The crack of the bat sent them all in motion, three Tigers base runners, one ground ball, 12 innings and a Detroit fairy tale hanging in the balance. What a story in those six moving feet! What a magnificent tale, an all-afternoon adventure, a baseball game played like one of those old serial movies, where danger lurks at every turn and all you know is the heroes prevail at the end.
“I cannot tell you, or anyone else, how much I loved what happened today,” said pitcher Jack Morris when this affair was finally over, when the Tigers had squeaked out a 12-inning, 3-2 victory over Toronto that leaves them one crazy victory from the AL East title. “This is the kind of game every kid who wants to play baseball dreams about. Just to take part in it, is . . . wow!”

Wow. And Morris did more than take part. He threw the first nine innings, left with the scored tied, 2-2, and watched the final three innings inside the Tiger clubhouse, huddled with a few teammates in front of a TV set. Four hours and five minutes this game lasted. Every one important. Scoring threats arose, scoring threats were stymied. Big swingers stalked to the plate, big swingers were struck out. Inhale, exhale. Shiver. Quiver. Somebody deliver!

Somebody did. And what did those clubhouse players do at the final magical moment — when Alan Trammell’s hard grounder scooted through the legs of Toronto shortstop Manny Lee with the bases loaded, and Jim Walewander scored from third with the winning run? What did they do?

What do you think?

“We whooped and hollered and yelled, and then, I got so excited I ran all the way down the tunnel and into the dugout,” said Morris.

And then he froze.

He forgot he was only wearing his underclothes.

Isn’t that the perfect reaction? Isn’t it? After a game like this, so chock full of brilliant pitching, clutch hitting. One run was scratched out on a sacrifice fly, another on a two- out single, another on a fielding error and a double. And that final one — Trammell’s ground ball that had destiny tattooed all over it. “I hit it real solid, right at him,” said Trammell to a mob of reporters in the crowded Tiger clubhouse afterward.

“But Lee should have had it right?” someone interrupted. “He just messed it up, right?”

“You can’t say that,” Trammell answered, almost pleading, “you don’t understand how hard a play that is.”

This was beautiful. Sportsmanship in the midst of one- upsmanship. Sure, the ball might have been fielded — possibly for a double play. But the Tigers and Blue Jays have battled six times now in the final two weeks of this crazy season, the Tigers have won three, the Blue Jays have won three, all have been decided by one run, and there is one more scheduled for today. Nobody is insulting anybody. These are two battle-weary squadrons who have just enough energy to salute each other and do this one more time. (Or two; there will be a single-game playoff, should Toronto win today.)

What twists! What turns! Last Friday, Lee beat the Tigers with a ninth- inning triple in Exhibition Stadium. “THE MANNY OF THE HOUR,” the Toronto headlines read.

And Sunday, after Toronto’s sixth straight defeat, Manny Lee sat alone by his locker, wordless, half-dressed, staring into space as reporters stepped gingerly around him.

Such are the highs and lows of heavenly competition. And Saturday was heavenly competition. From the 11 innings pitched by Toronto’s Mike Flanagan
(two runs, nine strikeouts — “The guy was great,” admitted Tiger catcher Mike Heath), to Mike Henneman’s crucial three innings of Tiger relief (no hits, no runs, four strikeouts, and the win) to a beautiful double play by Lou Whitaker and Trammell in the second, to Heath’s clutch double to drive in the tying run in the fifth, to . . . oh, my. Who can remember it all. “A classic,” Morris repeated, shaking his head. “A real classic.”

No moment more than that final inning. It was after 6 p.m. The sun was already punching out. The October cold now was under your skin, in your veins, making your nose run. This was football weather, for God’s sake. Yet no one dared leave. The 45,026 who had shivered from Morris’ first pitch were determined to get their last looks — no matter how long it took.

And it started. Heath began the 12th with a ground out. Whitaker singled to right. Bill Madlock singled to left. Walewander, the lovably kooky rookie who seems to be a good luck charm for Detroit baseball, came in to run for Whitaker, and the crowd responded by rising to its feet. Kirk Gibson, hitless all day, battled reliever Jeff Musselman for a walk, and, look out! The bases were loaded.

“ARRRRRRRRRRR!!”

Insanity.

In came relief pitcher Mark Eichorn. Up stepped Trammell, the converted clean-up hitter, who symbolizes the surprising excellence of this Tiger club. The fans tugged on their scarves, the bleachers began to sway, the place was gloriously exhausted, wiped out, drained, and yet, suddenly, a chant began for Trammell, softly at first, then louder, louder . . .

“M-V-P! M-V-P!”

Whack. A grounder. And the Tigers started running. Trammell toward first, Gibson toward second, Madlock toward third, Walewander heading for home. It was an instant, a split second, and the ball was through Lee’s legs and, hallelujah. The celebrating began in mid-stride.

“I thought I was going to be out at home,” said Walewander afterward, “and when I looked back, I saw it go through his legs, and I said, ‘Oh! Thanks!’ “

“What about you?” someone said to Madlock, who passed Lee just as the ball scooted by. “Did you even bother to round third base?”

“Oh, yeah,” he said, laughing. “I rounded third base. I mean, I was heading that way anyhow!”

And there it was. Beautiful. Tigers win, they take over first place, and it has come down to three words that every fan in this motor city is repeating like a mantra now: One more victory. One win, and they are AL East champions.

Remarkable, really, when you consider where this team began this season, in the dumper, with grim prospects, a lousy April, an 11-19 record at one point in May. Only the success of the Pistons and Red Wings distracted the city from an early write- off of their favorite baseball team.

And now. One game? It is as if all that has happened was meant to happen. All the falls, the hot and cold streaks, the injuries, the trades, the front office moves, the emergence of Henneman and Matt Nokes, the arrival of Doyle Alexander, Madlock, Jim Morrison, Walewander, Scott Lusader, all this and all that — all of it woven into some orange and blue tapestry hanging in fate’s living room. One game for the title? Who would have thought?

And what of Toronto? Who would have thought? The Jays are a great club, but they are struggling, reeling, coming apart, a team trying to stand on a greased log in the middle of the river. Where is their magic? Where is their power? Where are George Bell and Jesse Barfield and Willie Upshaw? Where is what’s missing? And if they rediscovered it all today — if they won to force a playoff tomorrow — would it surprise anyone?

No way. There are no surprises now. “Today was one of those games that was too good to lose,” said Morris. “But, hey — they all are. The shame here is that one of these two teams has to go home. I’d like to keep playing these guys forever.”

If only, if only! When Trammell’s ball went through Lee’s legs, it kept going deep into left field. The Toronto outfielders didn’t bother to chase after it. It stopped a few feet from the wall, and sat there, innocent in the grass, even as the Tigers celebrated on the pitchers mound. Why not? The ball, after all, was merely a prop. In a classic like this, the play’s the thing. CUTLINE: Tiger catcher Mike Heath, ledt, and first baseman Darrell Evans exult as they leave the field after the Tigers’ 12-inning victory Saturday. B.J. Hardick of London, Ontario, gets help doing the wave.

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