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

LAKELAND, Fla. — And now, for the national anthem. Everyone stood up. The man inside the Marchant Stadium press box pushed the button for the pre-recorded tape. Music, maestro . . . “Ohhh, say can yooourrp—“

And silence.

The tape was dead. The speakers were blown. And 6,288 people were standing in the Florida sunshine craning their necks to see what was going on.

Welcome to baseball, 1986.

Oh, say can you . . . ? Well? Can you what? Hey, this might be the question for the season. Oh, say, can you, baseball, overcome your problems and be the game you once were? Oh, say, can you, players, live with harsh drug penalties and arbitration rulings? Oh, say, can you, Dave Collins, Darnell Coles and Dave LaPoint, be the difference in the Detroit Tigers this season?

All of these weighty questions came to mind early Thursday afternoon. Of course, the most important question at the moment was, “Oh, say, can you fix the tape, please?” After all, this was the first exhibition game of the 1986 season — Tigers vs. White Sox — the annual rebirth of baseball. The hot dogs were steaming, the sunglasses were in place, Ernie Harwell was on the radio and we were all standing around, just sort of, uh, standing around.

For a moment, the entire season appeared to be on hold. But never fear. The crowd sang anyway, then applauded and a real live baseball game began with the first pitch from Jack Morris. And those lucky enough to be here leaned back into a million warm afternoons of days gone by, all rolled into this, the curtain call of a new season: 1986 has been christened. They are playing baseball.

The moment is the game

Well, yes, if you must know right away, the Tigers lost, 5-2. Lost it in the ninth inning when pitcher Willie Hernandez showed pre-season form against seemingly mid-season bats. Hernandez? Yes. Don’t lose sleep over it. These are the days for working out the kinks. And happily, for remembering what the game is all about.

An hour before the first pitch, Darrell Evans, 38, sat on a bench sipping a cup of soup, watching the stands slowly fill up. Evans has been playing pro baseball nearly half his life. “There is still,” he said, “a little nervousness before this first game. Today you go out and re-learn what you forgot.”

And there he was, less than two hours later, standing in the batter’s box with the bases loaded, the count full, the bat twirling over his shoulder. And here’s the pitch. Oh, say, can you remember, how familiar this all looks? At moments like these it matters not that the games here don’t count, that Florida is not Detroit, that names like Voigt and King and Lowry dot the roster alongside Gibson, Parrish, Petry.

The game is the moment, the moment is the game. And there were others:

Morris, glaring down from the mound, throwing shutout baseball for three innings.

Dave Collins and Kirk Gibson, new face, old face, doing the danger dance on the base paths with Lance Parrish at the plate.

Tom Brookens, still trying to nail down that permanent job at third base, slapping a double off the right-field wall in his first at-bat.

Mike Laga, the perennial minor-leaguer-with-a-dream, clouting the first home run of 1986. And delivering the first matter-of-fact analysis (“It was a fastball. I got all of it.”) Getting to know you

Sure, there were errors and overthrows. There always are this time of year. The guys working the national anthem aren’t the only ones rusty in March, you know.

So never mind the loss, if you are a Tigers fan. Baseball, like a marathon, is won over time, not in an instant. For now, there are more pitchers to work, more fielders to try, more batting strokes to polish.

Thursday was the cannon shot. The opening bell. It was getting to know you. It was a reunion. It was a few thousand Tigers fans clapping and hooting for their team. It was your birthday, the prom, back-to-school day.

It was moments noticed — such as Hernandez giving up all five runs in the ninth inning. And it was moments unnoticed — such as after the game, with the stadium empty, when Kirk Gibson, the team’s biggest celebrity, was stripped down to his undershirt, taking swing after batting practice swing with a gritty look on his face.

It was very new. It was extremely old. It was baseball, right on schedule, the harbinger of a summer’s worth of box scores.

Oh, say, can you imagine anything better?


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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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