It was two hours before the first pitch when Joe Dumars jumped in the car. He was late. He apologized. He stretched his long legs in the backseat and grinned like a kid.
“I hope Cecil hits one tonight,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“And no singles or anything.”
“I mean, it’s like singles don’t count with Cecil, you know?”
“Got to be a home run.”
A pause. “Preferably a long home run.”
“A long home run,” I repeated.
“Yeah,” said Joe, leaning back.
We were going to a baseball game, Joe Dumars, Barry Sanders, Steve Yzerman, and me. I had the tickets, which might be the only reason I got in the group. Then again, it’s a pretty nice group. Considering these are the reigning superstars in basketball, football and hockey in this town, their egos are in nice perspective. You buy them a hot dog, they say, “Hey, thanks a lot.” They meet Sparky Anderson, they act like impressed fans. A foul ball comes their way and they. . . .
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
“What’s Barry doing?” Joe asked as the car sped along Long Lake Road.
“He’s got practice today,” I said.
Dumars looked at the car clock. It read 5:30. “This long?” he said.
“Man,” he said, “football is really a job, isn’t it?”
We pulled into the Silverdome parking lot. There was Barry Sanders, standing alone by his car. Hands in his pockets. Nobody around. This, remember, is arguably the best running back in the NFL, the rookie who needed 10 yards in the final game to win the NFC rushing title last season, and told his coach, “Don’t bother to put me back in. Just let’s win and go home.”
He shyly opened the door and slid inside, dressed in shorts and a pink T-shirt. “Hey, man,” he said to Dumars. “Hey, man,” he said to me.
“Thanks for coming,” I said.
“No problem,” he said.
“Should be fun,” Joe said. “Cecil might hit one.”
Barry smiled and nodded. The car pulled away. About 10 seconds later, Barry leaned in. He looked troubled.
“Um, to be honest,” he said, “I don’t really know who Cecil Fielder is.”
One thing you will quickly learn about superstar athletes; they are not all alike. Take Dumars and Sanders, for example. Dumars can watch a baseball game on TV from beginning to end. He can watch volleyball. He can stare at ESPN while using the Stairmaster and absorb everything.
And then there is Sanders, who has never seen a Tigers game on TV. In fact, he has been to only one other baseball game in his life. “I don’t have the time,” he says, almost embarrassed. But then, out of the blue, he turns to Dumars and says, “I was a pretty good basketball player, though.”
Dumars smiles. “You were?”
“I played three years varsity in high school.”
“So you were better than me.”
“Well . . . yeah, I guess I was.”
And Dumars exploded in laughter. And so did Sanders. And from that point on, they were like pals. They chatted the whole ride down, about training, about mutual friends. At one point, Sanders gave Dumars his phone number and asked if maybe they could get together, hang around.
And here came the ballpark.
“We’re meeting Yzerman here,” I said. I looked at Barry. He had that same puzzled look.
“Steve Yzerman?” I said. “The Red Wings’ captain?”
Well. Anyhow. There was Steve, right on time, and everyone shook hands, we all took the tickets and we walked towards the field. Tiger Stadium smelled of sausages and peanuts and greasepaint. “Nothing like a ballpark,” said Dumars, sniffing. Yzerman waved at a fan. Sanders just looked around.
And then we were on the field. And there was Cecil Fielder, signing autographs. Sanders tugged on my sleeve. “That’s him, right, No. 45?”
“Fielder,” I said. “Leads the league in home runs.”
Sanders nodded. “He’s big.”
Which is a compliment, I guess, coming from a football player.
Anyhow, I approached Cecil, mostly because these other guys were too shy to do it. And here was the moment I had waited for: Fielder. Sanders. Dumars. Yzerman. Talk about your basic elements. It’s was like Hydrogen meeting Oxygen.
“My MAN!” said Fielder, throwing an arm around Dumars. “Aw, man, this guy can hoop!
“My MAN!” he continued, throwing an arm around Sanders. “Aw, man, this guy can scoot with the football.
“My MAN!” he continued, grabbing Yzerman’s hand. “Uh, nice to meet you.”
I don’t think hockey is Cecil’s big sport.
Anyhow, pretty soon it was like one big party. Cecil gave everyone a bat with his number on it. “Take some batting practice!” he insisted, pointing to the cage. They all just grinned and shuffled their feet.
“Football,” said Fielder, turning to Sanders. “That’s a sport!”
“You look like you could lay a few licks on somebody,” Sanders said.
“Ha, man, I couldn’t even catch you,” Fielder laughed. He turned to Dumars. “And basketball! Now there’s a sport.”
“Nah,” Dumars said, “baseball is a sport. I can’t believe you guys stand in there with those balls coming in so fast. I’d be like, ‘Whoa.’ ” He feigned a duck.
“Nah, man, basketball is exciting,” Fielder said. “It moves, every night.” He gazed out at the bleachers, mostly empty on this September evening. He swung at the air.
“Baseball is boring.”
Did I mention Sparky Anderson? Oh, yeah. He snuck up and grabbed Dumars from behind and slapped his back. And he shook hands with Yzerman and Sanders. Barry had that awkward smile on his face again, so I slid up alongside him.
“Sparky Anderson,” I whispered.
“Yeah,” he mumbled, “I’ve seen him on the commercials. He’s pretty famous, isn’t he?”
And soon, we were heading for our seats. Barry. Steve. Joe. A couple people oohed and aahed and a couple kids wanted autographs, but mostly we were left alone and we stood for the national anthem. I asked Yzerman if he’d ever caught a foul ball at a baseball game.
“I never even came close,” he said. “I sat on the third base side a whole game, and never even saw one.”
Not long after that, the Yankees’ batter fouled off a pitch and it lofted high in the air. For a moment, it was headed our way but then it drifted towards the third-base side, and a brown-haired young man caught it with his bare hands.
“Hey!” Yzerman yelled to me suddenly. “You know who caught that?”
“Who?” I asked.
I looked at the front row. Damn if he wasn’t right.
Goalies get to catch everything.
Anyhow, the game went on and finally Cecil came to the plate. I’d like to say he hit a home run in that first at-bat. He didn’t. Actually, he struck out. But that didn’t seem to dampen anyone’s spirit. The Yankees’ super rookie Kevin Maas hit a two-run blast into the rightfield seats. Next time he got up, Dumars leaned towards me.
“We got to pitch this guy tight and inside,” he whispered. “Send him a message.”
“Joe!” I said.
And Walt Terrell pitched him tight.
Dumars grinned. “Now we got to brush him back a little. Nothing too bad. Just a little.”
“Joe!” I said.
And Terrell pitched him tight and Maas fouled it off his foot and hopped around the plate in obvious pain.
“Got ‘im,” said Dumars, crossing his arms. I laughed. He really is a sports fan.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a game without hot dogs, and so I yelled for the vendor. “Four!” He passed them down, from Yzerman to Sanders to Dumars to me. And I passed him the money, me to Dumars to Sanders to Yzerman. And when Yzerman leaned over to hand me the change, he reached in front of Sanders. And he turned and said, “Excuse me.”
And then Sanders reached around and said, “Thanks for the hot dog, man.”
I thought that was nice.
We had a few Cokes and we watched Terrell get out of a bases-loaded jam. The ice cream guy walked past and yelled “THREE-PEAT!” A few kids yelled, “Steve! Hey, Steve!” An older woman selling peanuts passed by and whispered “Hi” to Dumars. Joe looked at Sanders, who was grinning.
“She likes you, man.”
Everyone had to get home early, and pretty soon it was time to go. Steve said good-bye and drove himself back to Grosse Pointe, as unassuming as ever. And Sanders and Dumars could have gone home separately, but they talked it over and decided to go together. I walked them out, we shook hands. And they thanked me several times. The game was still going on inside.
Earlier in the day, when the arrangements for this little idea were getting confused, my boss said, “God, why did we ever try this?” But you know what? It turned out OK. Barry. Steve. Joe. It wasn’t three big egos trying to outdo one another. It wasn’t three superstars who demanded luxury-box treatment.
It was basically three guys at the ballpark on a late summer night with a few hot dogs and a few Cokes and some unusual conversation. You couldn’t do this in every city. Detroit is awful lucky that the biggest guys in town are also the nicest and most unassuming.
I thought maybe that was the lesson of the evening. And just as I picked up the phone to send this story, in the bottom of the ninth, with Joe and Barry and Steve maybe listening on the car radio, Cecil Fielder stepped to the plate and whacked a 2-1 fastball that hit the leftfield roof of Tiger Stadium. Home run No. 46.
You know what I figure? I figure it’s a perfect ending. That’s what I figure.