Saturday, 31 August 2013

My First Time at Tiger Stadium


Photo courtesy Chicago White Sox
Mother’s Day, May 9, 1976 holds a bittersweet memory for me. It was the day I saw my first major league baseball game in person. What a thrill for a prairie-born Canadian like myself who had always loved baseball! However, one particular scene that sunny, Sunday afternoon still makes me cringe all these years later every time I think of it or describe it to others.

The locale was Detroit’s old landmark, Tiger Stadium, which had  been made an historic site by the Michigan Department of State in 1975, just the year before. Built in 1912, it had once been home to icons like Ty Cobb, Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, and more recently, Al Kaline. What better place to see your first ball game. Right?  The Chicago White Sox were in town, then owned by the glitzy, never-to-be-forgotten showman, Bill Veeck. The same innovative Veeck who gave baseball the midget pinch-hitter, Eddie Gaedel, the ageless pitching wonder, Satchel Paige, not to mention names on the backs of uniforms, plus carnival events like fireworks after games. The Tigers at that time were run by the not-so-glitzy, John Fetzer.  Mike Ilitch was still a few years off.

I had purchased the tickets in advance by snail mail. No internet to order on back then. Four lower deck boxes at $4.50 a pop! Wow! Who out there remembers those days of cheap seats? I still have my ticket stub…Tier 4, Box 31. I took my wife, Bonnie (nearly seven months pregnant with the first of two), my mother-in-law, Dorothy, and my brother-in-law, Barry. I was fortunate because my in-laws resided across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario. Talk about an ideal situation to see games. And the park was so close to their house too. Minutes away. You could actually see the upper deck facades and light structures from downtown Windsor.

We took Gate 11 on the West Side and once we entered the old piece of concrete and steel history on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, we were met by the steady hum of crowd chatter and the strong aroma of popcorn, hot dogs, and cigarette smoke. I immediately purchased a scorebook and a yearbook from two different vendors, two more items I still have in my possession today. As we made our way to the seats on the third base side, I looked out in awe at the expanse of  freshly-cut, green grass and the gorgeous, brown, clay/sand mix of the infield. The distances to the fences seemed so far, especially the incredible 440 feet to straightaway center. Could a major leaguer actually hit a ball all the way out there…and could a center-fielder cover all that ground up to the fence? The stadium interior was painted in an overall blah, military-style, gray-green. The seats, the fences, the rails, as well as the tiers. The Tigers were on the field, going through the art of infield practice. I do say art because they didn’t drop one single ball, unlike the amateur softball league I was part of back in Hamilton, Ontario. These guys here were pros…

We stood for the American National Anthem, a first time ever for the four of us at any sporting event or anything else. Shortly after we sat down, my mother-in-law bought us the first series of afternoon goodies. She insisted. We all had to have hot dogs. They were thick and very good! Then the lineups were announced over the loudspeakers. The White Sox had a couple notables in Bucky Dent at short and Chet Lemon (who later became a Tiger) in center. The Tigers had the very popular Rusty Staub in right and Ron Leflore leading off and playing center-field. Willie Horton was DH-ing. The catcher was John Wockenfuss who had one of those names that could, I’m sure, be badly-pronounced (sometimes in a vulgar way) after a few drinks, if you know what I mean.

The starting pitchers for the day  were two of the American League’s better ones, Wilbur Wood for the Sox, and Joe Coleman for the Tigers. Coleman, son of a former major league pitcher by the same name, was a reliable 20-game winner twice in the early 1970’s with the Tigers.  Standing  at six-three and weighing 175 (the age before steroids), he threw right-handed. The twenty-nine-year-old was coming off a 10-18 year with an ERA above 5.00 and hoping to establish himself once again as one of the league’s premier pitchers.

The stats on Wood, however, revealed he was a bit of a freak. But I mean that in a nice way. Thirty-four years of age, with a 39-inch waistline, he was one of the best examples of the phrase…pitchers don’t have to run the ball to the plate…they only have to throw it.  A lefty, Wood was a six-foot-tall, cigar-smoking knuckleballer par excellence. He was—without a doubt---the last of the workhorse pitchers…something out of the pre-1920 Deadball Era! Between the years 1971 to 1974 inclusive, he had thrown over 300 innings each year and another 291 innings in 1975, averaging 45 starts per season to boot.  And nearly half of those games were complete ones. His won-loss records were equally impressive, or should I say…well…odd. In 1973, he won 24 and lost 20. We’ve all heard of 20-game winners and 20-game losers, but both by the same person in the same season? The following year, he was 20-19.  Huh? What did the Sox want from the guy? They were wearing him out. The epitome of those years was 1972 when he started 49 games, threw 376 innings, and finished with a 24-17 record and 2.51 ERA. On two occasions, in the decade, he had even thrown both ends of a doubleheader!

The park saw a lot of empty seats that day, as evidenced by the box score I found on  the net recently…only 12,250 paid admission. The game started out as a defensive struggle. There was no score going into the fourth, when the power-hitting Tigers Willie Horton came to the plate. He quickly lined a rocket of a foul ball down the left-field line that looked to be coming right at us in the lower boxes. The ball caromed off some seats five or six rows to the right, bounced into the air and settled somewhere in our vicinity.  For a brief moment no one seemed to know where it was, until my wife and I caught sight of it underneath the occupied seat directly in front of me. What luck. I quickly got on my knees and stretched for it, but the young man in the seat found it first and grabbed it. Rats! Oh, so close. And my first game too.

There was no scoring in the game until the top of the sixth. With two one, Sox right-fielder Buddy Bradford ( Buddy who?) scored both runners with a single. Down 2-0 now, the Tigers in the bottom of the inning sent shortstop Tom Veryzer and second-baseman Gary Sutherland  to the plate. Both grounded out to Becky Dent, bringing the lead-off hitter, center-fielder Ron LeFlore up.

Then it happened
Leflore, a straight-away hitter, swung at a Wilbur Wood offering and lined a screamer up the middle. Wood later stated in an interview, “I wasn’t trying to catch it. I was just trying to get out of the way.”  I remember two distinct cracks that day. The first was the sound of the ball shooting off  LeFlore’s bat…the second  was the sound of the ball smashing into Wood’s knee. Wood fell backwards as if he was shot. As the ball skidded away, you could hear a pin drop in the crowd. Flat on his back, Wood’s nerves jerked and twitched. Then he lay there, completely still. Was he dead? Sox players and a few Tigers, too, charged out to the mound. When a stretcher came  to take Wood away, he was still out cold.

We all took a breath. Not a nice sight to see.

The fans seemed quite subdued after that. Chicago eventually won 4-2. Wood got the win, Clay Carroll the save, while Coleman took the loss, in a game that took only two hours and eighteen minutes to play. How many games are that short anymore?  It turned out that Wilbur Wood was never quite the same pitcher after the LeFlore line drive. He was done for the year, coming back in the spring of 1977. He started only another 45 games total after that, spread over two years, his effectiveness and durability gone. Today, he is probably considered the best left-handed knuckleballer in history. It was basically all over about the same time for Joe Coleman Jr too. Traded to the Cubs only a month after the Mother’s Day game, he went on to pitch for Oakland, Toronto, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh before calling it a career in 1979.

Anyway…the four of us discussed the game while returning to the Canadian side. Despite the queasy line drive scene, it was an all-around pleasant day for us…we all saw our first major league game…I was inches away from grabbing a Willie Horton foul ball…and it was Mother’s Day, which seemed ironic because Dorothy bought most of the food…after the hot dogs, by the way, came  peanuts, followed up with ice cream for dessert.

Later that evening, I said to my pregnant wife, “What if we have a son and he doesn’t like baseball?” Bonnie quickly replied two-fold. Her number one concern (mine too, of course) was a healthy baby. Then, she said, “There’s no way any son of  yours will not like baseball.”

Two months later, July 31, our son, Barrie John Wyatt came into this world a bouncing 8 pounds, 6 ounces. And…he doesn’t like baseball. He loves it. He’s a Tigers fan like me. Together, as he grew up, we saw dozens of games at Tiger Stadium up to its demise and demolition following the 1999 season. We fell in love with the park. We had lots of fun and saw a lot of outstanding performances. It was history in the making. Mike Hogan, a  local radio sports commentator in Toronto (I’ve always suspected is a closet Tiger fan) summed it up best when he  once said on the air, “Tiger Stadium was a dump…but a historic dump.”  He knew. You had to be there to live it, to catch the feel. And I’m glad I had the opportunity on many occasions.

The fun continues for us at Comerica Park, one beautiful piece of work. But we still talk about the good times on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, where a great ball park once stood. I like to remember those games, but that awful sight and the sound of the ball smashing off  Wilbur Wood’s knee still sits with me. I saw first-hand that day how vulnerable pitchers can be out there on the mound. They are brave warriors, indeed.

As for Wilbur Wood…God bless you, sir, wherever you are, and I hope you’re in good health. They don’t make pitchers like you anymore.

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