Baseball players can make you feel small. They see you walking around the clubhouse, asking questions, and they act like kings — they ignore you. Do not speak unless spoken to. “You know,” some are fond of telling reporters,
“I never even read the newspapers.”
Dan Petry never said that. He always admitted he read the newspaper, this newspaper, every morning, and when an article caught his attention he would mention it. “That was pretty funny,” he would comment. Or, “I didn’t know that about. . . .” He never felt he was giving something up by doing that. People all around him were saying, “Nice effort,” for his baseball. He just figured, why not say it back? That’s the way he is.
Bye-bye, Mr. Nice Guy. A colleague of mine has this theory: “The good ones
get traded.” It’s not always true. It’s true about Petry. Detroit sent him to the California Angels Saturday for an outfielder named Gary Pettis. For the first time in his 12 professional years, Petry would be working for someone other than the Tigers.
He stayed up late that night, talking with his wife about where they would live and how it would affect their young son, Matthew.
“It’s not so much the scenery in Michigan that we’ll miss,” Petry said a few days later, “but, well, I became an adult here, you know? Gosh, all our greatest memories of life are here. . . . ” Self-confidence suffered
By now most of us know Petry’s story. Went from young pitcher to starting pitcher to great pitcher. Won 15, 19, 18 and 15 games in consecutive
seasons. Helped the Tigers win a World Series. He even made it to an All-Star Game — he walked three batters. But that’s OK. Petry was never good at glitz. He is more like the perfect next-door neighbor, seeking nothing more than a friendly hello, and the chance to lend you a rake.
Which is what made 1987 so hard. Petry slumped. Then he unraveled. Not pitching well and not knowing why led him to not pitching well and not knowing why. His record fell. He went into the bullpen. In a sport full of overstuffed egos, Dan Petry suffered an affliction more familiar to common folk: a lack of self-confidence.
“It got to the point when I felt like an outsider in the clubhouse. I even shied away when reporters would come in. I kind of felt everybody was talking about me, maybe in the press box, saying, ‘Holy smokes, what’s with this guy?’
Nobody said that. Actually, what they said was: “Geez, I hope he does well tonight.” That’s about the highest compliment I can think of for Petry, because sports writers don’t often root for guys they cover. Why are so many people in town going on about his departure? Why has every TV sportscaster used the word “class,” every radio guy said, “Sad to see him go”? Dan Petry never bought us presents. He never drove us home.
He treated people with respect. Anyone. He would chat up the janitor, if that was who was around. Dan Petry looked like a golf pro, he dressed in greens and yellows and pinks, but he never — and I can attest to this — never behaved like a prima donna. I remember when he came back from elbow surgery, and he had in a small glass jar the little bone chips they had removed.
“What are you gonna do with those?” I asked.
“I dunno. Maybe put ’em on my fireplace.”
He laughed. He was trying his best to get back to form. At one point, he had even told GM Bill Lajoie he would “do anything he needed” to try to make up for being injured.
“Like what?” I asked him Monday.
“Anything. Shuffle papers. Whatever.” Sadness in celebration
There’s a park near Petry’s home in Grosse Pointe. Petry would take his son there on the off-days during the season. “It just hit me that I won’t be going there anymore,” Petry said, sadly.
Bye-bye, Mr. Nice Guy. Petry hails from Southern California, yet chose the snow of Michigan for his off-season home. He loved carpooling to games with fellow pitcher Walt Terrell. (I remember writing once how Terrell’s favorite pose was with a beer can and a chicken wing. When I came in the clubhouse, Petry grabbed me and laughed like a kid. “You got him, all right! That’s Walt!”)
But there was a moment this year when the Tigers poured champagne, they had won the AL East, and I remember seeing Petry drenched, looking happy, but distant. He hadn’t contributed much. You could tell that bothered him. Somehow, right then, I sensed he wouldn’t be back.
And now he’s gone. At age 29. Ready to begin a new phase. And this city, which has always loved the regular guy, says so long like a Mom putting her kid on the camp bus. “I’m kind of embarrassed by all the attention. I mean, I’m not some Hall of Famer leaving town,” he said.
Maybe not. But sometime this morning, Petry’s wife, Chris, is due to give birth to their second child. And because this newspaper will be lying on the doorstep, I think the baby ought to know, right from the start, what kind of household it’s getting into: The news, kid, is that Daddy is an Angel.
The truth is, a lot of us knew that already.