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

So that was the first game of the season, right? We won’t count those other three, right? How can you count baseball games when you can’t even put your shampoo and after-shave in their regular spots, or stack your shoes in a messy pile and hang a picture of your kids near the pants hook?

Nuh-uh. We start counting now. First game at home. Anyhow, wasn’t that what this was all about, this frozen opener dusted with snowflakes? Home? Here was Frank Tanana, who grew up in this city, getting Wade Boggs to look at strike three. Here was Sparky Anderson, who has managed in Detroit in three decades now, clapping his hands and rallying the troops. Here were fans from Wyandotte and Dearborn and Traverse City who skipped work to be here — before it got too cold to stay. Cold? Personally, I thought they were going to pull the tarp on the field, just to keep it warm.

Here was Dan Petry, back in his old spot in the Tigers locker room. Home. For nine years, this room had been his, he ached here, he laughed here, he popped champagne here. Nine years. That’s two careers in baseball. When he was traded to California in late 1987, Mike Henneman, the rookie he had befriended that season, requested Petry’s old locker. “I promised him I’d take care of it,” Henneman said then.

Now they were back, side by side, Henneman chewing tobacco and Petry sipping a pop. Henneman laughed and called Petry “the rookie.” This was before the game, before the Tigers jumped all over the far end of the Boston pitching staff, poking them around like a class bully pokes a nerd. Smack to left. Smack to right. Smack up the middle. Home run to the upper deck. What was that score? 11-7? By the time the thing ended, the Detroit batting average had probably doubled.

Which was fine with the crowd.

Always is, at home.

Home. They had walked into this stadium Thursday morning for the first time since the worst season any of them can remember, 103 losses, and the important thing was a fresh start. They had already dropped the first three on the road to the Red Sox and all the experts were saying, “See? Told you they’d stink.” Forget about pennants. Suddenly this is what baseball was about in Detroit: getting rid of the smell.

They lose this, they could lose another week’s worth. They sent Tanana, who has won an opener before. He did what he had to. Eleven runs later, they got the win.

“This first one is the key if only to get the critics off our backs,” said Alan Trammell, who slapped two singles and knocked in two runs. “They look at us losing and they say, ‘It’s just like last year.’

“Personally, I feel a lot more comfortable with this group. We have some new weapons. But we still have to win.”

And they have to hit. They did both on Thursday. Lou Whitaker sent one into the right-centerfield bleachers and Mike Heath tripled off the leftfield fence and former Oakland infielder Tony Phillips, in his first game as a home guy in Detroit, went 4-for-4 and knocked in three runs, proving this: getting a medium-stat guy from a winning team can be better than getting Mr. Statistic from a loser.

Eleven runs. Thirteen hits. And the Tigers are on the board for 1990. True, they were not facing the top pitchers on the Boston staff. Clubbing runs off two guys named Mike Rochford and Dana Kiecker isn’t like clubbing runs off Roger Clemens. But it still counts. The fans went home happy. Sparky Anderson, who gets so nervous before some games his coffee cup shakes, earned himself a night’s sleep.

“You know, for nine years we won more games than anybody in baseball. Either league. Then we have one year where we lose all those games and people are writing now that we’re terrible.

“I don’t understand that. In one year we’re terrible? We can’t win again? That just doesn’t happen. For nine years, we were the best. The best!”

How quickly we forget. No matter. Whatever they did in the past, only one thing will prove any theory now: wins and losses. The openers are finished. From this point, all games come in a plain brown wrapper. You grab
’em or the other guy does.

After win No. 1, Lloyd Moseby removed his shoes and sat by his locker. Earlier in the day, he had walked into this strange blue and white room — like Cecil Fielder and Phillips and the other new guys — and searched for his place. A kid on the first day of high school. Check the name tags. Find yours. Have a seat.

Now Moseby was smiling. “I’m all moved in,” he said, glancing over his shoulder. “See that mess? That’s how I moved in. And if I come in here one day and it’s cleaned up, I’ll know somebody’s been messing in there.”

He was home for 1990. Next to him sat Fielder, who last year was in Japan, and a few chairs down was Jack Morris, who pitches today, and along the wall were Trammell and Whitaker and Mike Heath and Phillips, and in the front corner sat Tanana and Henneman and the old guy, Petry, who had a grey down coat hanging in the locker because this is not his first time playing baseball here in April.

This is your team, Detroit. The ceremonies and first pitches are done. Now comes the hard part, the regular season. The Tigers could win and they could hit and they could surprise everyone in the league. Then again, it could snow tomorrow. Someone asked Anderson to make a prediction and he said, “We’ll see,” and that’s the best we get. For one cold afternoon, it was nice to be alive, winning, laughing, and seeing old faces in old places. It was nice to be home.


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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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