The old-timers wore either dress shirts or sports shirts and slacks to the press reception.
Their hair was cut short and neatly combed, their waistlines advancing over the belt. Many were Hall of Famers, some were utility players in their time. Together, they looked like they had just come off the golf course.Two, standing off in a corner together, looked different. They talked quietly and laughed together while the others were introduced. These two needed no introduction.
Mark Fidrych, a 33-year-old truck driver from Northboro, Mass., wore blue jeans, a blue polka-dot shirt and brown boots. A yellow plastic bag stuck out of his back pocket.
Joe DiMaggio, a 73-year-old legend from San Francisco, looked immaculate in a dark suit and shined shoes. He shook a few hands, did a few interviews and received a standing ovation when he was introduced.
The man standing next to him was also legend in his own time. A man, yes, but he still looks the way he did at 21, when "The Bird" caught the nation's fancy with his pitching ability and off-beat personality. He looks out of place at an old-timers game.
"I don't feel out of place," Fidrych said. "I'm part of their place because we played in the same game."
The Detroit Tigers made him a 10th-round draft pick in 1974. But the nation discovered him June 28, 1976, when he beat the Yankees, 5-1, with a seven-hitter on national television. The nation watched as he talked to the baseball and got on his knees to smooth the mound. A crowd of 50,000 roared its approval and called him out for an encore.
"People let me be myself," Fidrych said. "(Tigers manager) Ralph Houk let me be myself and the players let me be. I didn't have to walk around worrying about what I said.
Detroit's attendance went up 400,000 that year. Fidrych was mobbed everywhere he went. He had to move out of his apartment and eventually needed bodyguards. By the end of the year, he needed medication to calm his nerves.
He won 19 games that year and was named Rookie of the Year. He was on the cover of all the national magazines, including Rolling Stone. He met all the celebrities, including President Gerald Ford, Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Don Rickles, and his favorite, Monty Hall.
He injured his shoulder the next year and was never the same. The dream disappeared as quickly as it came. He spent six years in the minors trying to recapture the magic, but it never came back.
"I'll never be bitter," Fidrych said. "You never know what you could have accomplished. You can only dream about it. But that was a part of life that the Lord had for me and now he has me doing something else. The Lord is guiding me and I'm happy."
He made $16,500 that year. A resolution was brought up in the Michigan Legislature, demanding the Tigers raise his salary. There were endorsements for orange juice and after-shave, but he missed out on the big money. His agent, Steve Pinkus, once estimated that if Fidrych had done his thing in 1986, he would have been worth $2 million.
But he was out of the major leagues by the time players starting taking advantage of free agency. It doesn't bother him.
"Baseball gave me something in my life I never would have had," Fidrych said. "Every time I look at something I own, I think, `I wouldn't have this ... if it wasn't for baseball."'
He lives on a farm in Northboro and delivers cement. He thought of playing in a local Stan Musial League, but work won't permit him.