For a hot 22-year-old major league baseball star, the first week of April ought to be a time of expectation and promise. But Mark Fidrych’s April Fool’s Day present was no joke. On March 31st, at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, he was operated on for a torn cartilage in his left knee. And as a result, he probably won’t pitch until the first week in June — which means his sophomore season will begin almost exactly a year after he first hit the spotlight.
Fidrych tore up his knee while shagging flies in the training-camp outfield on March 22nd. It was initially thought that the injury was minor. But when he attempted to run on March 29th, it was clear that the problem was more serious. He was talking to a photographer on the sidelines, explaining how short-lived an athlete’s career is, and as he worked out his knee popped in and out of joint several times. The next evening he flew to Detroit, where he was given the bad news.
Steve Pinkus, Mark’s agent at William Morris, attempted to set up a conference call between the three of us on March 31st, as Mark was settling down in the hospital to wait. But Fidrych didn’t feel he could speak. Although, according to Pinkus, the doctors were confident that the injury would not be a recurrent problem, The Bird was clearly depressed and not a little worried. Through Pinkus, Mark sent word that he wasn’t really sure what he felt. Although the doctors said he would be out for eight to ten weeks, Fidrych said he thought he’d make it back sooner.
Somehow, Mark Fidrych just doesn’t fit. It’s not that he’s surly (hard-ly), or even that his 6′ 3″, 175-pound body looks like the result of mating Harpo Marx with Stanley Laurel. Among baseball players, Yankee catcher Thurman Munson is the champ of sullenness, mean enough to bite the ears off one of Catfish Hunter’s hounds; in contrast, Fidrych is an effervescent adolescent; it’s one of the reasons he and Munson have a minor feud going. And if you think Fidrych looks weird, you ought to see Al Hrabosky of St. Louis, the Raskolnikov of relief pitchers, whose appearance must guarantee skin searches at airports throughout the world.
But Mark Fidrych is strange in ways that a haircut, a beer belly and a bad attitude wouldn’t help. At 22, he is the Big Bird, after his Sesame Street lookalike, an All-Star, 1976 Rookie of the Year, after winning 19 games for the Detroit Tigers, a team which escaped last place only because of his strong right arm; he’s also the American League’s earned run average leader (meaning that he allowed the fewest scores per inning pitched of any player in the league), despite the fact that he pitched for the league’s second-worst defensive team.
Ordinarily, such credentials would force others to adapt to Fidrych. But his style is singular in baseball. A game which, in any case, doesn’t place great value on singular style. Statistics are the métier of the sport; all else threatens to fiddle with tradition.
Consider the role of the pitcher as developed through 100 years of professional baseball. More than any other individual in team sport, he is isolated, standing alone at the very center of the infield. Moreover, it is considered an omen of great importance should anyone else violate the bare dirt mound he occupies in the midst of the grass. Let a catcher or infielder walk over to confer, and you know there’s trouble brewing. If a coach or manager approaches the mound twice in any inning, the pitcher is shamed, and must leave the game. So most pitchers react to this potential for true, personal embarrassment cautiously: between innings they walk slowly, carefully, between the dugout and the mound. Once there, they stall, manicuring the mound with their spikes, making sure each pebble is just so before considering and, finally, pitching. As a result, most baseball games last two and a half hours or more. It is the stately role of the pitcher which causes this; all other players must hustle — it is the game’s cardinal virtue. But the pitcher must be solemn, almost priestly in his art.
Fidrych destroys all this. He is a bundle of twitches and tics. He runs — never walks — to the mound and back after each half inning. To landscape the mound, he will get down on his hands and knees, digging a bit here, filling in a bit there. After any better than average defensive play, he rushes around shaking his infielders’ hands. After a strikeout, rather than turning his back and rubbing the ball, gloatingly, he’ll leap from the mound, shaking his fist in triumph. When a ball is hit, he rejects it, as if to punish it: “It’s got a hit in it,” he explains. He jogs the 60 feet 6 inches to home plate to deliver the offending missile to the umpire: “Let it get back in the bag and goof around with the other balls.” And of course, when the ball is satisfactory or unproven, he chatters to it, convincing the sphere to work his will. Nonetheless, he pitches rapidly: the Tigers average two hours, 18 minutes per game, ten minutes less than the American League average. Fidrych finished most of his games five to ten minutes quicker than that, several of them in less than two hours. On or off the mound, he is not a contemplative kid.