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

This said it all: Frank Tanana darting off the mound, scooping up the ball, turning to first baseman Darrell Evans and — with a lollipop smile already on his face — flipping it underhand for the final out.

One, two, three, leap!

Happy ending.

“Whenever I think of this game from now on,” Evans said, champagne soaking his face, after the Tigers had beaten Toronto, 1-0, to capture the American League East, “that’s the moment I’m going to see. Frank coming towards me, the ball in his hand, his eyes as big as saucers. . . . Oh, man. Oh man. I’ll never forget that.”

Forget it? Are you kidding? For years in this city people will be talking about where they were when the Tigers turned that final out, beat the Blue Jays, leaped into each others’ arms having done what everybody dreamed and nobody expected — on the final day of the season.

American League East champions.

Happy ending.

“I couldn’t move,” said Chet Lemon, who watched that last play from center field. “I should have started to run in, but I was, like, frozen in amazement. Then it hit me. We won! We won! . . . And I said, ‘I better move before I lose a limb.”‘

They won! They won! In an instant the field was filled with leaping Tigers players, police on horses, fans who made it over the wall. Inside the Detroit clubhouse, the staff wheeled out champagne, and pulled down rolls of protective plastic over everything that could be protected.

And in the stands, the sellout crowd was on its feet, giving thunderous applause, basking in a gloriously winning feeling. As their Tiger heroes galloped en masse toward the dugout, Tanana, in the center, looked up, his hair in bangs on his forehead, a wad of pink chewing gum in his mouth, and gave an expression of joy that was captured in 100 camera clicks and a delightful page of history.

“I felt,” Tanana said, “like I was six years old again.”

Happy ending.

What a moment! What a day! What a finish! Here was the final piece of a jigsaw season, that suddenly, finally, made sense. “If you had told me this would happen back in April, I would have said you’re crazy,” said pitcher Jack Morris. “We were playing terrible (11-19 in May). That was the truth then. But there’s a different truth now. We’re playing pretty darn good baseball.”

Good? Is that the word for it? Try great, remarkable. “Awesome,” suggested Tanana. OK. Awesome. Best record in either league. It was downright chilling to watch these final seven games with the Blue Jays — three this weekend, four last weekend in Toronto — all of them decided by a single run. History will surely remember this as one of the finest title chases in baseball.

“I’ve never been involved in seven games like this,” said shortstop Alan Trammell, his voice a rasp, lost to screams, shouts, a million interviews. “A week ago, we were really down, trailing Toronto by 3 1/2. But we never gave up. And now . . . this. I’m so emotionally drained right now. But it’s the greatest feeling. God, it’s great.”

God, it was. Seven head-to-head games in the last 11 days. And it all had come down to this — the last one on the schedule. Tigers win, it’s over. Blue Jays win, there’s a one- game playoff. Tanana (who two weeks ago was slumping so badly, he was removed from the rotation) was back and pitching for the Tigers. And Jimmy Key, Toronto’s ace, 17-7, was going against him. A duel in the Sunday afternoon shadows. How would this one go?

A better question: What was left? Already in this crazy series, there had been games as raucous as a 10-9 Toronto win up north, and as tense as Saturday’s 3-2 Tiger victory in 12 heart-stopping innings.

What was left? What hadn’t we seen? How about a 1-0 game — the slimmest possible victory in this sport — on a wobbly home run by Larry Herndon in the second inning?

Perfect. How absurdly perfect. A series full of big hitters and big talkers won on a single swing by the quietest man in a Tigers uniform. “Pretty fitting, huh?” said Evans, winking. Indeed. Herndon even gave a brief interview afterward.

“How do you feel?” he was asked.

“Great,” he said.

What more need be said?

Great. Grreeaaat. Couldn’t have been better. And Tanana wins it? The homegrown Detroit hero? A shutout? A complete game? A six-hitter? “Did you ever think two weeks ago this might happen?” he was asked.

“No,” he said, “I hoped I’d get a chance. But I wasn’t even pitching. My job then was to be a cheerleader.”

Is that beautiful? A guy is benched, and he becomes a cheerleader. Outsiders might suspect a tad of corniness here. But that is truly characteristic of this Tiger team. Subs root for starters. Slumpers root for the hot hands. Remember, this is not 1984, a Tiger season of power and dominance. Uh-uh. This year has been spit and glue, a leak springs, you take the gum out of your mouth and plug it up.

And because of that, this was the year of Sparky Anderson’s life — probably the best managing of his storied career, no matter what happens in the playoffs. “That guy,” said pitcher Dan Petry of Anderson, “is the key. In May, when we stunk, he came to us and said we could win it. And a lot of us said privately: ‘The guy’s nuts.’ But his spirit catches on. It really does.”

And finally, it gave birth to a title. In the spritz-a-second Tigers clubhouse, Anderson, 53, talked to microphone after microphone, dressed only in T-shirt and shorts, his white hair soaked with champagne. “I’ve had it all now,” he croaked. “If I die and go to heaven — and I hope I go to heaven — I can say I’ve had it all.”

“What about that prediction back in May?” he was asked. “How did you know? How did you know?”

He grinned.

“I didn’t know,” he whispered. “I was just having fun.”

So the Tigers win the division. They go on to play Minnesota for the American League pennant. And the city of Detroit wakes up this morning, happier than it expected to be, with scenes from Sunday that linger like sucking candy:

Here was Toronto’s Cecil Fielder, 6 foot 3, 220 pounds, trying for second base in a botched hit-and-run attempt — and sliding desperately into the waiting tag of Lou Whitaker. Out. End of threat.

Here was Lemon, standing in center field in the eighth inning, waiting for George Bell’s fly ball to drop lazily into his glove. All weekend long, Bell, the Jays’ MVP candidate and biggest threat, had been handled this easily. Up, down, out. Did not drive in a run. Maybe the key to the series.

And here, lookie here, was an octopus flying out of the stands in the seventh, going splat in front of the Blue Jays’ dugout as nearby fans pointed and chuckled. An octopus? Isn’t that what they throw at Red Wings hockey games? Well. Yes. Maybe someone got confused. The Blue Jays players sitting on the dugout steps simply looked up into the stands, mystified, shaking their heads, as if this was the final insult.

An octopus?

OK. A moment here for Toronto, a great team, a team that should be playing more baseball this season. The Blue Jays may not realize the ugly pitch fate will toss them now; but they will soon enough. The despair of one lost afternoon will not compare to the disgust at 100 afternoons of questions next spring, next summer, forever: “How could you guys lose your last seven games? What happened? What happened?”

Who knows? History will record that the Jays finished just two games behind the Tigers, with the second-best record in baseball. But who really reads history? People will remember that they lost the last game of their tilt with Detroit in Toronto — some say the turning point of the season — then lost three straight to Milwaukee, and three straight to the Tigers. Their last seven games? Yes. People will cast the Blue Jays as losers, chokers, and that is unfair, they deserve better.

“This series had gotten to be so good,” said Trammell. “I kind of wanted to keep playing them.”

No need for that now. The division is won. The Tigers got it.

“Yeah,” said Trammell, grinning at the words. “Yeah . . . yeah. . .”


An hour after it was over, when Tiger Stadium was empty, quiet, the evening sun just about gone, three figures, dressed in underwear, suddenly appeared on the Tiger infield: Jack Morris. Jim Walewander. Scott Lusader. The highest-paid player on the team, and two rookies. They dropped into a stance at first base, and, smiling, on cue, took off in a foot race to second. Lusader took the lead, Walewander second, Morris trailing. They reached the bag — Morris slid — and they cracked up, laughing, waving, yelling. All alone. Is that any way to behave? The American League East champions? Racing in their underwear?

You bet it is.

CUTLINE Detroit Tigers pitcher Frank Tanana jumps for joy after he pitched a 1-0 shutout against the Toronto Blue Jays. Police, on foot and on horseback, take the field at Tiger Stadium on Sunday as jubilation breaks out.


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