And then there were two...
By David Marasco
(from the thediamondangle.com)
Tom and I left Chicago before dawn. The Arsenal of Freedom is a good distance from the City of Broad Shoulders and we wanted to get to Detroit early. The miles rolled under the wheels and by 11 we reached the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, home to Detroit baseball for over 100 years.
We had come to say farewell to Tiger Stadium. That night's game pitting the Tigers against the Royals would be her last. The wrecking ball awaits the 1912 masterpiece.
After parking we found our way to the bleacher entrance. We had a lot of time to kill, so we talked story with the people in line with us. This seemed universal. There existed a strange force that was compelling people to draw back the curtain on all their memories of baseball. Group therapy with a very large group I guess.
At 1:30 the gates opened. Things went slowly because the ushers weren't ripping the tickets. Instead they were embossing them with a "final game" stamp, a time consuming process. I was a little bummed because I had made a point of folding my ticket back and forth until the perforations were almost gone. Years ago my friend Sam tutored me on the art of getting into ballgames on bad tickets. Sam was an Eagle Scout, but he knew how to sneak into a stadium. One of his theories was that ushers were so lazy that if you presented them with a ticket that was practically torn they would finish the job without any inspection. As I had bought our tickets from a stranger on the internet (e-scalper?) I was worried enough about the validity of my ticket to fall back on Sam's favorite trick. In the end all I got was a sorry looking ticket with an embossment.
Tom and I decided to skip the players greeting the fans in order to grab some choice seats. We picked a row that had extra leg room and settled in. We bought $10 final day programs and read them while waiting for the afternoon to pass us by. At this point a columnist from the Detroit News found us and asked us some questions. I'm not an architect, but I've been to about two dozen big league parks and I've developed some opinions on some things. I spent quite a while talking about ballparks and trends in new construction. The next day's Detroit News published my thoughts on strawberries and cream. Now I know what Barry Bonds feels like. On the other hand, when I opened the next day's Chicago Sun Times I saw a photo that looked like it had been taken from my section. Upon closer inspection I found that Tom was clearly pictured in the foreground. The AP photo was also featured at the ESPN.com website. Needless to say, Tom bought every copy of the Sun Times he could lay his hands on.
The pregame ceremonies stunk of BS. The politicians came out and did their thing. The only speakers with a real connection were broadcaster Ernie Harwell and the great A1 Kaline. Kaline, along with George Brett, would exchange the opening lineups. The game itself was not a gem. Brian Moehler, the Tigers starter, was clearly nervous and threw a lot of pitches in the early goings. Only good defense on the part of the Detroit kept things from getting out of hand early. Many players had the jitters. Later in the game Gabe Kapler was doubled off of first on a flyball to right that he must have thought was the third out rather than the second. Reminders of the finality were everywhere - the grounds crew got a standing ovation as they swept the infield for the final time.
But for all of its flaws it was baseball in its truest form. How else can you explain Luis Polonia blasting a 435-foot homer as the first Tiger to bat? Only in baseball could Robert Fick, entering the game batting .200, provide pure magic in the bottom of the 8th. His swing of the bat sent the ball bouncing off the roof of the right field stands, a grand slam to ice the game 8-2. The last hit, homer, run and RBI in Tiger Stadium. Fitting that it should be one of those famous Tiger Stadium roof shots. For the ninth Detroit brought in Todd Jones who ended the affair with a strikeout. How else could it end?
Once the players left the field and were replaced with police the postgame ceremonies started. Unlike the pregame stuff, this was well done. It started with a video selection of great times and players through Tigers history. It had the feel of "we gave this to Ken Burns, but since it didn't concern New York or Boston he gave it back." Then they opened the gate in the 440ft section of center field. Mark "The Bird" Fidrych came bursting out. He ran to the mound and started filling a plastic bag with infield dirt. The Tigers turned on some sappy Field of Dreams/The Natural music and just let the images on the big screen do all of the work. One by one older out-of-shape men would walk through the gate, wave their cap and run for the position they once played. As they ran past the camera the name on the back of their jersey was revealed.
Perhaps this says something about baseball, or maybe something about Americans, but it wasn't the superstars who got the warmest greetings. No, it was the guys who have 4 or 5 lines in the baseball encyclopedia, the bullpen pitchers, the utility men, who were cheered the loudest by the fans. I went nuts when Frank Tanana took the field. To most Tiger fans he was a crafty pitcher who put in some good years in the 80's. But to me he was one-half of Ryan & Tanana, the pair of fireballers who pitched for the Angels when my father first started bringing me to games in Anaheim. Later in the week I saw Nolan Ryan make an appearance at the final regular season game in the Astrodome. I wasn't nearly as excited. It was as if after all these years the fans were saying "I don't know if I made it clear back then, but you were one of my heroes too."
Over 60 Tigers rambled out of centerfield. The last few were extra-special. Cecil Fielder, larger than life and larger than ever, made an appearance. Kurt Gibson ran out pumping his arm in his trademarked celebration motion. Then came A1 Kaline into a great round of applause. Many thought that the climax was with Kaline, but after a short pause came the final two players. All before had come out one-by-one, but Trammel and Whitaker jogged to the infield together, stopped at second, shook hands and then went to their respective positions. It was the way it had to be, the double play combo working in perfect unison one last time.
Once the crowd was given a chance to recover, the players lined up from home to the flagpole in centerfield. Soft sobbing could be heard in the stands as Old Glory was lowered along with the Tigers team flag. The Tigers flag was folded and then passed from player to player back to the infield. At the end of the chain Elden Auker, pitcher from the 1930's and oldest player on the field, entrusted the flag to current catcher Brad Ausmus and told him to uphold the honor and dignity of the Detroit franchise (the Cobb/McClain element of the Tigers was sidestepped). To a chourus of boos it was announced that the flag would be raised over Comerica Park next season. The big screen switched to a live feed from the Comerica worksite. Some of the Tigers promising minor leaguers took part in a planting ceremony.
Just after the end of the game home plate had been removed and given a police escort to its new home. The future Tigers carefully placed it into the ground. Whenever the word Comerica was mentioned that night the fans made it known how they felt about the usurper.
After that the focus went back to Tiger Stadium The former Tigers were given baseballs which they threw into the stands before retiring from the field one last time. Then some thank you's were said over the PA, and one by one the lights were shut off until only the banks behind home dimly lit the park. With heavy heart the fans filed out of the park.
On the long drive home to Chicago we listened to the radio. Over the airwaves the Green Day song "Good Riddance" came floating down. For a punk band it's a slow and sappy song. "For what it's worth / It was worth all the while / I hope you had the time of your life." In a bittersweet way I did.