by | Apr 4, 2001 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

There were plenty of reasons to be negative, to wag your tongue at the whole thing. The baseball team looked, on paper, pretty grim. Not much hitting. Not much pitching. The one supposed “superstar” from last year was now playing for another team.

And then there was the ticket deal. In order to get seats for Opening Day — if you were not already a season-ticket holder — you were forced to buy tickets for another game as well. No second game, no first game. What does that suggest about management’s confidence in the product?

The ballpark itself? It was still beautiful, but no longer brand new. No novelty anymore. And to top it off, it was gray and cold before the game, even though forecasters had promised sunshine and spring weather.

So you stuffed all that into your parka before the Tigers’ season opener Tuesday, and maybe you packed in some other sour baseball filler, the Alex Rodriguez contract, the Darryl Strawberry fiasco, the fact that nobody except the Yankees seems to have a chance to win anymore.

And by this point you were sulking and low, stooped over, ready to write off the whole dang Opening Day tradition as an idea whose time had passed, an anachronism as stale as, well, whenever the Tigers last made the playoffs, if anyone can remember back that far.

And then you bump into Brandon Inge, the 23-year-old catcher who had never played a major league baseball game before Tuesday, and here he was, dressing by his locker, his major league locker, which, of course, he had never had before either, putting on his regular-season major league uniform, which he also never had before, and he was talking about driving to the ballpark for Opening Day, which he also never had — well, you know the rest.

And you can’t help it.

Spring begins again.

“Are you nervous?” I asked Inge as he pulled a blue undershirt over his cherubic face and short, straw-colored hair, and tucked the shirt neatly into his white Tigers pants.

“Not so much nervous,” he said, “I can’t describe it . . .”

And then he smiled, a smile that would light up a basement, the smile of a thousand farm boys, a thousand sandlotters, a thousand kids throwing the ball off the brick wall and racing to scoop it up and whip it to an imaginary first baseman.

“…I just love baseball,” he said.

The awestruck catcher

Inge was all the stories — good and bad — about the Tigers’ first day of the 2001 season. The bad part, of course, is that he has to be the starter at all. The Tigers traded last year’s catcher, Brad Ausmus, in an off-season deal, and were set to go with newcomer Mitch Meluskey. But Meluskey is suffering from a shoulder injury. Less than a week before Opening Day, he was declared out for the year.

So the Tigers needed a catcher, and it was a little late to be getting any good veterans. Pretty much the only available option was Inge, who began last season in Double-A. Like it or not, he’s the catcher, he’ll be calling pitches, he’ll be the guy blocking the plate and making stops and, of course, batting against pitchers he’s never faced before.

That, for victory-starved Tigers fans, is the bad part.

The good part is all the above through the looking glass. That here was a kid who grew up in Virginia, playing baseball, he loved baseball, and unlike so many other kids who turn to basketball or football, he craved the bat and the glove and this was his sport all through high school, through the minor leagues and now, this.

“I’ve never been to an Opening Day before,” he said. “Not as a fan. Not as a kid. Never. This is my first. I don’t know what to expect.”

He knew enough to get up at 7 in the morning. He knew enough to leave the place where he’s staying, in Ann Arbor, by 7:30. He knew enough to take M-14, and I-96, and Woodward Avenue and park in the players’ lot and walk into the cathedral they call a stadium.

And now here he was, about to go out there and face his first major league pitch, his first major league catch. And there was no cynicism, no attitude.

“What was your reaction when Phil Garner told you that you’d made the team?” I asked him.

“I said to myself, ‘Finally.’ “

“Finally?” I asked.

“Finally, this dream is going to come true.”

The dancing broadcaster

The other Tigers players got dressed around him. There was Bobby Higginson and Dave Mlicki and Deivi Cruz and Damion Easley. And as they dressed, several reporters milled about, as they always do. And then along came Ernie Harwell, the radio voice of the Tigers since, well, it might as well be forever.

“Hello, hello, hello,” Ernie sang.

And then someone turned up the stereo, and a rap tune came blasting, some up-tempo thing by the artist Nelly, who was singing, as near as I could make out “Un-du-lay-un-dulay, E.I, E.I!”

And suddenly, Ernie Harwell began to dance.

Not rap dancing. Just dancing, his hands in his coat pockets, his feet shuffling back and forth, sort of like a jig, or as he would later explain it,
“Trucking,” a dance step from the ’40s.

And the players started smiling and nodding their heads at Ernie. And a few were urging him on so he kept going, doing this little boogie around the locker room as the rap music was blasting. And I thought to myself, “Well, now, this is your 16th straight Opening Day in Detroit and here’s a picture you haven’t seen before . . .”

And suddenly, I was smiling, too.

There is something about baseball, dang it, and at times you wish there wasn’t. Maybe it’s just our youth. Maybe it’s that baseball is the only major sport that begins when nature intended things to begin, in the springtime.

All I know is this: a half-hour before game time, I was walking with manager Garner down the tunnel and out to the field. And he was talking about nothing in particular and then he came upon Inge, who was just inside the dugout, with his catcher’s gear, the pads, the mask, the chest protector, and he was getting ready to put it on, which might have meant he wouldn’t run out for introductions.

“Brandon,” Garner said, “you’ll put that on afterwards. I want you to run out with the team. OK?”

And Inge smiled that smile again and he said, “OK.”

Garner nodded, dug his hands in his baseball jacket pockets, and walked up the concrete steps. He looked to the sky and announced, to no one in particular,
“Well, the sun is about to come out now, isn’t it?”

It was Opening Day.

Was there a choice?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.


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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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