by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

DATELINE UNKNOWN — This is how it began. They put their hands on a bat, one at a time, rising up the neck, a black hand, a white hand, a young man’s hand, an aging second baseman’s calloused fingers, up, up, until there was room for just one more. All eyes turned to, of all people, Michael Jordan, who smiled, because it was his turn. He grabbed that handle like a climber grabbing a mountaintop.

“We’re the home team,” he declared.

“National League bats first,” Ryne Sandberg said.

“OK,” Don Mattingly said, standing up and looking over the group, “are we ready to do this?”

It is hard to describe the electricity that tickled the air at that very moment, the feeling that something heavenly was about to happen and only these lucky few knew it. Kirby Puckett lightly tapped Jordan’s hand, as if to rub off some good luck. Roger Clemens smacked a fist into his glove. Young Mike Piazza seemed in awe of the event, so did a kid named Pokey Reese, and Matt Williams and Barry Bonds.

Ozzie Smith, the veteran shortstop, broke the silence.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, cupping hands around his mouth to mimic an announcer, “welcome to the Secret World Series!”

There were no fans, no TV cameras, no billboards. The sun was out. The breeze was warm.

They took the field. In the beginning

What these 21 baseball players are doing here — what I am doing here with

them — will not be quickly explained, and let me apologize if things seem a little helter-skelter. I never intended to be writing dispatches this week from anywhere, much less an unofficial and highly secret series of baseball games that, unless I miss my guess, these ballplayers are hoping will count one day as the 1994 Fall Classic. The real one, of course, was crushed by the tidal wave of the baseball strike. October used to be a month for words like
“Series hero” and “MVP.” Now it’s an endless economics lecture. Salary cap. Arbitration. Small-market revenues.

No one could stand it.

I couldn’t. It was why I was on a plane, last Friday, headed for vacation in a destination that I must, for the moment, keep a secret (and will explain in due course).

Everything was normal until I caught sight of two familiar faces, Alan Trammell and Kirk Gibson, sitting side by side in first class. Odd, I thought. They’re wearing sunglasses.

“Hey, Elvis?” I said. “What’s up? They settled the strike and nobody told me?”

They looked down to avoid me, which was also odd, since I’ve known these men for a decade. Finally, Gibson said, “We got a card show.”

“All the way in —-?”

“They pay a lot of money.”

I shrugged, moved back to my coach seat, and didn’t think twice about it, until hours later, halfway through the flight, when I was nudged from a bumpy sleep. The two of them were leaning over me.

“What?” I said.

“We have a proposition,” Trammell whispered.

They beckoned me to the back of the plane. And there, at 30,000 feet, in the din of the engines where no one could hear us, I was made an offer I won’t forget: Give up my vacation for the next seven days, and they would let me join them on a story. “A real rare story,” Gibson said, as if I’d be a fool to say no.

Here were the conditions: I was to tell no one where we were going — not even my newspaper. And I was to keep track of everything. That was crucial. They needed someone “to keep a record of all the things that happen.”

“What things?” I asked.

Gibson shook his head. “Yes or no?” he demanded. I realize now he was testing me, and it’s probably best he didn’t say what they had in mind, for I might have blurted it out and the whole plane would have heard it and then, who knows, they would have stuffed me in the lavatory toilet, I guess.

Instead, I looked at these two aging ballplayers, balding now, no longer the peppy kids I remembered from the 1984 World Series, when they were arguably the two best performers on the winning Tigers team. The strike might have ended their careers, and what a lousy finish for men who loved the game the way these two did. No good-bye parties. No night at the ballpark. Just fade away.

“Well?” Trammell said. “Yes or no?”

Gibson studied my face, then grinned, not even waiting for my reply.

“He’ll do it,” Gibson said.

Well. Heck. It was my vacation. In the shadow of a valley

I should stop here to give you a few facts of record, because that is part of the agreement. The starting pitchers for Game 1 of the 1994 World Series — or at least the only World Series that we have — were Jim Abbott of the Yankees, for the American League, and Greg Maddux of the Braves, for the National League. The first pitch was thrown at 1:31 p.m., under a warm sun that glazed the field in fine light, and that pitch was a fastball from Abbott

to Tony Gwynn of the Padres, which Gwynn smacked into centerfield for a clean single. It was the first of four hits on the day for Gwynn, who would later boast, “If this were still the season, I’d be up near .400 by now.”

Of course they weren’t playing the season. The season was destroyed, and players had scattered to their winter homes, sleeping in, getting soft, snacking on pizza and seeing more golf courses than Fred Couples.

Which explains my surprise when the Jeep we had rented Saturday pulled up to a small field in the shadow of a valley, where the grass was green and lush, and nearly a dozen familiar major league faces were already waiting, with bats, balls and gloves. They nodded at the Jeep, and Trammell rolled down his window.

“You didn’t use your real name, right?” said a man whom I immediately recognized as Cal Ripken. And it was true, Trammell had gotten the Jeep at the airport using a phony identity, calling himself “Pio DiSalvo,” the name of one of the Tigers’ trainers. He also produced Pio’s driver’s license with a doctored photo, don’t ask me how.

Now Ripken spotted me in the back.

“Who’s this guy?” he said.

What followed was a heated discussion between the players that made me feel like a refugee at the border.

“We said no reporters!” one of them groaned.

“Once there’s one, there’s a million!”

In the end, it was Gibson, of all people, who talked them into it. Something about “trust” and “making it official.” This was almost funny, since Gibson used to terrorize sports writers.

Things change, I guess. Ripken came back to the Jeep, opened the door, and welcomed me — under the same conditions that Gibson and Trammell had laid out. I shook hands with Puckett, Gwynn, Mattingly, Ozzie, Maddux, Abbott, Lenny Dykstra, Roger Clemens, and a tanned and weathered fellow who at first I thought was someone’s father, but then I recognized as Nolan Ryan. He was chewing gum.

“You got a camera?” he drawled.

“In my suitcase,” I said.

He nodded.

“Got film?” Kelly’s corner

It was an odd collection of players, and as of this writing I cannot tell you how they all came to be here. There has been talk about some fax that each of them received, but when I asked Ripken who sent it, he said he thought Puckett did, and when I asked Puckett, he said he thought Ripken did. Strange.

What’s easier to figure is the motivation: Mattingly, for example, has never played in a World Series, and Jordan would do anything to get near one
— and he has the money to make it happen — Williams, Gwynn and Ken Griffey Jr. were all on record paces when the ’94 season was killed, so maybe this was a makeup for them. Gibson, Trammell, Puckett, Ripkin, they love the game enough to try something this crazy.

“You know why I’m doing this?” Trammell had said on the plane. “Because it doesn’t seem right that a year comes and goes and there’s no World Series. Honest to God, if they had enough players without me, I’d say fine. Just as long as the thing is played.”

So this was all I knew. As of Sunday morning, when we made the trip to the cemetery to dedicate this Series — more on that later — there were 15 major leaguers, one retired pitcher, one former NBA superstar-turned-minor-leaguer, and one complete stranger. The stranger’s name is Kelly, Mike Kelly, a big, strapping guy with a mustache and a pet monkey. The record will show that Mike Kelly played catcher for the American League in Game 1 of the Series. The reason is simple.

He owns the field.

And it is a magnificent field, with emerald grass, tapered base paths, a gently sloping mound of dark dirt. The farthest fence is 409 feet to dead center, and on the other side is one of the prettiest views a person could hope to see.

“It’s like God’s ballpark,” Mattingly said.

There are no lights — thus, all the games will be played during the day,
“the way it should be,” Ripken said. There are no billboards on the field, nothing commercial of any kind. There are a few small bleachers, made of plywood, and a spring- fed well not far from third base, complete with rope and bucket, for thirsty players.

There is only one road in.

“Can I help you gentlemen?” Kelly had yelled. We had been on his property for half an hour, marveling at the site, a few of the guys tossing the ball and playing pepper. Everyone thought it was a public field. Now Kelly stood there with his arms crossed, the monkey at his feet.

“This your place?” Ripken said.

“It is.”

“How much would you charge to rent it for a week?”

“Well,” he said, grinning, “that depends on what you plan on doing with it.”

“We want to play baseball, dude,” Dykstra chimed in, spitting a wad of tobacco juice.

Kelly looked at him and winked. “I’ll thank you not to soil my field that way, Mister.”

Dykstra swallowed.

“Now then,” Kelly continued, “you want to play baseball. Well. I like a good game now and then. That’s why I built this place. Matter of fact, I’m a bit of a collector.”

Kelly invited everyone into his rather large farmhouse and down to the cellar, where he revealed an incredible collection of old-time outfits, pants, tops, leggings, the works.

“This stuff is worth a fortune,” Roger Clemens marveled.

“Well, I’m not much interested in money,” Kelly said. “These uniforms have been in my family for some time.”

“What are you, Babe Ruth’s grandson or something?” Gibson said.

Kelly laughed. “Not quite. Anyhow, here’s my proposition. You can use the field, and the uniforms, you can even stay in the guest house across the way, free of charge, for one week, under one condition.”

“What’s that?” Mattingly asked.

“I get to play,” Kelly said.

The major leaguers looked at one another and shrugged. The monkey jumped up and down and made a “kweeeee kweeeee” sound.

“What position you play?” Griffey asked.

“Catcher is my specialty.”

Gwynn said to Griffey, “You guys need a catcher.”

“Oh, thanks a lot,” Griffey shot back. “Stick him with us.”

“It ain’t gonna make a difference, we’re gonna kick your butt.”

“In your dreams, old — “

Ripken interrupted. “Hold up! Look. We need a field more than anything. This place is perfect. It’s private, and it’s regulation size. Mr. Kelly here can play with us on the American League team.”

“Yeah,” Puckett laughed, “we’re already letting Jordan play with us.”

“Listen to you,” Jordan said, smirking.

Ripken offered his hand, and Kelly shook it heartily.

The funny thing was, Kelly never asked who the players were. Something wild

OK. I am ignoring my obligations to the game, which, after all, is why I was brought here. The rosters were increased about an hour before the first pitch, when a rented Mercedes pulled up to the field and out stepped Barry Bonds, Sandberg and an older fellow, in a suit. He smiled, and a happy mumble went through the squads.

Ernie Banks.

“Ryne called me and told me what y’all were doing,” Banks said. “He said he was canceling his retirement just to play in one World Series, and I wanted to come just to watch, seeing as I never got to a Series myself.

“And when I asked if Barry was playing and Ryne said no, well, I had


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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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