Tuesday, October 03, 2006

October Returns To Detroit

Baseball in Detroit in October …

It’s 1968. The superstar rightfielder, injured much of the year, is finally presented with his first chance to play in a World Series. But there is no place for him to play. The outfield is full with deserving guys: Willie Horton, Mickey Stanley, Jim Northrup. The manager, Mayo Smith, can hardly afford to sit any of the aforementioned down. So the superstar, Al Kaline, volunteers to sit this one out – even though it’s taken him sixteen seasons to get there.

Smith thinks that’s unacceptable. So he arranges for Stanley, the centerfielder, to play shortstop, creating a space for Kaline in rightfield. In the World Series. Not unbold. Stanley plays a decent shortstop. Kaline bats .379.

The roly-poly pitcher steps to the plate in Game 2 of the Series. He is normally about as productive with a bat in his hand as one is when he tries to eat soup with a fork. But the tubby Mickey Lolich, perhaps closing his eyes in the process, swings at the Nelson Briles offering and smacks the ball. It’s deep. It might be, it could be …


The foul popup off the bat of the Cardinals’ Tim McCarver rises high above the area on the first base side of the diamond. Tigers catcher Bill Freehan, who later said his only thought was, “Don’t drop it, dummy,” settles under it. He squeezes the horsehide in his puffy catcher’s mitt, and immediately he is the destination of Lolich’s elated leap. Freehan’s adrenalin enables him to lug the hefty Lolich long enough to create memories of both moving pictures and still photographs. Game 7 to the Tigers.

Dateline, Detroit. Confetti rains down on Woodward Avenue, and the workday is interrupted, thanks to the frenzy of a city that only a year before saw tanks roll down its rioting streets. People of different colors and religions and beliefs cry and grab each other, hugging away, at least momentarily, the inner strife that has tormented them in recent years.

Tigers Win!

It’s 1972. The Tigers are in Oakland to play the A’s in Game 2 of their best-of-five go around for the American League pennant. The A’s lead the series, 1 to 0. At the plate is shortstop Bert Campaneris, a fiery, skinny player. On the mound for the Tigers is Lerrin LaGrow. The pitch to Campaneris is low and hits him in the foot. What happens next is completely unexpected and immediately becomes notorious.

Campaneris, enraged, grips his bat in his right hand, at the handle, and flings it toward the pitching mound. LaGrow has to duck, lest the flying lumber drill him in the noggin. Tigers manager Billy Martin charges out of the dugout. Martin is a street fighter, and what Campaneris has just done violates Martin’s alley cat code.
Game 5.

The Tigers can advance to their second World Series in five seasons, if only they can beat the A’s one more time in Tiger Stadium. After losing the first two games in Oakland, the Tigers come home and spank the A’s twice, forcing a deciding Game 5.

Early on, the A’s try a double steal, including Reggie Jackson racing home once Freehan’s throw goes to second base. Reggie slides, and howls in pain. He’s safe, but he tears his hamstring. His season is over. By the end of the day, so is the Tigers’. They lose a heartbreaking 2-1 decision. The game is marred at the end by frustrated Tigers fans littering the field with debris.


Wire-to-wire first place occupants, artisans of a remarkable 35-5 start, the Tigers bulldoze their way into the World Series by sweeping the Kansas City Royals in three games. The opponents are the San Diego Padres, just 16 seasons old and with their brown and yellow uniforms that make them look like giant tacos.

The Tigers come home tied, 1 to 1. The Padres start a pitcher named Tim Lollar in Game 3. As the Tiger Stadium denizens shriek, Lollar has as much success finding home plate as Ben Wallace does finding the basket during a free throw. One after the other, it seems, Tigers batters draw walks. Lollar’s wildness puts his team into a hole from which they can’t escape. Tigers win, lead 2 to 1.

The shortstop who some say would make a fine manager someday takes center stage in Game 4. Twice he clubs homeruns. Alan Trammell has led his team to victory, and the Tigers are one game away from their first championship in sixteen seasons – the same amount of seasons Al Kaline needed to capture his only World Series title. Once again, an entire city is ready to cut loose.

Game 5. As the ball takes its flight, high into the Sunday night sky and toward the upper deck in rightfield, the cutting loose begins. The Padres’ chances disappear along with the baseball, which lands well into the second deck.

The pose. It’s etched into any Detroit sports fans psyche who can remember it. And even those too young, because it’s immortalized on film. The former college football player, arms raised, fists clenched, helmet off, mouth roaring. Always a roaring mouth on Kirk Gibson. That, and an inner rage. A rage that helped him crush Rich “Goose” Gossage’s eighth inning pitch into the seats. A three run homer, that turned a 5-4 nailbiter into a comfy 8-4 cushion. Bust loose!

1987. The Tigers own the best record in all of baseball, with 98 wins. But it doesn’t come easy. They are in the playoffs, but with eight days left in the season, the Tigers are 3 ½ games behind the Toronto Blue Jays. It would take a miracle, almost, to pass the Jays with that kind of a deficit that late in the season.

The final pitch is a tapper back to the mound. Frank Tanana, who grew up in Detroit but missed out on the ’84 fun, is still in the game. He’s pitching a shutout, and when Toronto’s Dane Iorg taps meekly to him, Tanana jogs toward first base and underhands the ball to Darrell Evans as if it were an egg. Evans clutches it, and the Tigers have their miracle. They surpass the Jays and clinch the division on the last day of the season. They make up the 3 ½ game deficit, chiefly because during those last eight days of the season, the Blue Jays fail to win a single game, including being swept by the Tigers on the final weekend.

It’s a crucial time in Game 4 of the ALCS. The Tigers trail the Twins, two games to one at Tiger Stadium. Another Sunday night. Evans is on third base, a critical run if the Tigers can get him home. It’s a line drive. To third base. Evans, 40 years old and as veteran as it gets, somehow is lost in no man’s land. Before he knows it, and as the crowd watches in horror, Evans is doubled off at third base, unable to crawl back to the base in time. He is on his knees, hands on his hips, head down. Nobody in the world feels worse at that moment than Darrell Evans.

It’s the day after, also known as Game 5. Evans strides to the plate for the first time since his awful gaffe in Game 4. He doesn’t know what to expect, but what happens certainly isn’t on his short list. In an amazing show of fan forgiveness, the Tiger Stadium crowd rises to its feet and gives Darrell Evans one of the warmest, most fascinating ovations I’ve ever seen in Detroit. Visibly shaken, he steps out of the batter’s box to compose himself. Tigers lose, but Evans’ ovation almost overshadows that.

2006 …We’ll see, won’t we?

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