"I've had the good and I've had the bad. Now I'd just like to stay in the middle for awhile, ya know ?"
Mark (The Bird) Fidrych
Mark Fidyrch still looks the same, his face boyish, handsome and intense one moment, comic, coarse and dopey the next.
His blue jeans and denim jacket are old and stained by motor oil, his sandals well-made and well-worn. His hair still is a wild mop of blond rock-star curls that looks greasy even when clean.
Fidrych looks like a relaxed, young, gumchomping gas-station mechanic who can't keep from boogieing along with the disco on his transistor radio. The $125,000-a-season pitcher lives frugally here in an efficiency apartment, barbecuing chicken and cooking vegetables, then gobbling them straight from the pot.
In the Detroit Tiger locker room, Fidrych is the same, hopping from stool to stool. In 10 minutes he can start a dozen conversations or tell a dozen jokes. Yet he never seems to be in a hurry, just more full of energy, good spirits and himself than anyone else.
"I count these hairs on my chest every day," he says to a teammate. "It's up to nine. Come on, you hairs. Get growin'.
"Hey," Fidrych says to a clubhouse flunky, "the only way I autograph four dozen of these balls is if I get a dozen of 'em to sell for myself. Nobody does nothin' for nothin' in this world."
Then he laughs, signs all four dozen, squeezing his signature between those of others, returns the balls, keeping none.
"John Wockenfuss," says Fidrych, inspecting his catcher's signature on one ball."Still misspelling your name, I see."
An arrogant, foolish radio interviewer sticks a microphone in Fidrych's face as he sits autographing. "Here I am today in sunny Florida with The Bird," intones Golden Throat, proceeding to read a melodramatic recitation of a question.
Fidrych eyes the microphone, seemingly as resigned as a wise owl on a perch. Then, in a moment of radio silence, he very loudly clears every sinus passage in his head and spits into a tobacco juice receptacle.
The interview is short.
Radioman blanches.Fidrych looks at him with blank Gee-ain't-I-stupid? innocence. That'll sound great on the old Wolverine sports network. Back to you, WQRK.
After his shower, Fidrych sits outside the Tiger clubhouse in the sun in the right-field corner with a towel around him. Several late-staying fans, including two middle-aged women with binoculars, are Bird-watching from 50 yards away.
Fidrych nonchalantly drops the towel and makes a couple of naked turns before stepping back into the clubhouse with no change of expression. Towel, no towel; it makes as much difference to him as to an 8-year-old.
The world is always scrutinizing The Bird, poking him with microphones, watching him with binoculars. He stopped watching back long ago. He gives them what they want, but in a way they never expected. And don't quite know how to take.
When Fidrych steps on the Tiger mound here to throw batting practice, everthing about him looks the same, too. The delivery is smooth and free, the control pinpoint.
"I'm back on the mound where I belong," he says. "Man, I get out there and I'm so happy that I just start singing along while I'm pitching, ya know what I mean? Not Throwing Hard
"I'm not throwing hard yet. I'm takin' my time. But it feels great."
The sight of Fidrych, baseball's pop idol in exile, is enough to send the 400 fans here into a standing ovation. He must step off the mound and tip his cap to quiet them.
The thought of The Bird back where he belongs makes many people, even those who couldn't care less about the Tigers, want to sing and cheer.
"Bird looks super," says Ron Le-Flore. "Wouldn't surprise me to see him start the season." Fidrych, in unrestrained moments, has said the same.
It would, however, surprise a great many other people.
No one wants to say it here, not even in a whisper that the exuberant Fidrych might overhear, but The Bird may be washed up. Not shelved for another season or two, or even permanently reduced in pitching effectiveness, but flat out finished forever at age 24.
The question now, after two years of mysterious shoulder miseries, is no longer whether The Bird can come back and be a 20-game winner. It is whether he can win 20 games the rest of his career.
When the Tigers talk about the future, they do not mention the gate sensation of '76 who attracted 901,239 people to his 29 starts.
"We're not counting on Mark this season," is the official line from new Manager Les Moss on up. "Anything he gives us is a bonus. He must rehabilitate himself slowly."
It's about time. That was not the Tigers' policy the last two seasons when, impatient, they did not discourage Fidrych's natural tendency to rush everything. Three times he came back too soon with Tiger blessings and ended up again on the disabled list.
"The way young pitchers are treated is practically a scandal," Philadelphia's Jim Lonborg said last summer. 'Give him a little rest and get him back out there' is the common theory.
"I can see it happening now with Fidrych," said Lonborg. "He's done it twice... now he's doing it a third time."
Less than a month later, Lonborg's words were born out, as the Tigers sent Fidrych to Lakeland to work out, then ballyhooed his return date, selling tickets in advance. Fidrych's shoulder broke before he ever got back to Detroit.
Veteran Detroit reliever John Hiller holds the opinion of most players about The Bird.
"It's hard to say if Mark can make a comeback. I pray he does," said Hiller, "But to say, 'I think he will,' well, it's gotten past the point where you can do that."
Every pitcher expects arm trouble. But what Fidrych has had for almost two years, limiting him to 81 and 22 innings in '77 and '78 after pitching 24 complete games in a 19-9 '76 season, is not mere arm trouble. It's called "broken arm."
"Is anybody going to interview us today?" Milt Wilcox (13-12) says to Daye Rozema (9-12) in a clubhouse stage whisper that Fidrych can hear as he is being interviewed.
"Nah," answers Rozema. "We don't have broken arms."
Actually, Fidrych's teammates are almost as fond of him as the fans, and keep their jealousy on simmer. It is a mark of the Mark of '79 that he can now joke, and be teased, about his pyschic and physical pains.
That is a breakthrough, since The Bird's ills have always been treated like a Detroit state secret.
No one with the Tigers will confirm or deny what has always been the scuttlebutt about Fidrych's initial injury -- that he ripped knee cartilage while horsing around in the outfield here in Lakeland two years ago this week.
Fidrych returned from knee surgery in just seven weeks. Judge the wisdom of that in retrospect. He went on a sixgame winning streak, but apparently changed his delivery unconsciously. On July 12, 1977, a date that may yet live in Tiger infamy, Fidrych first felt the pain and stiffness in his shoulder that has plagued him ever since. He has pitched only 22 innings in the 250 Tiger games since then.
A year ago at this time, "Mark was exactly where he is today," says Hiller. "Looking good throwing BP (batting practice). In high spirits."
Again, Fidrych and the Tigers couldn't wait.
The Bird opened the season with two powerful, complete-game victories, bringing his three-year career statistics to an efficiency level reached only by the Walter Johnsons of the sport: 33 complete games in 43 starts, a 27-13 record and 2.47 earnedrun average with an undistinguished, poor-fielding team. In 353 innings, he had just 70 walks.
It is not possible to say that The Bird who created those figures is gone forever. "You don't lose your control," says Fidrych, "and that's all pitching is. Gettin' 'em to hit those sliders at the knees to the infield."
Fidrych also has gone from a "a beanpole kid" to a strapping 190-pound athlete whose once-bony chest is starting to fill out like Charles Bronson's.
"He's just become a man," says pitcher Jack Billingham. Muscles and Maserati
"I don't know what all the muscles will do," says Fidrych, grinning like a kid who has traded in his '56 Chevy for a new Maserati. "Carryin' that extra 15 to 20 pounds could make you stronger, or you could tire easier, I guess. We'll have to see.
"But nobody can ever say that I didn't work to get my arm back. I was in that hospital every day doin' those exercises."
Actually, until just a few months ago, plenty of people were saying that Fidrych had misunderstood the doctor's orders to "rest" to mean "relaxation" as well.
Then Fidrych got the shock of his life. A group of specialists from all over the country came to a Bird symposium in Orlando after last season.They were orthopedists, not ornithologists.
Fidrych returned to Detroit, never hearing the group's conclusion. Minnesota team orthopedist Dr. Harvey O'Phelan compared Fidrych's chronic problems to those of Luis Tiant from 1970 to 1972 when El Tiante was pinkslipped twice and considered finished.
It was O'Phelan who first said Fidrych needed to totally rehabilitate the atrophied pitching muscles in his arm -- a long-term process -- and that if he rushed back as soon as he felt healthy, he would just destroy himself again.
"That really woke Mark up," says one source close to the Tigers. "He realized he may have to do his exercises religiously for years to get his arm as healthy on the inside as it looks on the outside. He's finally buckled down."
Nevertheless, Fidrych's greatest enemy is the unique competitive temperament that made him a pitching phenomenon as well as the first baseball Beatle.
Fidrych has a marvelous fire inside his head. All his antics -- talking to the ball, landscaping the mound -- are part of a manic intensity, a pitching trance, in which he blocks out the world of distractions, feeds off the energy of the crowd and reaches back for a more total and sustained effort than perhaps any pitcher of his time.
In that trance, Fidrych is incapable of taking it easy. When he goes to the mound, he stops being Mark Fidrych, the Massachussetts man-child, malnourished on TV and rock 'n' roll, and becomes that primal athletic animal, The Bird, who calls up resources that go back to the cavemen. Can any shoulder, no matter how much Fidrych rehabilitates it, withstand the demands of the Bird?
"We all worry about Bird 'cause he's such a great guy," says the veteran Billingham. "He's the naturally loosest, most uninhibited, most intouch-with-his-deep-feelings athlete that I've ever seen."
Fidrych contains many delightful contradictions and considerable intuitive wisdom. After his great year, he signed a three-year, $300,000 contract, saying, "I could have gotten more if I had wanted to sign for one year, but I want to make sure I get my (fouryear) pension if something happens to me."
"Just like that crazy Bird," joked the wise guys, laughing at the toast of baseball who would talk of pensions. Now Fidrych will get his pension. It may be the smartest thing he ever did.
Fidrych has not grown dumb with the years.
Is this a make-it-or-break-it year, he is asked?
"I've already made it," he says.
And he is right. His name will retain its marketability well. If the Tigers finally give up on him, other teams with better records of saving pitching arms will certainly give him another try if he wants it.
"Wayne Simpson had a start as fast as Fidrych with Cincinnati, then hurt his arm," says Billingham. "He's been bouncing ever since. The difference is the way Fidrych packs 'em in the park."
That is The Bird's insurance policy -- and he knows it. No Pay Reduction
"I ain't gonna take no pay cut (in '80)," Fidrych has told friends, "and the man (as in owner) knows it."
In the end, Fidrych has survived adversity and acclaim -- his personal Scylla and Charybdis -- by remaining defiantly simple. All those laid-back flower-child lyrics of the Grateful Dead have proved to be the perfect philosophy, the ideal psychological armor for the first rock 'n' roll pitcher.
Most important, Fidrych has stayed rooted in his Worcester, Mass, family. For his father, the school teacher, he has bought a 43-acre apple orchard farm.
What does Fidrych plan to do with the land?
"It's my dad's land," he answers.
But you bought it, he is reminded.
Fidrych looks genuinely puzzled.
"Man," he says, "what's mine is his and what's his is mine. We're a family."
His mother's parting words to him when he signed a pro contract were, "You make sure you come home the same nut you've always been."
Everyone in Worcester knows he got his flakiness from his mother. But don't mention it to Fidrych.
"Makin' fun of my mom?" he says, in a tone of voice that indicates it would be extremely wise not to.
Fidrych has been buffeted by a world of changes in just three years. Yet a roller-coaster ride that might have unbalanced others seems simply to have excited him.
Fidrych reported to spring training a day early this year, only to discover that the Tigers' hotel had no reservation for him. Two years ago, he was given Lakeland's key to the city. This spring, he couldn't get a room key.
Was The Bird bitter or driven to thinking deep, ugly thoughts about the fickle world?
"No big deal," says Fidrych. "I just called LeFlore and asked him if I could sleep on his floor."