by | Sep 28, 1987 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

TORONTO — Oh, if home runs could talk! What might this one have said — this ninth-inning speedball that exploded off Kirk Gibson’s bat and sailed gloriously over the right field wall, tied the game, silenced the crowd, landed in the Blue Jays’ parking area and rolled under a car. What might it have said? “Wait a minute. We’re not done yet.”

Wait a minute. Time out for a great moment, a great game, a reprieve from the warden on a Tigers season too good to end. Yes, Detroit is still in second place in the American League East. Yes, it still trails Toronto by 2 1/2 games with a week left.

But here, Sunday, for four hours and six minutes, was the chase, the season, everything they play for, everything we watch for. One must-win game
— against a team that had seemingly forgotten the phrase: “You gotta lose sometime.” Stop Toronto. That was all the Tigers wanted. Stop Toronto. No problem. Stop the ocean, while you’re at it. And war, and world hunger.

After all, hadn’t these Blue Jays been kissed by some devilish destiny, hadn’t they already won three games from the Tigers by one run apiece, with enough ninth-inning magic to fill an entire reel of highlight film? Stop Toronto? How did one do that? The Tigers had already tried throwing their ace, taking early leads, scoring nine runs. Nothing had worked.

And here they were, in the final game of this four-game series — “We lose this, that’s it,” Darrell Evans would later admit — and so they played their trump card: Doyle Alexander, the hottest pitcher in baseball. And he surrendered one run in eight innings, fought off threats in the fifth and sixth, and handcuffed guys like Lloyd Moseby, Ernie Whitt and Jesse Barfield.

And with three outs to go, his team was still losing, 1-0.

What went through your mind when you came to bat in the ninth?” Gibson would be asked when this thing was all over, when the Tigers had finally beaten the Blue Jays, 3-2, and breathed new life into the final week of the season. “What were you thinking?”

“Honestly?” he would say. “I was thinking that last time up I swung like a bleep!”

Well. What do you want? Shakespeare? The fact is that Gibson, like his teammates, was fed up with all that had been happening, these weird losses, weird bounces, bullpen collapses, and he decided to swing freely — “Go for it,” a Californian might say — and bam! Over the wall. Suddenly, the score was tied. And more important, a spell had been broken: It wasn’t just the Blue Jays who could have magic in the ninth.

“That was as big an at-bat as we’ve had in a long time,” Evans would say. Indeed. It seemed to change everything. Only one inning earlier, Evans, the Tigers’ elder statesman, had smacked his own towering fly ball to right-center, only to see it caught against the wall by a leaping Barfield. Evans stood for a long time on first base after that, just staring off, mumbling to himself. What did the Tigers have to do to win here? Sports writers memorized the scene, stored it like a chestnut for when the Tigers went down.

Only they didn’t go down. Gibson hit that homer and they went to extra innings and the Tigers scored again, and the Blue Jays tied them, and the Tigers scored in the 13th and . . .

Well, we’ll get to that in a second. A few words here about Doyle Alexander: Fantastic. Awesome. Totally. What he did Sunday was no less than save the Tigers’ season — in a park that loves him as much as Popeye loves Brutus. All day long, the lean, saggy-faced pitcher (who criticized Toronto after the Jays traded him) had endured jeers from the sellout crowd — at one point a plane flew overhead with a tailing message “LET’S FOIL DOYLE!” — and he ignored it all. On top of that, he was working without a net; the Tigers’ bullpen was a tinderbox. Everybody knew it. Alexander had to go long. He went long. Alexander had to choke the rallies. He choked the rallies.

He went 10 2/3 innings, before giving up a tying run on Barfield’s single, and Willie Hernandez relieved him. “He was unbelievable the way he pitched,” Dan Petry said afterward. “Doyle left his heart on the mound.”

The Tigers weren’t about to let it be stepped on.

So, OK. Back to the game. The 13th inning. By now a rain had already started falling, stopped, the clouds disappeared, and the sun returned. How much longer would this go on? Jim Walewander opened it with a walk. Walewander? But of course. The young man who made the rock group The Dead Milkmen famous, was perfect for a game like this. He took second on Lou Whitaker’s bunt, and stayed there while Evans received an intentional pass.

And up came Gibson. One more time. Whiskered. Tight jawed. Realistic. He hadn’t celebrated when he’d hit that home run in the ninth (“You never celebrate early here”) and he knew, despite the indications, that he wasn’t swinging well.

“I’ve been lousy for a while now,” he said. “I just followed that old saying, ‘Swing in case you hit something.’ ” And he did. The first pitch. It blooped toward center field and Walewander and Evans froze on the base paths, watching Moseby, the center fielder, come charging, charging — and, no! The ball bounced in front of him and ricocheted over his head. Flash! Walewander took off, charged around third, as Manny Lee retrieved the ball and threw toward home. It was close, Walewander went in headfirst, dragged his hand and reached the promised land in a cloud of dirt. . . .


“People always tell me not to slide headfirst, because you get hurt,” Walewander would later remark, “but I say, ‘Bleep it.’ “

Yeah. Bleep it. The Tigers had the lead. And this one they would not surrender. Not even a hit batsman (George Bell by Mike Henneman) or a close-but-missed double play, or the appearance of Dickie Noles, who had surrendered the winning hit the day before, could stop this one in the bottom of the 13th. Noles took the ball from Sparky Anderson (who had but one request: “Get the guy out”) and, ta-da! He retired Barfield on a broken-bat grounder to Alan Trammell. A flip to second. Score it 6-4 in your books. And the Tigers had won! The season was still alive, still breathing.

What a game! What a glorious game! Gone already for hours were Alexander and Toronto starter Jim Clancy (who pitched seven shutout innings). Old already were Gibson’s first blast, and Evans’ 11th-inning home run that made it 2-1, and Barfield’s RBI single that tied it, 2-2. How great was this game? You had to remind yourself of that stuff. Each inning threatened to outshine the one before it. “My heart is still beating,” said pitcher Frank Tanana, who was warming up as the next reliever in the 13th should Noles have faltered. “Whew! Whew! Wow!”

Wow, indeed. The Tigers have control of their destiny now. It is no guarantee of anything. It simply means one more week of baseball that matters
— secured by a triumphant home run with three outs to go that said: “Wait a minute. We’re not done yet.” And proceeded to demonstrate why.

As the stadium emptied after Barfield’s final out, and the Tigers players met at the mound, shaking hands, slapping high- fives, Evans wandered back to the spot where earlier — an hour? two hours? — he had stood, wondering what the Tigers had to do to win here. And slowly, almost unnoticed, he began to clap. Faster, now. Harder. Clapping and clapping, over and over, for his team, for the win, for the game. The reason they play, the reason we watch. The greatest game of the year. Clap on, Darrell. The Tigers earned this one.


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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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