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

Here was the idea: Find the Tiger who had waited the longest to be in first place. A timely concept, I figured. After all, the Tigers were awfully close to the first-place Yankees. I mean, very, very close. How close? Remember when Groucho Marx told his dance partner: “Darling, if I got any closer to you, I’d be behind you”?

That close. A half-game out, to be precise. And Tuesday night, with a Tigers win and a Yankees loss, Detroit would move atop the AL East for the first time in a long time. Which Tiger would smile the brightest if that happened? Which Tiger would have the newspaper standings clipped and framed? Which Tiger would leap in the air and scream: “HALLELUJAH! OH, THANK YOU LORD! I’LL NEVER DRINK AGAIN!”

Well, actually, none of them would do that. But it still seemed like a good question, and I asked it around. And the more I asked, the less it seemed that anybody on this club had gone very long without being on top.

Some, like Pat Sheridan and Bill Madlock, still had the taste of the 1985 playoffs on their lips (Sheridan with Kansas City, Madlock with the Dodgers). Others, of course, were with this team in 1984, when it spent the entire season in first place. These included Kirk Gibson, Jack Morris, Dan Petry, Willie Hernandez, Dave Bergman, Larry Herndon, Chet Lemon, Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell and Darrell Evans.

Great. There went half the team. A three-year wait? Hardly worth writing about. I was kind of hoping for double digits. Has he found his man? “How long?” I asked rookie Matt Nokes.

“Minor leagues,” he said, “1983.”

“How long?” I asked catcher Mike Heath.

“Oakland, 1981.”

There’s gotta be someone, I thought. I glanced around the lockers. There. In the corner. The rookie. Jim Walewander. The man who made the Dead Milkmen famous. If anyone has an unusual story, it’ll be this kid.

“How long?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, leaning forward, giving the question a lot of thought.
“Let’s see. . . . Not last year . . . and not the year before that . . . and not the year before that . . . and not the year before–“

How old was this guy? I wondered. I might be able to sneak out for lunch.

“Oh! 1982!” he said, bursting into a grin. “The Central Illinois Collegiate League. We were in first place. I was on the Peoria Pacers. Our cheerleaders were called the Pacer Chasers. And–“

“Thanks, Jim,” I said.

For the next 30 minutes, I tracked down most of the Tigers. It seemed like none had to go any further back than 1981. I returned to the clubhouse, disappointed, without an angle, without a subject, without a story.

And there sat Jeff Robinson. The starting pitcher. Might as well try him, I thought.

“How long?” I asked.

“Man,” he said, “I’d have to go way back. This is my first year in the majors, and all the minor league teams weren’t even close, so . . . I’d have to say high school.”

“High school?” My spirits were lifted. My hopes rejuvenated. “When was that?”

“In 1979,” he said, ” a little school called Christian High in San Diego.”

“Christian High?”

“Yeah. We had 700 kids in the school.”

Perfect, I figured. Perfect. Here was the starting pitcher, a rookie, and of all the Tigers who would play Tuesday night, he had been the longest without a first-place team. What a nice story this would make. What a nice angle if he won and the Tigers took over first place. Oh yes. High school. 1979. Jeff Robinson had made my day. Sorry — oh, never mind Let us jump ahead here a few hours. To the ninth inning of Tuesday’s game. Here was Robinson, staring down Chicago’s Ken Williams with two outs and a 3-1 lead. The stretch. The pitch. . . .

Strike three called! The Tigers win! Robinson, our hero, goes all the way! Tremendous! Fabulous!

Now let me tell you something else. In the clubhouse afterward, Robinson found me and tapped me on the shoulder. He looked perplexed.

“You know those questions you asked?”

“Yes?” I answered slowly.

“Does college count?”

I said, yeah, it did. He made a face. He said his college team, Azusa Pacific, had finished in first place three years straight. He said it was in the early 1980s. He said he had forgotten about that, and had realized it out on the field, and had wanted to tell me because if his old coach ever read he had forgotten, he would kill him.

There went the angle. There went the story. There went the picture-perfect scenario. Robinson said he was sorry.

And you know what I said?

I said forget it.

The Yankees won.


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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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