In the summer of l976, a youthful goofball named Mark Fidrych blew fastballs past just about everybody with a bat in their hands on the way to a 19-9 record, a 2.34 ERA, and the Rookie of the Year award. America’s pastime grew more and more fun with each start, as the Detroit youngster with a ball cap stuffed onto the hay bale of hair on his head threw strikes, talked to the ball and skipped about the mound like a three year old in an FAO Schwartz.
He was having fun, and so were we. Then he blew out his arm. Tried a comeback or two, but the zip was gone, and hitters he once had in a trance were jumping on his stuff. As fast as he hit the national radar screen, he was gone, a rueful footnote. Dang, Mark. That sucked. It woulda been so much fun watching you pitch for a few more years. (I woulda loved to shoot him pitching, but SI never gave me that duty, knowing full well I can’t shoot anything moving faster than tree sap in the wintertime.)
One of SI’s big sellers every year is the “Where Are They Now?” issue. Where do all these big time athletes go? What is their life after the diamond, the field, the court, the rink?
Some years had passed, so Bird qualified for a “where are they now” treatment. The Bird was back on the radar. SI was wondering where he had flown. The editors conferred. “Hmmmm. Who do we send to take pictures of this zany, eccentric chatterbox of a former athlete who still seems to live in a fantasy world?”
The first time I met up with Mark, he was making a go of it as gentleman pig farmer just outside of Boston. He approached me and the story carefully, as one would who had the experience of the world’s media pounding on his door and screaming for his time and then blowing away like yesterday’s newspaper. He had learned the hard lessons of fame, and exactly how ephemeral all that bullshit really is. So we took it a step at a time.
But he warmed up. Didn’t take long. Mark was such a bubbling life force that he couldn’t hold himself back from engaging. Remember, he used to talk to the frikkin’ baseball on national TV. Reserved is not the adjective for Mark, at least for long.
We talked, we laughed. I got on my knees into a bunch of pig shit to shoot him. A neighbor’s youngster watching the whole deal called him a buckethead. I agreed. Then he called me that, too. Again, I agreed. A pair of bucketheads, out there in the mud.
More years passed. Once again, SI wanted to know about the Bird, and wanted to know big time, like, you know, cover story. “Lessee, Fidrych is still a nut job, right? McNally available?”
This time I went back out there at the behest of my dear friend Mo Grise, now Mo Cavanaugh. Jesus, I miss Mo at the other end of the line. As an editor, she was that wonderful blend of empathy, enthusiasm, love of photography and the engagement of people that making good pictures requires. She’s a mother of two now, with a third on the way, and I daresay, she left the picture game at SI just about the right time. We went up to Massachusetts together, to meet the Bird, along with another feathered creature, Sesame Street’s Big Bird.
Days like that are the reason I have been a shooter for 30 years. Dreams of more days like this are the reason I remain a shooter. Met Mark again, and we just smiled. One more time around the block. Pair of goofballs, out there now with a yellow, nine foot, talking bird.
I also rented some baby chicks, which Mo had a helluva time wrangling, cute as they were. Little suckers are apt to go anywhere. I put the tiny darlings all over Bird, and he got down in grass and played with ‘em just like, you know, a kid.
Lost the cover. Lost it to a grouping of the very first iteration of the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. (I was shooting for SI, you may remember.) I’ve lost so many covers in my career, I don’t even think about ‘em. But this one stung, mostly cause, once again, Bird had ventured. He played the game, opened his door, and his heart, and didn’t get the cover. I felt bad in the way a field person does, that way that a NY managing editor with a regular table at Elaine’s can never know about. You make a bridge, right? You connect. You push a little, prod a touch, and do your job. You come back with pictures, and, on those best of days, something that remains in your heart. A good feeling. Maybe, even, a friend. You never, never promise anything, cause you know how it goes once you drop those pictures into the giant maw of a powerful weekly magazine.
But the promise is there, nonetheless, hanging in the air, the elephant in the corner everybody tries to ignore while they continue pleasant conversation. The cover. Hope I get it. Not for me. Really wanted it for him.
It went away. The story ran, and it was a good story, and by NY publishing calculus, everything was cool. “Hey, he got ink! Who’s he to complain? Story ran, he should feel lucky.”
Yeah, I guess.
It was a good story. One paragraph….
“To feed the hungry furnace of his mortgage, for instance, he now works as an independent subcontractor, laying sewer pipe and doing road repair with the aid of a 10-wheel Mack dump truck he bought in 1986 for $88,000. “The truck has kept the fahm goin’ and kept my life goin,” he says. The other day, though, on a road repair job at afternoon drive time, he accidentally dug into a water main that had been mismarked on the macadam. Which is how Fidrych–perhaps the most famous man in America during its bicentennial summer–found himself standing, forlornly, in the slapstick spray of God’s seltzer bottle. “I don’t know if you evah seen a broken watah main,” he says. “but 100 pounds of pressure through an eight-inch opening, that ain’t no small thing.” No, Indeed, and thus there appeared a geysah ovah Woostah.”
Now he’s gone, killed underneath that damn dump truck. I won’t go to see the Bird again, for another of our ten year reunions.
We had a prop jersey for the shoot. He signed it for me, and I have it framed. He simply said, “To Joe….what it is… Bird.”
Mark was what he was, at every moment. He threw a fast ball right into our hearts, and we loved him for it. Like Peter Pan, he always seemed suspended by wires, floating through a daydream of a life. I’m sure there were dark times, moments and memories. That was never shared with me. The Bird I knew, just a little, was a big kid with a big heart, a cartoon character with a Boston accent, and a slightly, wonderfully cockeyed view of life around him.
The last picture I made of him that day was the Bird walking with the Big Bird, over the hill, and through the grass. Laughing and chattering, as birds do.
Farewell, Mark. Godspeed. What a flight it was…….more tk…..