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

Let us pause here for a day in the life of the Tigers’ latest hero: Jim Walewander.

Uh, that’s W-a-l-e-w-a-n-d-e-r.

Right. OK. He is a rookie. He has played in 23 big-league games. Here is how he learned he was starting Sunday: Lou Whitaker, the Tigers’ second baseman, came in at noon and said he couldn’t play. Bad back. The game was 90 minutes away. A call went out from Sparky Anderson’s office, a call to arms, a call to destiny. . . .


Now. This had already been a special day for Jim Walewander. Earlier in the morning, he had met his favorite punk rock group. Perhaps you’ve heard of it.

The Dead Milkmen? Yeah. Well. Maybe not. Anyhow, on Saturday night the Dead Milkmen played a gig in Hamtramck. If it’s called a “gig” in Hamtramck. I’m not sure about this.

Anyhow, Walewander had gone to see his idols. He had gone alone. Why? I’ll let you figure that out. And now, during batting practice, they were returning the favor.

Here they stood, on the Tiger Stadium field, dressed in their Sunday-best combat boots. They posed for photos. It was great fun, and Walewander was having the time of his life, especially when they signed a poster. One member wrote: “To Jim — Satan Is My Master, (signed) Rodney.” You can imagine how special that must have felt.

And then the Dead Milkmen got to meet Sparky Anderson. I missed that. I can only imagine: PR MAN: Sparky, meet the Dead Milkmen. SPARKY: Well, hello, boys. MILKMEN: DEATH TO CAPITALISTS! SPARKY: Well, gotta go, boys.

(Actually, Sparky related this story after the game: “One of them had on combat boots, a camouflage army shirt, and an earring. I told him, ‘Son, don’t take no prisoners.’ “)

You gotta love a manager like that. Milking the opportunity

For most of us, meeting the Dead Milkmen would be enough for one day. Or maybe a week. But there was more in store for Walewander. He came to bat in the sixth inning with Chet Lemon on first and the Tigers clinging to a 2-1 lead. This was an important game. If the Tigers won and the Yankees lost, Detroit would move into first place for the first time all year.

And what did Walewander do? He cracked a fastball high into right-center field, up, up — it slammed off the upper deck! The crowd went crazy! His first major league homer! Goodness. As we reporters watched him circle the bases, we thought about this and the Dead Milkmen in one day, and, well, we got all choked up. Mostly when we thought about the Dead Milkmen, though.

And of course, as you now know, the Tigers went on to win the game, 6-2, and stay right on the Yankees’ tails (New York beat the White Sox, 5-2). And in the clubhouse after the game, Walewander, the hero, was given his home run ball, and the privilege of choosing the music to dress by. He chose one of the Dead Milkmen’s more mellow numbers, something just right for the moment.
“Bomb The Sewage Plant,” I think it was called.

“What will you do with the ball?” someone yelled, trying to be heard over the bass guitar.

“Put it in my glove compartment,” he yelled back, “along with my first major league hit.”

“How many balls do you have in there?”

“Just these two for now,” he said. “When I fill it up, I’ll be able to buy myself a new car.”

He grinned like a high schooler, which is about how old he looks. His T-shirt featured a smiling cartoon cow. A cow? Yes. A gift from . . . Oops! The music changed! A new number.

“What’s this one called?” he was asked.

” ‘Take Me To The Specialist,’ ” he said.

Gotcha. Show-stopping stuff

So the day was a real thrill, as any music lover can imagine. And baseball fans enjoyed it, too. After all, one telltale sign of a pennant contender is winning games with your No. 9 hitter blasting a home run, while your starting pitcher (in this case, the inimitable Walt Terrell) goes all the way. Good stuff. Promising stuff. This is simply the hottest team in the major leagues right now. There is no telling who today’s hero will be, where he will come from, what size combat boots he will wear. But no matter. The fact is, the Tigers are getting something out of just about everybody.

And Sunday, it was a perfectly timed debut homer by Walewander, who figured his biggest thrill had already come before the starting call.

“Did the Dead Milkmen stay for the game?”

“Nah,” he said. “They had a gig somewhere.”

Livonia, perhaps?


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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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