Sunday, October 15, 2006

America's Pastime

The Tigers are in the World Series. Amazing. I just finished reading about last night's dramatic win over the A's. What a team, what a year, what a memory.

Being a native Detroiter, I must admit that I haven't paid much attention to the Tigers for oh, about 22 years. Baseball is kinda tough to watch compared to football -even when the team "playing" is the Lions. Believe me, watching the Lions is pretty tough, and if you're an MSU fan, then watching football is sheer torture.

But I think this season has re-awakened something in me.

Three years ago, when the Tigers were historically bad, I remember thinking that I couldn't name more than 2 or 3 players. Yet I could still recall most of the players on the 1968 team that made the dramatic comeback to beat the Cardinals in the Series.

"The ball spun off Tim McCarver's bat..." The first line from "Behind the Mask", by Bill Freehan, recounting the final out of the World Series. (As an aside, I wonder how many people will ask McCarver about that if the Cardinals become the other team...?)

I was 6 years old when Detroit celebrated that World Series win. Just at the age when such an event can become a milestone. And I still can remember it- the family next door had a VW microbus, and they piled their two sons into it, along with several more of us, and drove around the area, horn blowing. And I recall the corner of Plymouth road and Outer Drive being full of cars, with Shriners standing in the middle of the street holding up celebratory banners, waving them as cars drove underneath the signs, horns blowing wildly.

I've long maintained that this is the happiest memory of my childhood. Quite a change from the year before, with the childhood fears that "they" (whomever they were) were coming to riot on the quiet streets of my neighborhood.

After that, there are other memories. Al Kaline, my all-time favorite player retiring. The 1972 playoffs, where Al Campanaris threw his bat at Lerrin Lagrow, after being hit by a pitch. A couple slow years followed, then I remember going outside one summer day, and all my friends talking about the game the night before, and how the Tiger's pitcher kept talking to the ball, patting down the dirt on the mound, and being charmingly eccentric. Thus was born the legend of The Bird, Mark Fidrych.

By the way, here's another question. 1976 was a wonderful year for baseball, just because of the presence of Fidrych. (read the quotes at the bottom of the linked article to see why). Then jump ahead to 1996, which was the first full season after the infamous strike. Baseball had a black eye, and a lot of fans were too angry to come back. I always felt that there should have been a "Year of the Bird" celebration, for Fidrych's 20th anniversary. Let people see clips of him in action, and remember the joy he brought to everyone for that summer. On the other hand, it might have been a bad thing, since trying to make fans overlook greed by reminding them of a player who had a terrific season while earning a whopping $16,500. Ah well. A better time for all of us.

I can still see myself painting the garage with my Dad on a summer day. My friend Luke appeared, and said "The Tigers want Les." Huh? He told me that Les Moss, who was in his first season as the manager of the Tigers, had just been fired. And replaced with Sparky Anderson. I didn't believe him.

Then there was that incredible 1984 season. 35-5 to start. And the memorable slogan "Bless you Boys" that became a cliche in almost no time. I confess that I wasn't as invested emotionally in that season as I could have been. On July 3, I went into the Army. By the time I finished my training, it was the Playoffs. I watched a couple games while home on leave, but that was it. Like I said, I wasn't as invested in it. The World Series was anti-climax. I honestly don't remember much about it, since I was back in Georgia by then. And let's face it, October in Georgia means football.

Actually, I do have one memory of that post-season. I went out to get a pizza at the local Dominos. I was wearing a Tigers cap, and the guy working there informed me, as if it was a newsflash, that the same person owned Dominos and the Tigers. Wow. Like I didn't know it.

In 1986 came a sad tale. I got a letter from my Mom, with an enclosed article about the death of Norm Cash, long-time first baseman. He fell off a dock and drowned. Since the letter was one of her legendary "form letters" to all of us, I still remember the words "if you don't know who he is, you won't care." I knew. I cared. And I even got the original article from her. My sisters got photocopies. Which was not a coincidence.

Jump ahead to 1987. The Boys are seemingly on the verge of being eliminated from the playoffs (remember, no such thing as Wild Card teams then). And in the final days of the season, the Tigers and Blue Jays, owners of the two best records in the Majors, clawing towards the Division title that only one of them could win, played 7 games. All were decided by a run. And the Tigers won 4 of them, taking the Pennant on the last day. I can still feel the heat and humidity of the Army Reserve center in Livonia on that day. The weekend was over, but there were still about 10-15 of us sitting in the cramped office area, not wanting to leave while the game was still on. The heat was oppressive, but it didn't matter. Finally, the score 1-0 Tigers in the 9th inning, Frank Tanana got the last Jays batter to tap a little thing partway down the first base line. I remember the newspaper articles talking the next day about the huge grin on Tanana's face as he made the play.

Of course, that year didn't end well. We were beaten by Minnesota in the playoffs, and didn't get the World Series berth we deserved. After all, we were the best team in the Majors that year. In 1987, that mattered more, at least to me. Again, there was no wild card. Toronto had the second best record, and they stayed home. Losing to a team that barely won their division just seemed, I don't know, obscene. Still does. In my mind, the Tigers are still the best team in the 1987 season, the final outcome be damned.

Then came the lost years. The only memory I have between '87 and this year was watching the final game at Tiger Stadium, the place that still represents baseball to my mind. I hadn't even remembered that it was the final game there, until my sister reminded me. I watched the last inning on the TV in my bedroom... the cameras popping, players wearing uniform numbers of Tiger greats... and Rob Fick , wearing the number of Norm Cash, coming up in the bottom of the 8th inning with the bases loaded. And just launching one: over the roof in right field, just as "Stormin' Norman" himself had done several times. I remember thinking that Norm was watching it and smiling. Perhaps he even gave the ball a little push...

Then came the post-game ceremony. Former players coming out for curtain calls, and moving to their position on the field. Trammell and Whitaker coming out -as always in the memories of Tiger fans- together. Ron Leflore in Center Field, an act that would be somewhat embarassing to him, as afterwards he was arrested for non-payment of child support. (As an aside, I just looked him up on Wikipedia. He was informed of the arrest in advance of the ceremony, but was allowed to participate. My normal attitude would be that he was a fool to come back to Michigan with this hanging over his head. In this instance, though, I had a romantic image that he felt it was worth it. Not true. Sigh.)

But the real moment for me came when they announced Willie Horton. A Detroiter through and through, he had been hesitant to come to the event, fearing that it would be too emotional for a kid that used to sneak inside to watch games, and later had such a great career. But he made it, and I'll always remember him jogging out to left field, and fighting an obviously losing battle to control his tears. (The same battle I'm fighting as I type this). Tiger Stadium represented, I think, more to him than anyone. (As another aside, I should mention that he works now for the Team. Some credit him with a major role in their turnaround, as he did a review of the team's minor league system a few years back that told the bosses what they desperately needed to know: the system was in horrible shape, and had very few prospects of any worth. Needless to say, they fixed the problem, and that's why we're here today. Thanks Willie. I love you man. And for more than just that.)

So now we come to 2003, and the 119 loss season. In fairness, I should mention that I remember telling a friend before the season that I thought they'd have a decent year. Nobody expected much, so there was no pressure. And I believed that Allen Trammell would have them prepared. So much for my prognosticating. At the time, since I hadn't been following them, I didn't realize that my team was really a bunch of minor-leaguers playing against major-league teams. Heavy sigh.

And now, we're the American League Champs. What a year. And again, some great stories: Magglio Ordonez promising his son a home run for his 11th birthday. And delivering 2- the last coming in the bottom of the 9th, two outs, 2 men on, the game tied at 3. A blast that was apparent almost from the moment he connected. Magglio Junior will treasure that present forever. As will we all.

A couple more thoughts on this season, knowing there's much more to be written. While all praise goes to Jim Leyland, who deserves it for an amazing management job, I hope that some people will silently toast our old friend Alan Trammell. Let's face it, some of the kids on this team are here because of Tram. And I hope someone within the organisation will make an effort to make the point.

Also, I am here predicting the outcome of the American League MVP race. (after my prediction about the 2003 team, I should be wary, but oh well.) Kenny Rogers. He had a solid season- not great, but good. His first two games in the playoffs however, were great, against the Yankees and the Athletics. But it's even more- he's taught his younger teammates a lot about pitching, which helped the team put together the best team ERA in the Majors. It reminds me a lot of Kirk Gibson in 1988. He didn't have a great year, but he led his team, and put there into the playoffs. And a dramatic performance there made his value to the team clear. So Kenny, here's a nod to you. MVP at 41. Not bad for a guy nobody wanted.

There's a look back at my baseball team. Lots of great memories. I'll never be the guy painted from head to toe, and don't even know when I'll next make it to a Tiger game, but this season has been truly magical. It took me back to a special place in my mind, and I'll always treasure it. And I'll be watching more baseball in the future. Especially over the next few weeks.

Chico Esquela put it best: "Baseball... been berra berra good... to me."

Bless you, boys.


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