IT’S TIME FOR A FEW BELATED THANK-YOUS

I’m a little slow. I admit it. It took me 16 years to re-connect with my old professor, Morrie Schwartz, and that was just before he died.

Now, here it is, 16 years after I took this job at the Free Press, and I realize I have never written a “thank-you” column for Thanksgiving.

I have written football columns for Thanksgiving. I have written about the Lions, which is sometimes, but not always, a football column.

But sooner or later — every 16 years or so — I get around to the important stuff. There are people I’ve been meaning to thank since, oh, 1985.

I do so now. . . .

First, an overdue thank-you to pitcher Frank Tanana. You remember Frank, right? Well, one spring training, during a tantrum that can only be described as typical, Willie Hernandez — aka “Guillermo” — dumped a bucket of ice water on my head. This was in the Tigers locker room.

Everyone froze, especially me. It was a tense moment, with all the players wondering what would come next. Willie was cursing. I was dripping. And Frank, with whom I had been taking when Willie dumped me, had the guts to continue the conversation as if nothing ever happened.

Finally, when players lost interest and the room returned to normal, Frank leaned in and said, “Uh, you might want to go home and change now.”

I never really said thanks to him for that. It’s high time I did.

Tears, laughs and thoughts

Ben Kelso, the former Cooley High basketball coach, opened my eyes to the everyday poignancy of Detroit’s school kids — particularly a young man named DeShawn Chatman, who temporarily quit Kelso’s basketball team to protect his mother from drug pushers.

I thank him for that. I also thank the families and friends who have sat with me, tears in their eyes, an empty chair at their table, as they speak about a beloved athlete who was shot or stabbed or run down by a drunk driver. People do not have to take you into their confidence that way, much less their homes. For all those who have, I owe enormous gratitude.

I never really said thanks to the rare athletes who made me laugh — John Salley, Shawn Burr, Jim Walewander — or the athletes who made me think — Brendan Shanahan, Erik Kramer — the coaches who made me wish I’d studied a foreign language — Jacques Demers, Sparky Anderson, Wayne Fontes — or the superstars who convinced me that if they’re not gonna brag about their talents, I’m certainly not bragging about mine: Joe Dumars, Barry Sanders, Steve Yzerman and Alan Trammell.

Certain athletes, after leaving the game — including Bill Laimbeer and Kirk Gibson — have admitted they behaved, at times, like total jerks. I thank them for their candor. I have behaved that way a few times myself.

I have been aided over the years with everything from interviews to taxi cabs by the media relations staffs of the Pistons, Lions, Red Wings, Tigers, U-M and MSU. My deepest appreciation. Also, thanks to the unique culinary backgrounds of the sports owners in this town, I have eaten more pizza than one man has a right to. And I — urrrp — really appreciate it.

I would like to thank the following men — Bo Schembechler and Chris Spielman
— for not killing me.

Hey. It’s been 16 years. I got a long list.

Thanks, finally, for reading

Heath Meriwether and Bob McGruder continue to make me feel special, when I’m not. Neal Shine, the former publisher of this paper, once told me, when I was considering a job in New York, “it’ll be bigger but it won’t be better.” He was right. I should have thanked him for that.

Gene Myers, who is my boss, Dave Robinson, who used to be my boss, and Joe Distelheim, who hired me and was my boss before Dave, combine for the rarest of lineups: three people who all liked and trusted me. I thank them, and will sign anything that attests to their insanity.

The editors who, for 16 years, have put up with weird ways, including the obsession I have with removing one-word “widows” in my column like this.

I should kiss their feet. Instead, for health reasons, I simply say thanks.

And finally, because I don’t do it enough, I thank you, the readers, who know their sports, who read “Tuesdays With Morrie” before it was vogue, and who have always constituted — and listen carefully, because it may be 16 years before I remember to say it again — the best newspaper audience in the country.

It’s true. Here’s proof. Once, years ago, I wrote a “make-believe” column from the Kentucky Derby, about me interviewing a horse. I thought it was pretty funny. One of you, however, sent the column back to me, with these words written across it in brown crayon:

“A Jackass Talks To A Horse.”

That has always kept me humble, and I can’t thank you enough.

You do, however, owe the horse an apology.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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