Thursday, December 10, 2015

Giving Back, Bird Style: Mark Fidrych's Post-Baseball Years

One of the things that attracted me to the Mark Fidrych story was the way he lived his life after baseball--essentially the same way he lived it before. I found this rather remarkable given the circumstances of his career and how it ended.

Here was a guy who, improbably, became the most famous person in the country in 1976, who lit up baseball stadiums like no one ever had before. His youthful enthusiasm, electric talent and unparalleled natural charisma made him irresistible. He was on the cover of seemingly every magazine that year.  For one incredible summer he was on top of the world, loved by fans everywhere.

And then it was over. An injury his second season set off an an agonizing 6-year journey of failed attempted comebacks--done in by a torn rotator cuff.

If anyone ever had cause to be bitter and wallow in self pity, maybe even descend into substance abuse and live a sad, tortured existence after baseball, it was Mark The Bird Fidrych. Since his first season was at the beginning of the free agent era, he never made big money--a year or two later and he could have named his price. Also he played in the days before medical advances that could have diagnosed and maybe even treated his injured arm--a few years later and he could have maybe pitched another 15 years. It should have been enough to drive him mad.

And yet from numerous sources, I learned first hand that he went back to his tiny Massachusetts home town and resumed his life. He remained the same upbeat, incredibly spontaneous, fun-loving, out-going, friendly guy he had always been. He bought a farm and a dump truck and worked for a living. He got married and raised a daughter.

He clearly understood how great his fame had been, yet he remained humble enough that once while working in his mother-in-law's diner--a few feet from a framed cover of Rolling Stone bearing his own smiling mug--in answer to a stranger's inquiry that he looked familiar, he answered, "Well, I used to work at the garage on Main Street."

And he never forgot those who helped him along the way. While busy working for a living, he still found time to lend his fame out for good causes.He regularly showed up on opening day of the local Little League to sign autographs and give inspirational talks to kids. He was active in the nearby Jimmy Fund and Dan Farber Clinic and could always be counted on to show up for charity golf and fishing events. The majority of his charity work involved children, especially those with special needs. "It's called giving back," he told a reporter in 2001. "If I can help a younger kid out that is a great thing to have because people helped me out."

Mark's biggest charitable activity became the Wertz Warriors of Michigan. Baseball fans will recognize the name--before he launched the 1954 World Series drive that made Willie Mays famous, Vic Wertz had been a popular member of the Detroit Tigers and he made the Detroit area his home after baseball. Wertz helped organize the Wertz Warriors in 1982 as a way to fund Michigan Special Olympics. The group uses an annual seven-day, 900-mile cross-country snowmobile ride across the state to provide complete funding for the Michigan State Special Olympics Winter Games.

After Wertz passed away, the group used other former Michigan-area athletes as front men for the fund-raising. Mark Fidrych, through a chance meeting with one of the members, signed on enthusiastically in 1992 and made it for the next 17 straight years. He was the drawing card, giving talks and signing autographs at each stop. Although he was the one everyone showed up to see, he didn't act like a big star. He was one of the guys. He blasted his way through the snow of Northern Michigan with the same enthusiastic abandon he showed on major league mounds. "For me it's the athletes, It's another thing to help out where you can," Mark said.

In talking to members of the Wertz Warriors, it was obvious that they loved the guy.
I recently found some pictures they had given me of Mark on their trips. Unfortunately, there wasn't room in the book to print them all.

Here's wishing every major league baseball player could remain as grounded and happy in retirement as the one and only Bird.

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