by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

TORONTO — The post-game food sat in silver trays, warm and untouched. Tigers moved quickly around the clubhouse, tugging their ties, eyeing the exits, hoping to escape without comment. What was there to say?

The ghosts that have taken over this American League East race had kissed Toronto and spat at Detroit, deciding that only the worst possible ninth-inning nightmares would suffice. And words certainly weren’t going to stop them. Not if five pitchers, nine runs, 11 hits and a grand slam wouldn’t.

There are ways to lose, ways to be defeated, ways to throw games away. And then there is what happened Saturday in Exhibition Stadium. “You explain it to me,” a sighing Darrell Evans would say when this 10-9 defeat was finally over. “I can’t figure it out. A bloop hit here, a bloop hit there. They hit four balls hard all day, and score 10 runs, and beat us in the ninth? Really. You tell me. . . . ” Any volunteers? Go ahead. We’re all ears. And don’t forget the dramatic implications; for when this season is finally over next Sunday, it may be here, in this haunted 22-hour stretch of baseball, that everything was decided.

On Friday night, a 3-2 defeat, it was the appearance of Willie Hernandez, who surrendered two deadly hits in the ninth inning. On Saturday, it was . .
. well, everything. Oh, sure, it ended again with drama in the ninth, a bases-loaded triple by pinch-hitter Juan Beniquez that won the game and dropped Detroit to 3 1/2 games behind Toronto in the AL East. But to blame this thing on any one hit or pitch would be like condensing the Bible into a paragraph.

This wasn’t a baseball game. This was an epic. “Les Miserables” doesn’t run this long. Here, in one afternoon — one sold-out afternoon, before more than 46,000 scarf-waving fans — the following took place: Matt Nokes, a 23-year-old rookie, hit two home runs, including a grand slam; Chet Lemon hit into a ground-out double play with men on second and third (interference was called on Nokes); Evans, well past his 40th birthday, attempted a crucial steal of second base in the eighth — and was safe! — but was called out by a

mistaken umpire; relief pitcher Mike Henneman was forced to bat in the ninth inning with two men on, and struck out trying to bunt.

Should we go on?

“I’ve never been involved in a game like this,” said Nokes, a sentiment echoed by Henneman, Evans, Alan Trammell and anyone else you cared to ask. Weird calls? Weird substitutions? Weird bounces? And it would all have been fine, laughable, a knee- slapper, had the Tigers won. But they did not. For the third game in a row.

“Is it starting to feel like the Blue Jays are destined to win this division?” someone would ask Trammell.

“The thought has crossed my mind,” he said glumly.

How else would you explain what has been going on up here? How else would you explain that ninth inning Saturday? Tigers lead, 9-7, despite all the mishaps, and Henneman is looking good, looking OK, looking as if he might put it away.

Up came Jesse Barfield. He hit a routine fly ball to center field, should be an out — except that Lemon, playing too deep, had to come charging in, charging, and . . . no! The ball bounced in front of his diving body, went over him, and Barfield dashed into second base. The religious must have known right then that this was history. Why was Lemon so far back? All day he had been playing deep enough to check on cars in the parking lot. You don’t play that far back on a leadoff hitter of an inning —

Oops. No time to ponder. Willie Upshaw, the next batter, slapped a dribbler toward third base. It was a nothing hit, a feeble excuse, a pill bug, a wart, but Tom Brookens grabbed the ball and with no play at first, wheeled and saw Barfield going to third with Trammell, the shortstop, shadowing behind him. And Brookens made a smart play, a beautiful play, he whipped it to Trammell for a tag, and the ball slapped Trammell’s glove — and bounced out.
(“My glove was here,” Trammell would say, holding up his hand, “and the throw was here. Just a few inches off! I should’ve had it. It should’ve been better.

. . . “

Shoulda, coulda, woulda. Barfield was safe at third, Upshaw at first. The fans were whooping and hollering, waving the scarves. Surely they sensed what was coming. Rick Leach walked to the plate — Leach, the former Michigan star who was once a Tiger, naturally — and Henneman hit him with a pitch! Hit his foot. A forkball. The bases were loaded. The place was insanity.

“BLUE JAYS! BLUE JAYS!” screamed the fans.

Sparky Anderson came out and removed Henneman, who walked disgustedly into the clubhouse. “It stinks,” he would say later, his young face red with embarrassment and anger. “If they would’ve taken me out of the park three times, fine, then they’d just beat me. But a blooper to center, dribbler to third base, hitting a guy with the ball — that’s so hard to swallow.”

So hard. But what can you do? When he entered the clubhouse, Henneman saw Walt Terrell, the day’s starter, and Dan Petry and Mark Thurmond, the two relievers who preceded him, sitting in front of the TV set. He took a seat alongside them, and quietly watched the rest of the funeral. Without a bullpen, you are a ship with a hole in its bottom; sinking is just a matter of time. And the Tigers’ bullpen has been simply horrible lately. So when Anderson called on Dickie Noles with those bases loaded, well, it’s not as if

you expected miracles. But you might not have expected Beniquez to whack a 3-2 pitch into left field for the game-ender.

The flight of that ball typified the way things have gone in this series. It sailed just over the reach of Trammell, and disappeared in the tricky late-afternoon shadows. “I actually got a good jump on the ball,” said left fielder Kirk Gibson. “Then I saw Tram’s body go up, and then I didn’t see the ball. I thought he caught it. I slowed up just a second, and next thing I saw it was slicing away from me.”

The ball skipped by Gibson, rolled all the way to the wall, and Blue Jays were crossing the plate like ducks in some penny arcade; one, two, three — game’s over! The crowd reached fever pitch. The Toronto dugout emptied, a sea of high-fives and gleeful expressions. Once again, the Blue Jays had won a game that looked lost. And once again, the Tigers were the slowest- moving men in the stadium. How long must that walk to the dugout have felt? As long as a season? As long as this season — which already has tested the mettle of every Tiger on the roster.

“Call it fate or destiny or what,” said Gibson afterward. “There’s somebody who’s designing these things. . . . And we don’t know who it is. .
. . “

That is the way it feels. This series — which once loomed as a promising first-place showdown — has now become a Detroit horror film. No matter how calm and in control the final minutes, something seems bound to rise from the evil dirt. “I can’t explain it,” Evans said. “I really can’t.”

There is one more game here today. There is reason for slim hope, because Doyle Alexander is pitching. And of course, there is a week left in the season, and anything can happen. The Blue Jays do have to play three games next weekend in Tiger Stadium. “Hey,” said Gibson, forcing a smile, “we may be setting the biggest bear trap in history.”

A nice thought. But for now, just a thought. The Tigers’ bullpen is in shreds. The batters are still leaving too many men on base. And the Tigers’ luck is suddenly no luck at all.

As the players left the stadium Saturday evening, a small flock of seagulls hovered over the outfield turf. The way things have gone for Detroit, they might have been vultures.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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