Homeless fan still has his hand in the game

by | Oct 9, 2011 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

There’s a million stories in baseball. This one happened outside the stadium.

It was almost 1 a.m. Tuesday, and I was leaving to go home after covering the Tigers-Yankees game. The Tigers had won, and in the distance near the late-closing bars you could hear car horns and some determined partyers, but for the most part, the area was empty, a few cops, a few stadium workers.

I walked down a small street called Montcalm that feeds into Woodward Avenue. Ahead of me, I saw an older man standing by a light pole. He held a cup and a small piece of cardboard.

We’ve all seen men like this. Perhaps you ignore them, or maybe cross the street.

I decided long ago that if someone is put in my path, there must be a reason, so I did not turn as I approached. Instead, I reached into my pocket.

“Hey, I know you!” he said.

Hello, I said.

“Whoa, I know you! I know you!”

He said my name, and he fumbled around as if looking for something, squatting, peeking behind the light pole. His clothes were layered, a couple T-shirts beneath a blue sweatshirt, the hood pulled over his head. He was small but trim, his face ruddy and whiskered white. It was a good, strong face, finely boned, one a director might choose to play a homeless man in a film.

“Can you sign something for me?” he asked.

He held out his small piece of cardboard with his message for help.

“This is all I got,” he said.

He helped build it

Detroit’s a funny place, where sportswriters can get asked for signatures, but rarely in my experience has this been so awkward, me reaching for money, him reaching for paper.

I asked his name and he said, “James,” and he said, “I’m 60,” and I asked how long he’d been out here and he said, “All night.” He said Montcalm was a good street because many fans passed by. He seemed genuinely upbeat about the Tigers winning, even though he hadn’t seen a pitch.

“I was an ironworker,” he said. “You know Local 25? I was in that. Made a lot of things.”

He glanced at the massive Comerica Park, still illuminated, just a pop foul away.

“Heck, I worked on this place.”

You helped build the stadium?

“I sure did. Yep. Right here.”

He sniffed and shuffled his feet. He said he’d hit hard times since then, couldn’t find work. He mentioned several places he’d sleep at night, a shelter on Third Street run by the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries or a church off Trumbull.

“I’m not on drugs, I’m sober, don’t do any of that stuff anymore,” he said.

I hadn’t asked. He said it anyhow.

An emotional scene

As we spoke, he would offer intermittent handshakes, as if we were saying hello throughout the conversation. I felt the power of his palms, strong and meaty, and it didn’t surprise me that he once worked with iron.

It also didn’t surprise me that he was homeless. Men who make things with their hands are a shrinking tribe; men out in the streets are a growing one.

We spoke for 10 minutes. At one point, a stadium worker wandered over, perhaps to make sure everything was OK, as if this man might be bothering me; why else would we be talking so long?

“We’re good,” I said. “This is James. He helped build the stadium.”

“Yeah,” he echoed. “Ironworker. Local 25.”

He smiled. No bitterness. No resentment. He did not look at his situation with the writer’s ironic eye, as a man forced to panhandle outside a building he helped create.

Instead, when I handed him more money, he blinked, swallowed and almost began to cry. “Aw, man,” he said. He opened his arms and offered a hug, which I quickly accepted. It was the best way to hide my own tears.

There are a million stories in baseball, and, like home runs, some are inside the park and some are out. I asked James if he’d be there the next night, and he said, “Definitely,” and I said, “Good, see you then.” Early Wednesday morning, after the game, I grabbed several boxed dinners from the press box and carried them out to Montcalm. I walked up and down, but he was nowhere to be found.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.


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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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