Here was my first clue that things had changed down at Tiger Stadium: I heard a vendor recite poetry.
“Don’t be shy, don’t walk by
till you try our roast beef on rye. . . . “
His name was Rasean Reeves, a 19-year-old from Detroit, he was smiling while he worked — maybe that was my first clue, come to think of it — and he was working in something called the Ball Park Deli, which was in something called Tiger Plaza, which is a giant food court on what used to be the players’ parking lot. Now Rasean had a new poem.
“Fill your belly,
Come eat in our deli! . . . “
Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore. Or, in simpler terms, Tom Monaghan has left the building. On Home Opener Day 1993, at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, there were burritos and daiquiris and flavored coffees and frozen yogurt and plush seats and a Dixieland band and a clear scoreboard and waitress service. There were delighted crowds. There were kids with big eyes. Put aside, for a moment, whatever happens to the team this year, the pitching, the defense, the competition. No matter what, Tiger Stadium on Tuesday had something it has been missing for years: life.
“Did you see that food plaza?” Sparky Anderson was saying, sitting in the dugout before the game. “Man, that’s some kind of thing. They got a bar there. I ain’t never seen a bar that big.”
He laughed. “There’s gonna be a few boys pretty well oiled when they leave the old ballpark.”
Open for business. Ka-ching! Ring up money, and runs
The first real cash-register day of the Mike Ilitch/Detroit Tigers regime went off Tuesday as if scripted by Disney. Blue skies. Full house. A win by the new pitcher. Every player who stepped to the plate either smacking a home run, or an RBI.
There was even a standing ovation for a guy most people thought would never be a Tiger again: Kirk Gibson.
“I felt like a rookie when I heard that,” Gibson said after the game. “It was really hard just to keep myself in control. I wanted to do everything in that one at-bat.”
Well. It was that kind of feeling Tuesday, wasn’t it? You wanted to do everything. See it all. Do it all. Sample all $8 million of Ilitch’s stadium renovations, and watch the millions more he spent for baseball talent. It was Opening Day Plus One, a little bit more special, a little bit more real. I don’t want to say the ballpark was paradise compared with what it used to be. I will say I half-expected munchkins to come out singing “Ding dong, the noid is dead. . . . “
Open for business.
“They can say what they want about this guy,” Anderson said, nodding toward Ilitch, who was surrounded by reporters, “but he spends the money. He’s interested. And you know why? He played the game. He loves it. Baseball is like that. Once you’ve been a part of it, you never really get it out of your system.”
Oh. By the way. About the game?
Tigers won, 20-4.
Open for business.
Optimism, bats explode
Offense? Ha! It was as if they took all the hope, all the goodwill, all the baseball desire that had been smothered inside Detroit winter coats and undressed it, unfurled it, threw it into the wind and let it sprinkle onto the bats of every Tiger who stepped to the plate.
Bam! A three-run homer for Rob Deer, who hadn’t hit a home run this season.
Bam! A three-run homer for Travis Fryman, who hadn’t hit one. Bam! A three-run blast for Mickey Tettleton. Bam! Four hits for Cecil Fielder.
Earlier in the day, before the game started, Gibson had been taking batting practice. He spotted me, rolled his eyes in that way he has of challenging you, and said, “We’re gonna be better than you think. Don’t worry about the pitching right now, or our record in the first week. We shouldn’t even be thinking about that. You know what we should think about? October. Those stands out there in rightfield, filled with people, and about 10 times louder than they’ll be today. That’s what you think about. That’s how you get there.”
And he jumped in the cage, his whiskers nearly leaping off his face.
Call him overly optimistic. Call the fans overly generous. Call all the goodwill of Tuesday afternoon, the bands, the free hot dogs, the Tiger hankies, the rhyming vendors in the food court, call all that a calculated show by Ilitch’s marketing hounds. Be cynical. Most people are.
But you know what? I saw a guy Tuesday I hadn’t seen in a while. His name is Gene Roof. He is now the Tigers’ first-base coach. When I first met him, he was a minor league manager down in Fayetteville, N.C., and we spent a week together riding the buses. One time, he told me a story.
“When I was playing minor league ball, we had bus rides so long and so crowded I had to sleep in the luggage rack up top. I came down, I was so charley-horsed, I couldn’t move.”
He shook his head. Now he was sitting here, in a major league dugout, with happy fans drinking daiquiris and eating barbecue.
You know the point of that whole story? Very simple:
Open for business.