GRAND FINALESLAM, SMILES, TEARS . . . A FOND FAREWELL FOR THE CORNERLOOK THERE, AND THERE: FACES OF THE PAST ARE HERE

LOOK, THERE’S your father, sitting in the rightfield seats, handing you a hot dog and telling you be careful, don’t get mustard all over your shirt. And over there, near the third-base line, that was your grandma, holding her little pencil and writing names delicately in her scorecard, “Kaline, RF, Horton, LF, Freehan, C . . .”

And out there, in the bleachers, wasn’t that your first girlfriend, looking the way she did back then, her hair in a ponytail, her eyes feigning interest as you pointed out the players and proudly quoted their statistics?

Didn’t you see them all there Monday afternoon, taking their place with the rest of the remembered, the living and the ghosts, the players and managers, the umpires and owners, all of whom came to wave good-bye to an 87-year-old fading blue palace called Tiger Stadium?

Didn’t they gather early at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, gazing up fondly at the light towers and the peeling-white walls? Didn’t they come through the turnstiles and immediately inhale, sniffing the smells of history mixed with sausage grease?

Didn’t they roar for the old players who gathered at home plate before the national anthem? Didn’t they laugh and point when Mark (The Bird) Fidrych ran out to the pitcher’s mound and scooped up a last bag of dirt? Didn’t they get a chill when the great Al Kaline, speaking for everyone who ever wore a Tigers uniform, said, “I again find myself humbled by this place . . .”

Didn’t they jump up, the way all baseball fans jump up, when the first pitch was smacked toward centerfield — Could it be a homer? Will it be a homer? — and didn’t they applaud when it came down in the glove of a Tigers centerfielder?

Today, that centerfielder’s name is Gabe Kapler, a muscle-bound, 24-year-old stud out of Reseda, Calif. But not long ago he was Chet Lemon, and before that Mickey Stanley and before that Johnny Groth, Hoot Evers, all the way back to the ornery batting champion, Ty Cobb, who patrolled this same grass in this same building in the 1910s.

On Monday afternoon, Kapler, the kid, seemed to travel through time. He was wearing Cobb’s uniform — no number on his back — and for a moment, as the ball dropped out of the sky, it might have been the Georgia Peach himself squeezing it for the out.

History? The place is history.

“You remember the first time you ever saw this stadium?” a 70-year-old man was asked on this farewell day.

“The first time? Oh, yeah,” he said. “I was in high school, and I cut class and sneaked down here with a friend. And of the 50,000 people here, who should we run into? His mother! We didn’t know what to say!”

The 70-year-old man laughed. His eyes got that hazy look. Just for a moment, he was by himself, gazing toward the outfield.

His name is Mike Ilitch.

He owns the team.

That was his friend out there, in the bleachers, did you see him? The red-faced teenager trying to explain himself to Mother?

A low ceiling

Look, there’s your pal from the old neighborhood, grinning as his hand dove into your popcorn. And over there was your uncle, waiting in his Chevrolet, parked by the church where he said he’d meet you after the game.

There, in the upper deck, weren’t those your schoolmates on Safety Patrol Day, having made the long bus trip down from northern Michigan? And down there, along the outfield wall, wasn’t that your kid sister, leaning over the rail during batting practice, her big glove dangling from her too-small hand?

“Hit one here!” she squealed to the players. “Hit one here! . . .”

Weren’t they all there for the final game Monday afternoon, a day that was, in many ways, perfect for a funeral, so much life-affirming joy to lessen the coming sadness; a sky the color of blueberry ice cream; a breeze that cooled the 84-degree sun; an adoring crowd that included former players Ron LeFlore, Mark Fidrych, Jack Morris, Kirk Gibson, Cecil Fielder, Darrell Evans, even Billy Rogell, the shortstop and former city councilman who played for this team — in this stadium — in the 1930s.

The 1930s?

History? The place is history.

“What’s funny is how little I thought of this stadium when I first saw it,” said Alan Trammell, a guy who played his entire career in this park and was voted by fans the best Tigers shortstop ever. “I came from Southern California, and we were used to big, new stadiums, big parking lots, and I drove by here and the cab driver said, ‘That’s Tiger Stadium,’ and I said,
‘Where? That thing? It looks like a fortress!’ ”

He laughed. “I love it now, but, to be honest, a lot of time I played here, we dreamed of having a new stadium. I mean, for years, we didn’t have an indoor batting cage. If it was raining before the game, we didn’t get a warm-up. Your first swing of the day was one that counted.

“And then there’s that dugout. It’s the worst. It’s tiny and cramped and the ceiling is so low, you can’t see anything but third base.”

Trammell got that hazy look.

“I can’t tell you how many times guys forgot about how low the ceiling is, and something would happen and they’d pop up to see and — BAM! They’d bang their head on the concrete. Especially big guys like Lance Parrish. Oh, man, that happened all the time!”

Trammell, grinning, was looking off now. Wasn’t that his former teammate, rubbing his head, cursing out loud? Out there in the dugout? Did you see him?

Why we cry

Did you see Joe Louis on Monday afternoon? He was there, boxing in a makeshift ring in the outfield, knocking out Bob Pastor, the way he did in 1939. Did you see Jake LaMotta, winning the middleweight crown? Did you hear Billy Graham preaching to the bleachers? Did you see the Lions’ Chuck Hughes, lying on the football field, dead of a heart attack he suffered during a 1971 game?

It wasn’t just baseball within these walls. It was concerts, football games, prize fights, high school championships, even a summer series called “Opera Under the Stars.”

But whatever took place here, it was ours. This city. This state. Find another person from Michigan, from a town as far away from yours as you can get. Then find the one place you’ve both been.

Even money it’s Tiger Stadium.

Which is why, at 7:07 p.m. Monday, when the final game ended — a Tigers victory, which included the perfect parting shot, an eighth-inning, monster grand slam hit off the rightfield roof by a rookie named Robert Fick, who lives, curiously enough, in the same California town as Sparky Anderson — when that was over, nobody left. Nobody moved. Flash bulbs popped. A small cheer went up and then the fans seemed to pause and fall silent, the way you do at an airport gate before letting your loved ones fly away.

Finally, the centerfield gates opened. And one by one, the players who made history here came running out onto the field, squeezed into their old uniforms, Tigers from the ’80s, ’70s, ’60s, ’50s, middle-age men playing boys one more time.

Here came Mickey Lolich, chugging to the mound. Here came Dan Petry, waving his cap. Here came Tom Brookens, Frank Tanana, Willie Horton, Gates Brown, Elden Auker, all of them smiling, some of them crying.

It was like watching a rewind reel. And as they ran to their old positions and the sky turned dark and the stirring music sang over the loudspeakers, the crowd fell into a church-like reverence. It was so quiet, you knew what people were doing.

They were remembering their own lives.

You ask why people cry when baseball stadiums close? This is why. Because some of us found our childhoods inside them.

And some of us left them there.

A new beginning

Look, there were your children, tugging your arm, asking you questions, who is that player, where is the mascot, when can we eat, where is the bathroom? They are the ones you will take with you next year, to a new place, a new stadium just a mile from this one. There, the walls will not be peeling, the pipes will not be exposed, the sausage fumes will not be melted into the tiling and the dugouts will not cause cranial injuries.

It will not be the same building, but it will be the same idea. You make your memory, and you savor it for years to come. Baseball connects us that way. Just as one day this winter, Sparky Anderson will be sitting on his back porch in Thousand Oaks, Calif., sitting in one of two old wooden seats he owns as souvenirs from Tiger Stadium. He will be thinking of the past.

And across town, the rookie, Fick, will be dreaming of the future.

History? The place is history. It is championship celebrations in 1935, 1945, 1968 and 1984. It is Ernie Harwell’s voice over a car radio. It is Cobb, Greenberg, Aguirre, Newhouser, Cash, McLain, Lolich, Gibson, Trammell, Whitaker, Morris.

It is the rightfield porch, the flagpole in the middle of centerfield, the girders that block your view, the home plate that was taken during Monday night’s ceremonies and transported to a new park for a new millennium.

It is Opening Days in snowstorms, and a closing day of 84 degrees. It is hot dogs, beer, caramel corn, Cokes, pennants and peanuts, foul balls and souvenirs. It is a house of fun, and a home of memories.

Some you couldn’t forget if you tried.

“Hey, Lance,” someone said, spotting former catcher Lance Parrish. “Trammell was talking about the dugouts here. He said you have some special bruises.”

Parrish grinned. He instinctively grabbed his head. “I banged into that ceiling so many times, I have a permanent lump.”

Don’t we all?

There was your father, and there was your mother, holding your hand as you walked through the tunnel and saw the dazzling green grass for the very first time. Baseball in Detroit is done for this century. And so is the house in which it was played. We take a new walk now, a mile down the street, and as we glance one more time over our shoulders, at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, with a lump in our throats — or on our heads — we say good-bye.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM
(760).

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