Wednesday, October 25, 2006

1968: A Baseball Fan’s Coming of Age - Final chapter

Leaving Home Forever
Immediately after the World Series victory, people rushed into the same streets where one year before, police and innocent residents huddled behind cars not wanting to be shot to death by snipers. They were the same streets that saw blood spilled and onto which the charred ruins of thousands of buildings crumbled.
This time, car horns honked in unison, church bells rang and voices screamed in joy until turning hoarse and silent. Those of us who were baby boomers (born after 1946) could not have known how the end of World War II was celebrated, but it was thought this came close.
There was momentary unity among all people – black and white and it was because of the Tigers. Nothing socially had changed; the symbols and scars of the 1967 riots stood for years – unchanged and unchallenged.
By the time 1968 had ended, my family’s extraction from the city of Detroit was, more or less, complete. We’d left for the suburbs and only ventured below the city limits of Eight Mile Road when necessary.
I graduated from a suburban high school in 1970 – having enrolled as the “Inner City Kid” (which was actually funny if one took the time to think about it), played a year of high school football before a back injury forced me to retire (without any pomp or ceremony, sorry) and prepared for my freshman year at the University of Michigan.
I returned to the old stadium for certain cherished moments – when the Tigers clinched the division in 1972 on a single by the grizzled veteran Al Kaline at 11:11 p.m.; to watch rookie pitcher Mark Fidrych talk to the baseball and enchant sellout crowds like no other player in 50 years’ time; or to see big Frank Howard hit a game-winning line-drive home run on a Monday night national broadcast, to beat the dreaded Yankees, after meeting actor George C. Scott in person.
But a new life beckoned me. My mother had passed away suddenly in 1972 and I became estranged from my home even though it was just 30 miles away. It could have been 30,000 miles. I needed to forge a path of my own and see where it would lead me. A Greyhound bus took me southbound to Texas, listening to my radio of another Tiger game (the last I’d hear for years on that medium) as the stadium faded into darkness and distance.
I returned one time in 1990, when my son was 10 and I was attending my 20th high school reunion with him in tow.
We went to see Detroit play Boston and watched a 1-0 shutout. Journeyman Jeff Robinson twirled a masterpiece but the game lasted less than two hours and before we knew it, our adventure was over and out. I felt somewhat cheated that I couldn’t show my son all the glories and all the memories stored inside me like Al Capone’s vault.
I would never again eat a stadium kielbasa, never see a lazy fly ball nestled into the right field upper deck for a home run (while the fielder waited for what he thought would be a sure out), never get to gaze at the centerfield scoreboard as updated scores were posted from out-of-town contests, never see the pennants of each American League team according to current standings fly on top of the stadium roof, never leave through the centerfield bleachers onto Cochrane or Michigan Avenue, talking baseball with total strangers or never see the gray old lady in all he splendor on game day.
Comerica Park is a stranger to me; it might as well be the Pyramids or Eiffel Tower – landmarks I’ve seen on television but visiting in person seems highly doubtful. It is located at a site that used to house many of the city’s grand theater palaces, in the area known as Grand Circus Park (which was neither a park nor that grand). It would feel strange to see a baseball game a few yards away from the place where my family went to se “The Sound of Music” as the Grand Circus Theater.
It’s a multi-purpose facility, where you can watch America’s pastime and let your children romp in a play area. It has a huge television screen on its scoreboard and more advertising on walls than most Sunday newspapers carry in circulars. It also seats less people, almost 20,000 less and allows fans to view the (dubious) Detroit skyline through the outfield fence. Fans apparently for regular season games can buy standing room tickets and watch the game through a porous wrought-iron fence in right field.
In the old days, all you saw was stadium; an enclosed edifice that seems to capture all the sights, smells and sounds of baseball as if one was encased in surround sound stereophonic.
An underdog Tiger team made it to the 1972 American League championship series in 1972, before losing to one of the powerful teams in baseball, the Swinging A’s of Oakland.
In 1984, Detroit collected another powerhouse squad, winning 35 of its first 40 games and ending the season with the same winning percentage. The Tigers swept Kansas City in the ALCS and dismissed San Diego 4-1, capping the clinching game with a prodigious Kirk Gibson three-run home run in the eighth inning off reliever Goose Gossage.
That roster was kept together through 1987, but the Tigers lost the ALCS to Minnesota (the eventual World Series champs) and promptly fell into disrepair. Their decline was metaphorical for the public’s perceived decline of the entire city.
In 2003, Detroit came within one game of posting the all-time worst record for any major league baseball team, challenging the loveable but hapless 1962 New York Mets for that dubious distinction. The future was not bright and those shades people were wearing were to hiked identities.
But true fans are fans regardless of fair weather or stormy conditions. They are called diehards because hopes and dreams SHOULD die hard; the concept of a team – a city – reversing its fortunes and climbing out of the abyss is not only probable, it is absolute. It happens all the time in sports and in life.
Regardless of age and physical whereabouts, the heart dictates where the memories go. In 1968, my heart was at its fullest.

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