t give up an earned run in the 1972 Legion season until July 4. The nearby Enterprise-Sun of Marlboro noted that year that “Coach Ted Rolfe’s Northborough Legion baseball team has a lot to offer, but if you like to watch good pitching, Mark Fidrych is the name to watch for on these sunny days.”
During the school year, Mark was the ace of the Algonquin staff. Jack Wallace was the baseball coach at the time. A young, dedicated teacher and coach, he first met Mark as the assistant football coach Mark’s freshman year and got on him about too much socializing with players on the other football teams before and after games. On the baseball field, Jack Wallace ran a tight ship. He tolerated no goofing off and had no qualms about getting in someone’s face to make a point. “Those were tough years to be a coach because there was a lot of stuff going on,” says Wallace. “Attitudes were changing, a lot of kids were rebelling. You worried about discipline. And Massachusetts’ eighteen-year-old drinking age at the time certainly didn’t help any.
“Mark was a little different,” Wallace continues. “Before I got to know him, just seeing him around school, I worried about how he would respond to the structure of a team and rules. But he never caused any problems. He was a great guy to have on a team. Back then, the kids from Northgate were really tough, competitive kids. If you got three or four of them on your team, you knew you were going to have a good team.”
As with every authority figure of the time, hair was constantly an issue with Mr. Wallace. Mark’s long curly coif was no exception. “Of course, everybody had a little trouble over their hair in those days, and Mark’s was a little longer than most guys’ hair,” says Ostiguy, “but he always cut it just enough to keep the coaches happy.”
After the first game of the 1973 high school season, the Enterprise-Sun reported, “Mark Fidrych, a junior righthander, showed why he is rated one of the best pitchers in the area Friday as he struck out 13 for the Algonquin High School Tomahawks in their 7–2 opening season encounter against Wayland.” In his second game, Mark struck out seventeen in a 4–0 win over Westboro. It would take more than fifty-three innings for Mark to give up an earned run that season, but Algonquin struggled hitting, and Mark compiled a 4–3 record despite an ERA of .029—just two earned runs in sixty-two innings. One of the losses was by one run in a game in which his third baseman made three errors in one inning. In another loss he struck out twelve and gave up only one hit but was hurt by seven errors. Mark developed arm trouble the last part of the year that was severe enough to keep him from pitching in the high school postseason tournament.
Fortunately, Mark’s arm healed quickly once the Legion schedule began that summer. “Any lingering doubts that the fans may have had about the tall right-hander’s complete recovery from arm trouble were soundly crushed Saturday afternoon,” the Enterprise-Sun announced July 9. “Fidrych was overpowering as he led Northboro to a revenge 2–0 win over Westboro.” A week later Mark told a reporter that he thought trying to throw curveballs caused all his arm trouble and that he had stopped throwing them. “I throw the knuckler about twenty times a game, otherwise I stick with my fastball,” he said.
One of the most memorable games of Mark’s Legion career came in a matchup against Grafton Hill’s Stan Saleski. Saleski, who went on to play minor league baseball and later became a scout for the Yankees, pitched twelve innings of no-hit ball. In the game that was still being talked about thirty years later, Mark matched him with twelve no-hit innings of his own. Saleski walked in the ninth inning, advanced on errors, but then was thrown out at the plate. Northboro scratched across a run to make Mark the winner in the thirteenth inning. “There were some games in Legion where Mark was just dominant,” says Veinot. “He had a lot of good games.”
It was during Legion ball that Mark first received an avian nickname. That’s right,… the Mad Stork. “Once when Mark was pitching, there was an argument at the plate,” recalls Veinot. “Mark didn’t start it, but he came storming off the mound, all arms and legs everywhere. We called him the Mad Stork after that.” The Mad Stork nickname only lasted the rest of that season and never seemed to catch on as well as another bird-inspired one would a few years later.
After Mark’s junior year at Algonquin, he faced a critical decision regarding his last year of high school. Because he had repeated the two years in elementary school, he was now nineteen years old and would be ineligible to play in the Massachusetts High School Athletic Association public school league. Paul Fidrych felt it was worth the risk of going to a private school for his senior year. There he would be able to compete in sports against a higher level of competition and hopefully attract the attention of a scout or receive an offer of a college scholarship.
Fortunately, there was just the place they needed in nearby Worcester. With its impressive nineteenth-century architecture and beautiful tree-lined campus, Worcester Academy had a long and distinguished history. First opened in 1834, and boasting eight different former Harvard football captains among its alumni, the academy was proud of both its academics and athletics as it viewed sports to be an essential part of a good education. It was a partial residential-commuter school; some students lived on campus in dorms, but most, like Mark, drove from home every day. Many of the top athletes were postgrad students, working on their grades and games in preparation for college. Almost every student there planned on going to college. It was an all-male school when Mark arrived in the fall of 1973—females would not be allowed until 1975. Students were required to wear coats and ties to classes, but Mark, like a lot of other students, wore the same tie every day, no matter how filthy it became—a sort of early seventies show of disdain for the rules; a silent way of getting back at The Man.
Tom Blackburn coached both baseball and basketball and was the athletic director at Worcester Academy. He had played basketball (1955) and baseball (1956) on Duke teams that made the NCAA tournament. An excellent pitcher, he had thrown a no-hitter for Duke; however, an arm injury ended his professional aspirations and he returned to Massachusetts to teach and coach.
Blackburn had a good baseball mind and was especially a good coach for pitchers. He was very old-school, a stern disciplinarian; tough but fair. A master of The Look, he had steely eyes that would stop a wayward player in his tracks—he didn’t need to yell.
Mark played both basketball and baseball at Worcester. In basketball, he was the sixth man, a hustler who made an immediate impact on the game when he entered. “He was good in that role,” says Blackburn. “The game seemed to speed up when he came in. He was a real good basketball player.”
But baseball was Mark’s main focus. The arm trouble of the previous year was completely behind him and was never a factor at Worcester. Blackburn had watched Mark pitch in Legion ball and knew what he was getting. “He always had great control,” says Blackburn. “He could throw it knee-high nine out of ten times right where he wanted it.”
Mark stood out among his teammates, both with his personality and work ethic. “He was the hardest-working guy I ever saw,” says Tom Zocco, a fellow baseball player at Worcester Academy. “We ran a lot together. I was a wrestler so I had to. We ran a lot of sprints. Mark liked to run as part of his training for baseball—most people didn’t do that back then. Some of the other people looked at us like we were crazy, but he trained hard.”
The early worries over grades were largely a thing of the past as Mark seemed to accept the fact that he was not going to be a scholar. “His main focus was to be a major league pitcher,” says Blackburn. “You could tell by his actions and work ethic that he wanted to be a good player. He was strictly focusing on it then. That was unusual for that age. He was a different kind of player. He had a whole different style to him. But he was so humble about it that it attracted a lot of people to him. People wanted to see him succeed.”
“Mark kept us laughing,” says Zocco. “He was always joking, telling funny stories, pulling pranks. Sometimes Blackburn didn’t like the laughing, but I think he probably let Mark get away with a little more because he knew what a competitor he was. Mark hated to lose.”
Worcester played a tough schedule—a mix of other similar academies and small colleges as well as junior varsity teams from major universities such as the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, and Brown. Mark was the mainstay of the pitching staff—usually saved for the best teams. He actually had a losing record on the mound that year, but was hardly to blame, sometimes suffering from a lack of help or just the tough competition. One game, he threw a three-hitter against Dartmouth’s JV team, giving up only three infield hits—no one hit a ball out of the infield—but lost.
“Mark was very supportive of his teammates even when they didn’t play well,” says Zocco. “And he was very genuine about that. He might yell at you in a competitive manner, but he was always supportive. You couldn’t get mad at him. Even today, after fifty years, I’ve met a lot of people, but he’s probably the most genuine person I’ve ever met—he was that way in school.”
“Every pitch meant something to him,” says Blackburn. “He was a competitor. When he was on the mound, he was total concentration. He was talking to himself all the time—that’s how he kept himself in the game. He also did the thing with the mound. The first thing he would do was put down his glove and move the dirt around and pat it to get it where he wanted it. And he never let up in a game. Once he was pitching against Brown and we were winning by five or six runs in the later part of the game and a runner got to third base. The run wasn’t really critical, but Mark worked and struck the batter out. He ran off the mound—he always ran on and off the field—and sat down next to me and said out loud, ‘No way he was going to score.’ Every run meant something to him.”
Throughout Mark’s high school years Paul Fidrych was always there. By all accounts, Paul was supportive, encouraging, and thoroughly involved with Mark’s high school baseball career. He never missed a game. According to Paula and Carol, he made note of everything Mark did and discussed it with him after the game, even though Mark may not have felt like discussing it at the time, but he didn’t seem to cross the line and take away the fun of the game. Unlike the parents of some star players, Paul never interfered with the coaches—he was content to watch and let the coaches do their job.
Mark had originally hoped to catch the attention of a college coach while at Worcester Academy, and he was disappointed that no college coach felt he was worthy of an offer. His scores on the SAT were not very good, and he had trouble getting accepted to any college. Mark found one himself, a two-year engineering program at Highlands University in New Mexico. But Paul Fidrych was not too keen on Highlands University. Late in the year, Blackburn spoke on Mark’s behalf to an acquaintance who coached baseball at Old Dominion in Virginia. He agreed to take Mark, but not on scholarship.
As far as professional baseball, there was little reason to be hopeful. The nearby Red Sox did not seem impressed with Mark. The Red Sox scout for the area talked to him a few times, but didn’t show any real interest. “But there were quite a few scouts around. They knew about him,” says Blackburn, even if he didn’t know about them.
Unaware of the interest of any scouts, Mark figured his baseball career was over when the Worcester season concluded. He continued his job at the gas station and also worked for a construction company, making three bucks an hour. He happily threw himself into this work that appeared to be his destiny.
The Detroit Tigers hadn’t really been in the picture at all. Mark often later said the Tiger scout only saw him throw one pitch. He had been playing in the outfield in the game the Tiger scout saw and was called in to get out of the inning—which he did with one pitch. It must have been one very good pitch to have impressed the scout that much. In reality, Joe Cusick, the Tigers’ New England scout, had talked to others who liked Mark’s pitching ability, and, unknown to Mark or Paul, he had been following Mark as early as his sophomore year at Algonquin—sending back glowing reports to the front office in Detroit. Cusick was impressed with Mark’s competitiveness and his body development. On one official scouting report Cusick wrote, “This boy can play” and suggested, “Draft for high class A.” Cusick ranked Mark seventh among all the prospects he scouted in his area. When it came time for the 1974 draft the Tigers selected Mark in the tenth round, the 232nd player chosen.
Since there was no expectation of being selected, Mark didn’t pay any attention to the baseball draft and didn’t even know when it took place. He initially didn’t know what to think when a friend roared up to the gas station with the news that Mark had been drafted. In 1974, in the era of Vietnam, being told you were drafted was not exactly a good thing. But this was the baseball draft, his friend explained. Then Mark’s father drove up in his car and repeated the news. “Hey, tell them you’re not working here anymore,” his father told him. Mark decided to work the rest of the day, still not sure about this draft business. “The whole family was just shocked when he got drafted,” Carol later said.
Cusick called that night and arranged to meet the Fidryches at their house the next day. Negotiations did not take long—about long enough for Cusick to get a foot inside the door. “I met him at the door with the pen in my hand,” Mark later said, actions that would have mortified a modern agent. Mark signed for a bonus of $3,000. He then packed his bags and set off for Lakeland, Florida, to meet up with the Tigers rookie league team. Paul Fidrych’s son was now a professional baseball player.

 
Copyright © 2013 by Doug Wilson

DOUG WILSON is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and author of Fred Hutchinson and the 1964 Cincinnati Reds. An ophthalmologist by day, Wilson has been a lifelong baseball fanatic. He played baseball through college; however, his grade point average was higher than his batting average and he was forced to go to medical school to make a living. He and his wife, Kathy, have three children and live in Columbus, Indiana.