THE GATES SWING OPEN TO AN UNEASY FEELING

It was Opening Day. I think. The weather was great. Sort of. The fans had a wonderful afternoon. Most of them. Didn’t they?

The operative word, this time, was confusion. How were we supposed to feel on this first day of baseball, 1991? Happy? Resentful? Mixed-up? A fan walking to the gates of Tiger Stadium on Monday could buy peanuts — or sign a petition. He could get a yearbook — or a letter from Ernie Harwell. He could wear a Tiger cap — or purchase a shirt that read “The Owner Made a Boner.”

He could sit inside the park, in a box seat behind home plate. Or he could sit outside, in the parking lot, under a “Save Ernie and Tiger Stadium” banner. He could protest the firing of Harwell by only listening to the game on radio. But then the radio station was responsible for firing Ernie, too. So maybe that wasn’t the best protest. Was it? Wasn’t it?

It was that kind of day at the ballpark, mixed emotions, like dating an old girlfriend who once dumped you. Part of you wanted to burst from your cocoon and say, “YES! BASEBALL! I AM YOUNG AGAIN!” And part of you wanted to shrug and say, “Ah, baseball. What fun is it anymore? Just a bunch of rich jerks who couldn’t care less about me.”

Even the weather was confused, first sunny, then raining, then clear, then clouds. Things were rarely what they seemed. When I walked on the field, I spotted a huge crowd of reporters around a single white-haired figure.
“Sparky,” I told myself.

Wrong. Ernie.

Then I saw Scott Lusader, his familiar compact body, his wire-rim glasses. Always nice to see Scott, the Tigers outfielder.

Wrong. He plays for the Yankees now.

“OK,” I figured. “Soon the game will start, and the scoreboard will flash cartoons, and the organist will play ‘The Mexican Hat Dance.”‘

Wrong. The organist has been fired.

The organist?

Such is Tiger baseball, here in the spring of our discontent. Why, even inside the clubhouse, things had changed. I looked for the familiar corner near the shower, where Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker have had lockers side-by-side for years. Whoops! Lou’s gone. Moved to Jack Morris’ old spot. Mike Henneman sits next to Trammell now. And Walt Terrell, who sat next to his carpool mate, Dan Petry? Whoops! Walt’s over there now, next to Cecil Fielder.

Just about everything seemed slightly askew, from the sight of Pete Incaviglia in a Detroit uniform, chugging out during introductions, to the sight of Sparky Anderson’s office, which has one wall covered in yellow Tiger-skin carpet. Really. It looks like a giant mini-skirt from the ’60s.

So everything was kind of strange, kind of different . . .

And then the game started. And it was baseball, as you always remembered it. It was Alan Trammell, who seems to have played here for decades, getting the first hit of the season, and knocking in four runs before the day was over. It was Fielder, who gave us all those dramatic moments last season, giving us big drama on Monday as well — a two-out, looping double down the third-base line to drive in the winning runs in the seventh inning. It was Sparky Anderson clapping his hands together and coming out of the dugout, after Henneman struck out Roberto Kelly to end the game. Tigers 6, Yankees 4. We win. Let’s go home, men. Come back and do it again next time.

“Opening Day is Opening Day,” Trammell said in the clubhouse afterward, sweat pouring off his hair, his breath still quick from adrenaline. “You get nervous. You get butterflies. But you can’t wait. Hey, in some cases it’s the only home sellout you’ll have all year.”

“Were you aware of the protests outside?” he was asked.

“I knew about them, yeah.”

“Do you understand the issues they’re protesting?”

“To be honest, no, I don’t,” he said. “I don’t know all the facts. I’m here to play baseball. That’s what I do. Play baseball.”

And in some ways, that summed up the afternoon. You may have come to vent anger, but then you realized that the players didn’t do anything wrong. They aren’t tearing down the stadium. They aren’t telling Harwell to leave after this season. You can’t even accuse them of holding up the Tigers for big money
— as other players have done around the league — because the one guy who tried to do that, Jack Morris, is now playing for the Minnesota Twins.

“This year,” boasted Tony Phillips, “we have a whole team that wants to win. We’re into it.’

And maybe you felt it, too. Maybe, with those two Tigers on base in the seventh inning, you cheered, you rooted, you at least pulled silently for Fielder to make some magic. And when he did, when he swatted that double down the line, you let out a whoop.

OK. A silent whoop.

It is the gravitational force of baseball these days. You want to hate it for some reasons, you can’t help liking it for others. So never mind that Frank Tanana started this game instead of Morris, who had done it for 10 years. Never mind that the real umpires were on strike, and the game was officiated by replacements. Never mind all the changes. As Trammell put it:
“No matter how many years I’ve played this game, I have to get that first grounder under my belt to feel comfortable.”

This, for most of us, was the first grounder, an annual rite of passage. How the city feels about baseball and the Tigers the rest of the year, how it protests, what it will do, that will prove itself soon enough.

For now, you can safely say this: Monday was a baseball day in Detroit.

Or was it hockey? . . . TIGERS WIN, 6-4 Cecil Fielder’s two-run double snaps tie with Yankees in 7th. ERNIE HARWELL
“No tears” as he broadcasts his last Tigers Opening Day. STADIUM PROTEST About 200 boycotters sit out the game in a gravel parking lot.

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