Odd Man Out 

Outside of base jumpers and body piercers, our society lacks risk takers.

In 1976, I lived in the Aspen Hills apartments on 900 East near 3900 South with Steve Jimas. Steve died recently, but everyone who knew him would tell you that he was not only a great guy, he was a character, too. When you’re young and you work in your dad’s Utah state package liquor store selling hooch to hardcore miners, it’s easy to develop the personality of a character. Dave Wiechman and Joe Stilinovich, two more characters, lived in another unit. All of us went to Bingham High School. All of us knew our share of crazy people.

As much as I’d like to tell a Wiechman story or two, it wouldn’t be right in that he’s much closer to his church these days. Plus, I don’t need reminding that he didn’t mind a good fistfight (for people born after 1960, a “fistfight” was an archaic way of settling a score. Guns do that now). Dave was known to fight at the Westerner—not with the cowboys, but with the bouncers. In other words, certifiably crazy. His roommate Joe was a laughing machine. Joe laughs, you laugh. One summer night in 1976, Joe called and said he was coming over to watch “The Bird” pitch on Monday Night Baseball. I didn’t know what he was talking about.

Joe arrived and kept chiding me about The Bird. How come I’d never heard of him? Did I live in a cave? I was a bartender. I knew cocktails and the New York Yankees. I think they were playing the Yankees that night, so that’s probably why I agreed to watch the game with him. I remember the pre-game hype and learned The Bird had a name, Mark Fidrych, and that he was having a rookie year like no other. All the while, Joe was laughing.

I never knew why until I saw Fidrych. He had a lanky gait and paced around the mound. He tamped the mound dirt just so and seemed to caress it with his hands. He talked to the baseball. His curly hair sprang beneath his cap. He fidgeted. His delivery seemed within the bounds of physics, yet not quite right—like a paper airplane that didn’t quite follow the instructions. With every Fidrych move and motion, Joe laughed. Coupled with the fact that Joe has one of the most colorful swear-word vocabularies I’ve ever encountered, I was soon laughing, too.

I’ve always remembered that night with Joe. I remember how good Fidrych made me feel, because I wasn’t laughing at The Bird I was laughing because Mark Fidrych was playing outside the lines. In a game of suffocating rules, order and statistics, Fidrych was reminding all of America—the same America that had recently abandoned Vietnam and was still reeling from Richard Nixon’s Watergate presidency— how good it feels to be independent and free.

Sports pundits say Fidrych was a character, an oddball. As such, he was among that lucky group that mostly charms us, but sometimes fails us, too. His reputation was heightened because baseball is otherwise so rigid. Like all good characters, Fidrych was also a person of complete honesty about who he was and how he came to be that way. He faked nothing. He was just being himself. How odd, then, that we considered the act of being true to oneself as odd. Odder still, is that our culture is weaning itself of individual behavior. School must be boring as hell these days. My theory is it started with yellow buses and blossomed when chalkboards replaced blackboards.

If Fidrych played today, people would be scared. However, it will be quite some time before we even plant another Fidrych, let alone cultivate one. Manny Ramirez of the Los Angeles Dodgers is deemed a character, but Manny is pretty much alone in that department. As such, his antics are regarded as destructive, not fun or colorful. Sports has historically been home to lots of such people, those who beat their own drum without losing their excellence— Babe Ruth, John McEnroe, George Foreman, Dennis Rodman, Charles Barkley, Yogi Berra. In what other profession can a marijuana advocate nicknamed Spaceman (Bill “Spaceman” Lee formerly of the Boston Red Sox) make an honest living?

Well, there’s journalism for one. Lots of characters around here, certainly. But, even this bastion of all things wet and wild is noticing fewer takers willing to partake in political incorrectness, improper manners and pissing people off. Politics and law formerly provided their share of colorful participants. But, who around here since J. Bracken Lee (former Utah governor and Salt Lake City mayor whose bluntness won more enemies than friends) or Chief Judge Willis Ritter (who is said to have lost his pants in a Club Manhattan game of strip poker) can be said to be anything approaching a colorful character? Ralph Becker?

At Little League baseball games, the catcher can’t tease the batter. Parents can’t razz the umpires. Joe Stilinovich’s brother Tony coached Bingham High School to an American Legion championship—amid legendary tirades at the umpires and with a cigarette hanging from his lips. Now, there was a character. The last Utahn accused of being colorful was Dell Schanze, and look what it got him.

Outside of base jumpers and body piercers, our society lacks risk takers. Our friends are conveniently catalogued on Facebook and we never invite them to dinner. We only play inside the lines lest we draw attention to ourselves. We argue anonymously on the Internet, which beats accountability. Mark Fidrych was killed on his farm April 13. If he tried to make it into baseball today, they’d have him committed. Yet, he was perfectly normal. That’s odd, isn’t it?
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