Thankful memories of the Tigers

Dave Bergman's home run against the Blue Jays at Tiger Stadium on June 4, 1984, is one of the most memorable in the history of the franchise.

Dave Bergman’s home run against the Blue Jays at Tiger Stadium on June 4, 1984, is one of the most memorable in the history of the franchise.

This is the week to say thank you, so here are a few of the memories of the Detroit Tigers that I’m thankful for:

Thanks to Mark Fidrych for the magical summer of 1976. Sitting in the back rows of the lower deck behind home plate on a sparsely attended rainy Saturday afternoon in May. I saw him pitch a no-hitter for six innings in his first major league start. Of course, I also vividly recall the nationally televised game against the New York Yankees when he took his first curtain call and became famous. I was in my bleacher perch with everyone having a love-in. I have a snapshot of me interviewing the Bird in Lakeland at spring training circa 1980 pinned to my wall still: a cherished memory.

Thanks for Coot Veal and Reno Bertoia and Jake Wood and Frank House, childhood memories of unforgettable names on baseball cards. And, of course, to Don Mossi, for the ugliest baseball card ever.

Thanks to the vendor who hawked “Harvey Kuenn’s favorite ice cream!” in the upper deck behind third base on Ladies’ Days in the late 1950s. And to the vendor a few decades later who threw his hot dog buns high into the air.

Thanks to Pudge Rodriguez, who hit a foul pop with such a perfect trajectory that, during the one time I broadcast in the third-deck fantasy booth in 1993, I reached out my hand and caught it, the easiest catch I ever made. It dropped into my hand like manna from heaven….with my seven-year-old son sitting next to me, and friends in the bleachers spotting me make the grab.

Thanks to Tommy Matchick’s unlikely game-winning homer in that magic summer of ‘68, when the girl I had an unrequited crush on got so excited she jumped up and hugged me.

Thanks to “Hit the ball, Willie!” and “Don’t-Knock-the-Rock” and to Mickeys Lolich and Stanley and above all to Ernie Harwell, constant companion on the transistor, who somehow knew the hometown of every fan in the stadium.

Thanks to Denny McLain, for serving up that home run ball to Mickey Mantle. I was there watching him become the last pitcher ever to win his thirtieth game.

Thanks for the posts that enabled Tiger Stadium’s upper deck to sit atop the lower at a proximity unmatched in any other major league park. I sat deep in the upper deck behind home plate for the final two games of the most exciting series ever, against Toronto in 1987 (I’d watched the Friday night game from the bleachers, with snow flurries flying). From there I saw the twelfth-inning grounder go through Manuel Lee’s legs on Saturday and Larry Herndon’s homer in the 1-0 win on Sunday.

That same Mr. Herndon raced in to catch the last out of the 1984 World Series, just yards away from where I was sitting near the bullpen. Thanks to someone very special for letting me have that ticket.

And those posts? Boon and bane both. In the back rows of the lower deck in left field was a second row of posts (the first row was up at the fence). I sat smack dab behind one of them, in perhaps the worst seat in the whole park, for Game Five of the 1968 series. I’d gotten my tickets in the mail-order lottery and was thrilled to be there. I’m still thankful I had a perfect view (ahem) of Willie Horton’s series-changing throw to home plate to nail Lou Brock as Bill Freehan blocked the plate. Thanks to the cocky Lou Brock for not sliding.

Thanks to the classy Darrell Evans and the even classier fans who gave him a warm ovation the day after he was fatally picked off third base in the 1987 ALCS. That was a heartwarming day to be a Tiger fan. The opposite feeling of 15 years earlier, when I sat among crazed bleacher creatures who littered the field with bottles and cans and other stuff. Thankfully, George Hendrick did not have to move at all to make the catch that ended a 2-1 A’s win and the 1972 ALCS.

Thanks, in that 1987 season, to the three rainstorms that interrupted a sparsely attended game in May, with the Tigers in last place: they allowed the stadium to empty out and let me and the couple dozen remaining fans see Mike Henneman make his major league debut after midnight. It was a dream: so quiet you could hear everything the players said, every noise made by the ball hitting a bat or a glove.

Thanks to the comic stylings of Gorman Thomas, sporting his orange Afro, who often turned around in center field, gave the bleacher fans the finger, and yelled back at them.

Thanks to Mickey Tettleton for his stock-still, bat-high picture-book stance. Thanks to Tony Phillips for getting on base so much — in today’s more sabermetric world, he’d be an All-Star.

Thanks to Sweet Lou Whitaker, smooth and unflappable and a joy to watch. It’s a travesty beyond travesties you lasted only a year on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot.

Thanks to Guillermo-don’t-call-me-Willie, to Paw Paw the Sunday Punch, to Señor Smoke, to Stormin’ Norman who brought a table leg up to bat against Nolan Ryan, to Enos and Tram and Rusty (Staub and Kuntz) and Tito and the Gator.

Thanks for the smooth-fielding, clutch-hitting Aurelio Rodriguez and the fans chanting “Let’s go Aurelio!”

Thanks for wave after wave, double-decked, reversible.

Thanks to Cecil, the rooftop slugger, the 50-homer man, for coming back from Japan, and to his son the Prince, who grew up at Tiger Stadium and still smiles like a kid when he plays the game he loves.

Thanks to Dave Bergman and that at-bat that approached infinity and ended with a ball soaring into the upper deck.

Thanks to that overhang, to the rooftop flags, to the “outside goobers” cheaper and better than inside, to the flagpole in play, to the ramps you ran up, to the troughs you pissed in, to the seats you banged to coax a rally, to the sound of “getcher red hots!,” to the unforgettable first sight each spring of the green green grass of home.

Thanks to Al Kaline circling the field in an automobile as the PA played a special tribute version of “Thanks for the Memories”: Good field, good hit were words you fit, you left St.. Louis in ruins. We thank you, dear Al.

Thanks for the memories, indeed. Thanks for every one of the 400 or so games I attended at Michigan and Trumbull in a span of more than forty years. Even when the Tigers were turkeys, the games at The Corner filled my soul.

“Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.” — Simon and Garfunkel, Old Friends.

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About Michael Betzold

Author of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story and other books, former Detroit Free Press reporter Michael Betzold always wore #4 to honor his first hero, the "Sunday Punch," Charlie "Paw Paw" Maxwell.