Mike Cramer was 12 when Mark “The Bird” Fidrych burst on the scene. A talented pitcher and a certifiable character, Fidrych was known for grooming the mound on his hands and knees before he pitched, talking to the ball and rejecting baseballs that “had hits in them.”
Tigers fans loved him. He was funny, refreshing and he went 19-9 in his rookie season. But the rest of the country didn’t find out about him until June 28, 1976 – less than a week before the bicentennial – when he and the Tigers beat the first-place New York Yankees 5-1 on Monday Night Baseball (back when that national telecast was almost as popular as the football version).
Mike Cramer was there that night.
“It was his coming-out party,” Cramer recalls. “He came out of nowhere. He was quirky, bizarre, dominating, genuine and likable.” And by the end of the night, he was a national celebrity.
“We were in almost the last row in left field,” Cramer says. “The Tigers had like the worst record the year before. People wouldn’t leave the stadium until he came out to tip his cap. Everyone kept shouting, ‘We want the Bird.’ When he finally came out, it was like the World Series.
“That stuck with me,” Cramer says.
But the fairy tale didn’t have a happy ending. Fidrych’s arm “went dead” the following year. It turned out to be a career-ending rotator cuff tear that wasn’t finally diagnosed until 1985. Tigers fans, though – Cramer included – never ended their love affair with The Bird.
In 1990, Cramer, then a junior associate at a law firm in downtown Chicago, wrote a speech on labor law that his boss was set to deliver at a vending machine conference. A lanky, curly-haired guy walked in. Cramer caught the letters “rych” on his name tag.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Cramer recalls. Fidrych was driving a vending truck for the company out of his native Massachusetts. “I always regretted not asking him out for a beer afterward.”
A painter and cartoonist, Cramer also has stage experience with the Improv Olympics doing comedy. And he was an aspiring filmmaker. He made a half-hour art film (about three fictional artists, all of whom he played) and a “Ken Burns-style documentary” for his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary.
“There’s always tension between the attorney and the artist,” Cramer says. “The downside is you don’t have the time to make all the art you want.” But with his day job, he could afford to put an Oak Park roof over his kids’ heads.
“And you can make art and not care whether anybody likes it,” he adds. “The best art is made for the artist by the artist. You can fulfill your own vision.”
Mike Cramer’s vision involved telling Mark Fidrych’s story, but not directly.
He made Dear Mr. Fidrych, a film ($30,000 – he had investors) based on his own life – a 12-year-old in 1976 who, inspired by Fidrych’s success, realizes some of his own dreams. Fast-forward 30 years and the grown-up suffers a midlife slump. He decides to take his own 12-year-old son on a road trip to find Fidrych.
Cramer found his cast close to home. His son Jack (now 14) plays the main character’s son. Cramer’s other son, Noah (now 14), plays the main character as a 12-year-old in 1976. His real-life wife, Harlene Ellin, plays his reel-life wife. And their daughter, Michara, also has a part. Cramer plays the main character and also directed the film, which wasn’t easy. “I was the hardest person to direct because I couldn’t see myself. I kept asking the camera guys, ‘Was that OK?’ “
The biggest challenge for a part-time indie filmmaker is lack of time. Fortunately, a number of Oak Park and River Forest residents proved remarkably generous with their time and their homes.
“They weren’t Tigers fans and many weren’t familiar with The Bird,” Cramer says. A T-ball coach himself, he literally trolled the baseball fields for kids with long hair who would fit the 1970s look he needed. They shot the youth baseball scenes at Field Park on weekends from 7 to 9 a.m.
“People actually showed up and did what I asked them to,” he marvels. Parents in the stands wore ’70s-style clothes. They let him not only shoot scenes in their homes, but reshoot a few scenes later.
“They were just wonderful,” he says.
Many had never acted before, but over all, “For a first-time indie film, it’s pretty well acted.”
His own kids had acting experience through the Percy Julian Middle School CAST program, and one of the Julian teachers, Malachi Boyle, appears in the film. Professional actor and Oak Parker Lynda Shadrake also has a couple of roles. And Cramer managed to work in some ringers. He got Rob Belushi (Jim’s son) and another improv vet to play employees at the ad firm where the main character works. Mike Mulligan of sports talk radio did play-by-play of the youth baseball championship game from 1976 (he’s Cramer’s brother-in-law) and Mark Giangreco of Channel 7 News (Cramer knows his brother, Pete) plays the role of a ’70s-era sportscaster.
But Fidrych, of course, was the linchpin. When Cramer started writing the screenplay in 2005, he Googled The Bird and had no trouble finding his address in Northborough, Mass. He sent a letter, followed up with a phone call, and Fidrych agreed.
On the way to Bird’s 100-acre farm, Cramer’s film crew asked for the shot list.
No shot list.
“What’s going to happen?” they asked.
“We’re going to shoot what happens,” Cramer replied.
Fidrych’s role in the film is completely unscripted because “Mark couldn’t have worked with a script,” Cramer says. “You can’t believe it can happen until it does.”
They arrived in October 2006, the morning after the Tigers knocked the Yankees out of the playoffs.
“Did you see that game?” Fidrych asks.
“He was just like a kid,” Cramer recalls, “still a Tigers fan.” He watched as The Bird played catch with his son, using Cramer’s own mitt, and felt some dreams come true. He got to know his idol, who was, he said, as generous and down-to-earth as he imagined.
Cramer shot the 1976 scenes in 2007 here in Oak Park and didn’t finish editing his two-hour feature film until March of this year. He entered the Detroit Windsor International Film Festival and called Mark about joining him at the premiere.
On April 13, he e-mailed Fidrych more details about the festival. Two hours later, he received word that Fidrych had been found dead on his farm, a freak accident that occurred while working underneath his truck. He never saw the film.
Fidrych’s wife, Ann, and their daughter, Jessica, attended the premiere in June. Cramer found himself at a sold-out theater in Detroit standing on a red carpet, feeling very strange.
“I was looking forward to a summer of showing the film with Mark.”
The film received a standing ovation from the Detroit crowd and Cramer was awarded best director. In September, it was named best feature film at the Ferndale Film Festival (the suburb of Detroit where Oak Park Village Manager Tom Barwin lived and worked before coming here). This month, the film will be shown at the Flint Film Festival in Michigan.
This Thursday night, however, you can view it at the Lake Theatre in Oak Park, one of 111 events (and counting) scheduled during Oak Park’s first ArtRageous festival of the arts (Oct. 2-11, see www.artoakpark.com for the remaining schedule).
But you’ll need to act fast. Cramer said they scheduled the showing on a Friday just as he was leaving town. When he arrived back home on Monday, the 7 p.m. show on Oct. 8 was already sold out. That’s 290 seats. His wife had put out the word on Facebook.
So The Lake added a 9:30 showing, but those tickets are selling fast, too. Proceeds benefit the Oak Park Education Foundation.