Mike Henneman put the can of Foot Guard in one corner and lined his shoes neatly along the bottom rack. This was the first game of the year in Tiger Stadium. He had a new locker. Dan Petry’s old locker.
“He passed it on to me,” said Henneman, a good friend of Petry’s before Petry’s trade to California in December. “He wanted me to sit here. We came to work out once during the off- season, and he said, ‘You know, Mike, someday you’re gonna have to get out of the corner where you’re sitting now.’ “
Henneman gazed at the space, moving in slowly, savoring it, the way a young vice-president moves into his first corner office.
“I can still see Peaches’ dip can of chewing tobacco sitting up there,” Henneman said. “I’m gonna put mine there, too.”
Have a seat, Mike. Have a seat, Detroit. Baseball returned for yet another season Tuesday, a perfect 4-1 victory over Texas in the suddenly friendly sunshine. Never mind that the official schedule was already six games old. The home opener is when we really begin. It is cut-school day, hit-the-bleachers day, a day when the old players say, “How you been?” to the clubhouse kids, and the new players drive in with someone who knows the way.
“I was coming down that Lodge road and I saw signs that said next three exits for Tiger Stadium,” said newcomer Ray Knight, who had never driven here before. “I didn’t know which one to take. So finally I found that Turnbull street, or whatever, and I got here.”
“Can you find your way home?” he was asked.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “Now I can.” He opened his jacket to reveal a bulge in the inside pocket. He smiled.
“Street map,” he said.
Have a seat. Familiar faces, familiar spots
Here was the familiar glow of this lyrical game. Outside, it was fans with orange paws and blue satin jackets, going crazy with spring. Inside it was players re-discovering their clubhouse like the first day of high school: Find your locker, remember your combination, sign your name on your books.
“Gonna keep it neat this year?” someone asked pitcher Frank Tanana.
Tanana gazed into the locker where shoes mixed with shirts, socks and underwear.
“Too late,” he said.
Too late. Here were old guys up to their old familiar ways, Jack Morris seated in his usual corner, cushioned by two empty lockers, the highest honor, and talkative Darrell Evans next to his silent buddy, Larry Herndon, and Alan Trammell next to Lou Whitaker, as usual, where else? Here was Paul Gibson, the 28- year-old rookie who had waited his whole life for this, his own big-league locker, taking over the hidden corner spot vacated by Henneman.
“Do you mind?” he was asked.
“No way,” Gibson said. “I’m just happy to have a place. I was thinking maybe they’d say, ‘Oh, you have to sit in the shower’ or something.”
Here was Ray Knight hanging his hat where Kirk Gibson used to hang his hat, and Gary Pettis slipping on his shoes where Bill Madlock once slipped on his. Here was young Jim Walewander, his first home opener as a major leaguer, his locker already resembling a college student’s closet: combat boots, leather jacket, clothes stacked up.
“New spot, huh?” someone observed.
“Yeah,” he said. “I used to be over there.”
“There. Where Jack’s clothes are hanging.”
Have a seat. We’re all safe at home
It was an afternoon that will count but 1/162d of the season, and yet it did something to everyone who was there. It brought in the mayor and the governor, it brought the giant inflatable ball and the giant inflatable beer can, it brought the hot dogs and the organ music and the smell of those Polish sausages.
It brought us together.
And when it was over, when the Tigers had won, and Tanana had fooled ’em, and Henneman had earned his second save, and Matt Nokes had knocked one in and Alan Trammell had knocked one in and Tom Brookens had continued his wonderfully wacky hitting, the fans filed out and the players filed in. Everybody was home.
Baseball was back.
“You did a good job,” someone said to Henneman, surrounded by reporters in his suddenly highly visible locker space. “You know, you’re taking over the space of a real nice guy.”
“I know,” Henneman said of Petry, so many years a Tiger. He grinned. “He was a real nice guy. . . . And I’ll be the next nice guy.”
What a perfect baseball ending. Which is to say, a perfect beginning: One nice guy, taking over another nice guy’s locker, putting the dip can in its proper place. Baseball goes on, thank goodness.
Have a seat.
Mitch Albom will sign copies of his book, “The Live Albom,” today from noon-2 at Waldenbooks in New Center and 3:30-5:30 at Paperbacks Unlimited, 22634 Woodward, Ferndale.