Holding on to Mark Fidrych

Today, April 13, is the one-year anniversary of Mark Fidrych's death. Fidrych, who died accidentally while working on his dump truck, is on the most important card in the shoebox of cards from my childhood.
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Today, April 13, is the one-year anniversary of Mark Fidrych's death. Fidrych, who died accidentally while working on his dump truck, is on the most important card in the shoebox of cards from my childhood, the one most intimately connected to a particular feeling that has guided my life, despite my attempts to ignore it or deaden it or throw it out. What is this feeling? I guess it's something like joy, if joy could be daunting, even scary. It's a miniature sun inside your ribcage, making you want to laugh and hide and shout and live forever. It's that line in Bob Dylan's "Up to Me": It frightens me, the awful truth of how sweet life can be. It's Mark Fidrych, that big happy curly-haired rookie in 1976, bounding around the infield, beaming. It's Mark Fidrych, gone too soon.

I have my mom to thank for being able to hold on to that feeling, and not just because she didn't throw out my baseball cards, including that most important card, my 1980 Mark Fidrych. In that card, the former phenom and baseball-whisperer seems to be simultaneously hiding and caressing a baseball in his hands as if cradling a terminally ill pet in a veterinary waiting room. He doesn't want to let go of this friend that he cajoled and convinced to do miracles for him that one season before his lean, coltish body began to break down. He knew what it was like to feel a miniature sun inside his chest. He hadn't pitched more than a handful of innings in years, but he wasn't ready to throw out that feeling.

My mom always found a way to hold on to that feeling, too. She came to several points in her life when the conventional thing to do, the normal thing to do, the adult thing to do, would have been to throw it out. The 1970s are more often than not dismissed as a throwaway decade of ridiculous choices, but to me it's the opposite of a throwaway, because people like Mark Fidrych and my mom held on to uncommon beauty instead of doing what adults were supposed to do.

My mother -- all my parents (the odd plurality of this phrase will make sense momentarily) -- decided early in the decade to experiment with an open marriage involving my mom, my dad, and my mom's boyfriend, Tom. This 1970s phenomenon (which crossed over into the world of my baseball cards via Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson, Yankees pitchers who swapped wives in 1973) was touched on perhaps most famously in Rick Moody's The Ice Storm, but in that novel the experimentation seems an extension of miserable deprivation in the existing conventional marriages. The individuals involved remain locked in their solitudes; the "openness" they reach for is as illusory as their brief, loveless extramarital connections. The term most often used to label the 1970s -- the Me Decade -- seems very much to apply. Conversely, the experimentation done by my parents, which ultimately proved too complicated to sustain, was instead an extension of the utopian questioning of the previous decade. Give peace a chance, that loud euphoric directive, became more intimate, more private, and arguably even more powerful as it began to shape the day-to-day lives of individuals. It developed into a question. Give everything a chance; figure out what that means; apply it to the heart: why not try for more love, not less?

Mark Fidrych lasted for only one beautiful season as a legendary performer, a glowing personification of unbridled love for the game. Likewise, my parents' try for more love fell apart before long, but instead of taking the failure as a sign to return to a more normal path, my mother and Tom, with the support of my father, took my brother and me from the suburbs to the country to attempt an off-the-grid, back-to-the-land existence inspired by the rustic, millennial visions of Woodstock and the Whole Earth Catalog. The plan: Tom would be a blacksmith; Mom would grow all our food and paint; my brother and I would run wild and free through meadows, laughing.

"What were they thinking?" I was once asked, years later, by an acquaintance my age who had, unlike me, found a way to become a normal adult. He had gotten a steady job. He had started a family. He had done all that an adult was supposed to do. I hadn't, haunted by the feeling that the wide world of my childhood in the 1970s was getting narrower and narrower.

I didn't have an answer to my acquaintance's question, but now I understand that they were thinking of the same thing that caused Mark Fidrych to act with the enthusiasm and guilelessness and happiness of a kid while playing against grizzled, unsmiling men. They were thinking of that feeling in their chest, refusing to carve it out and throw it away.

It was hard from the start, the back-to-the-land dream. Nobody needed a blacksmith. The garden never produced enough food. There was never much time to paint. My brother and I rarely, if ever, ran laughing through meadows, instead developing a biting sarcasm and complaining about the terrible TV reception in our new rural home. Money got tight. The winters were long and cold. By 1980, the year of my card that shows Mark Fidrych cradling his sick pet, the baseball, my parents' dream of building a new Eden came to an official and suitably subdued end when my mom enrolled in a computer class.

But though this class led her, eventually, finally, to a 9 to 5 job, she wasn't giving up on that feeling inside her chest. A few years later, just as first of the Mark Fidrych "Where are they now?" stories were starting to surface, showing an older but no less engaging and friendly curly-haired man, my mom followed this feeling again and went back to school at an age when she was old enough to be the mother of most of her classmates, and through several years of hard work earned a PhD in art history.

Just after she got that degree, she and I cleared out a storage facility that held a lot of the things from that earlier era of our family, all the stuff we hadn't needed since the 1970s but had never had the heart to throw out. Old gardening and blacksmith tools, rolled-up paintings, books about meditation and canning and New Games.

My baseball cards.

We threw out the majority of the stuff, but as we drove away from the storage facility, my mom in tears, I held the box of baseball cards on my lap and could tell that there was something in there, something still alive. It scared me.

It would take me years until I really dug inside the box. When I finally decided to do so, inspired by my mom and Mark Fidrych and everyone else who's ever tried to stay connected to that feeling that is something like joy, but scarier, I jabbed my hand in at random and pulled out Mark Fidrych, circa 1980, both of us trying to hold on.

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