For most Michigan boys growing up in the fifties and sixties, the common dream was to play for the Detroit Tigers down at Michigan and Trumbull.
Although Mike Reilly may not have realized that dream, he did end up having the unique opportunity to work on the Tiger Stadium field on numerous occasions as one of the “men in blue.”
In 2011, Reilly, raised in the shadows of Kellogg’s in Battle Creek and nicknamed “Cornflakes” by Tiger announcer Ernie Harwell, retired after 34 years (1977-2010) as one of the longest tenured major league umpires in baseball history. He finished sixth overall in games worked at over 4,500 and umpired in four World Series including 1984 when the Tigers captured their fourth championship.
In a recent conversation with Reilly he talked about his experience of umpiring that Series in Detroit.
“It was my first World Series, so I was thrilled to be out there in front of my parents and brothers because we used to go to Tiger Stadium as a family when I was a kid,” said Reilly who fondly remembers going to many games in 1968 with his high school buddies.
“I was at first base when [Kirk] Gibson hit those two home runs in Game Five. It was not your typical game when you look down in the last inning and there are policeman on horses lined up,” said Reilly.
The Tigers and their faithful followers were not the only ones to celebrate at the end of ’84 World Series.
“The sad part was a lot of cars were turned over and there was vandalism. I remember the Tiger clubhouse manager Jim Schmakel gave the umpires a bat when we left the stadium in case we needed it if something happened. We went back to the Dearborn Hyatt with our families but later I called Jimmy Butsicaris at the Lindell AC bar who was a good friend of ours and asked what it was like and he said ‘ Great, come on down.’ So we went back to the Lindell and celebrated some more.”
Although Reilly, 63, loved the old ballpark (except for the very tiny umpire’s room tucked underneath the stands) he said one feature used to play havoc for the home plate umpire.
“In the late afternoon when you were behind home plate there was a very, very dark shadow cast by the light standards between the pitcher’s mound and home plate and that made it a little difficult for the hitter, the catcher, and the umpire to see the ball,” said Reilly.
“You would see the ball in the sunlight from the mound then it would go into a tunnel of darkness so your eyes had to focus back on it and pick it up. I remember many games where I was hoping that it would get cloudy or someone wins the game before it gets to that point of the day.”
One of Reilly’s greatest regrets as an umpire had nothing to do with a particular call on the diamond.
“In 1999 baseball asked me if I wanted to work the last game at Tiger Stadium, but our family had scheduled a trip out west so I passed on it. I kind of regret that now because I would have liked to have said I worked the last game at Tiger Stadium.”