NEW YORK — Mark (The Bird) Fidrych squinted down from the mound in the bright sunshine at Atlanta Stadium, his familiar Harpo Marx hairdo sprouting from under his Houston Astros' cap.
As usual, he was talking to the baseball before making his pitch to the Atlanta Braves' batter.
Then he was talking to himself, after grooving one that sent the ball sailing over the left-center field fence.
All this deja vu are compliments of a new Neil Simon movie, "The Slugger's Wife." Although Fidrych was not supposed to have a speaking part in it, he said he made it one "by talking to myself on the mound."
Fidrych, of course, has been out of baseball since 1983, when arm problems cut short a promising career. As a rookie with the Detroit Tigers in 1976, Fidrych captured the imagination of the baseball world not only by the numbers he posted, but also by his flamboyant behavior.
Relating to the crowd as few players before him, Fidrych won the adoration of fans with his enthusiasm. Often, he would walk to the back of the mound to talk to the ball, or get on his knees to pat down dirt.
After especially good plays by teammates behind him, Fidrych would run across the field to congratulate them. Once after a shutout over the New York Yankees, he made sure he pumped each teammate's hand as he left the field.
That he won 19 games, finished 24 of his starts in an age of relief specialization, recorded a 2.34 earned run average and won Rookie of the Year honors in 1976 was almost beside the point for Fidrych.
"I was just happy playing the game," Fidrych says, "and I was treated very well by the Detroit organization. I owe them a lot."
Fidrych was like a meteor on the major league scene, burning brightly for one season and then coming down to earth with four mediocre years when he pitched in a total of just 27 games. "The snap was just gone, I had lost my fastball," he says. In 1979, his ERA was up to 10.20 and the following season, he was down in the minors.
Three years later, he was out of baseball.
As turned out, it wasn't all that tough for him because he had conditioned himself.
"I had always programmed myself that way," he says. "I knew it would end sometime. When they told me at Pawtucket (in 1983) they had bad news for me, I said, 'I'll make it easy for you--I'll retire.' "
So Fidrych hitched his pants up, got his things together and went home to his Bluewater ranch in Northboro, Mass., where, incidentally, he still resides.
Farm life isn't so bad, he says. He and a business partner eat off the land and make a living building swimming pools and clearing lots for houses, and growing Christmas trees on the 120-acre spread.
He once did a television commercial for an after-shave lotion, and was pleasantly surprised when the makers of "The Slugger's Wife" called him to appear in the film. He was one of several ex-major leaguers who were hired to lend realism to the film, and spent several weeks filming in Atlanta last summer.
"Hopefully, this will open up some doors for me," Fidrych said. "I'm lucky someone remembered me."
Although he still plays sandlot ball when he can and says his arm "feels fine," Fidrych is more inclined to consider a career in acting than one in baseball again.
"I still think I can get some guys out," he says, "but right now, I just consider myself a fan. I still follow the Tigers. I have season tickets, and last year I went to the World Series and had a great time.
"I never think about what might have been. I'm happy with what I achieved and I think about what I've got now. For me, that's plenty."