When I awoke Monday morning, I pushed a hand through my hair, only to feel something sticky and hard, like straw dipped in molasses.
How weird, I thought.
It was not meant for me, that champagne. I was merely caught in the crossfire at Tiger Stadium, a bubbly explosion between one player (Mike Heath) and another (Frank Tanana). Not my champagne, not my celebration, and yet part of it had stuck to me overnight; and, in a certain way, part of me had stuck back.
From the smiles of the Blue Jays Sept. 26 in Toronto — when they held a 3 1/2-game lead — to the delirious heap of Tigers bodies on the pitcher’s mound here Sunday, the closing act of this crazy baseball season was, well, how should we put it: marvelous, engaging, nerve-racking, tearful, explosive? And done too soon.
This was what baseball was intended to be. No salary talk. No rehabilitation centers. A bat. A ball. Nine on nine. Beautiful war. “Hey. . .
. I was scared last week,” said manager Sparky Anderson, whose team lost the first three of these final seven Detroit-Toronto confrontations, before grabbing the American League East on the season’s last day. “What do you think? I’m so privileged I don’t get scared? Bleep. I was real scared.”
And that’s what made this finish beautiful. We were all a little scared. We hopped in, strapped up and took off. Madlock, 36 and learning
And, oh, what a ride. Was there a fan left unaffected? Was there a player who didn’t feel that funny little twist in his stomach? “You know,” Bill Madlock had confided before the final game Sunday, “I’ve learned more about baseball this year than any before.”
He is 36. . . . Can you blame him? He had joined a team, the Tigers, which had circled the whole windmill, bottom to top to middle. They had used everybody, and when everybody wasn’t enough, they went after new people. Meanwhile, Toronto had done well all year with its cast; the finish was to be its coup de grace.
Seven games? Each decided by a single run? And even today, certain scenes come back so fresh and real they might flinch if you touch them:
GAME 1: Jack Morris slamming home plate after failing to tag Ernie Whitt, who scored on a wild pitch. . . . Tony Fernandez looking at his broken elbow, walking off in surrender. . . . GAME 2: The frozen moment when Lou Whitaker, in the ninth inning, went for home instead of the double play, threw low, the ball bounced, the run scored, the game was lost. . . . GAME 3: A ninth-inning, bases-loaded triple by Juan Beniquez that shot the gap in left field and rolled toward the wall, kept rolling, until Kirk Gibson finally gave up on it and drooped his head in defeat. . . . GAME 4: Doyle Alexander returning to the mound again in the 11th inning, score tied, knowing the Tigers needed only everything he had. . . . Gibson getting his revenge, a bloop single that finally won a game: “We may be setting the biggest bear trap of all time,” he would comment. . . . GAME 5: Now in Detroit, Whitt watching from the dugout, his heart ready to burst through the flak jacket around his injured ribs. . .
. GAME 6: Jack Morris running down the tunnel in his underwear when the Tigers
finally won it in the 12th inning on Alan Trammell’s single. . . . GAME 7: Frank Tanana losing his hat as he leaped into the arms of Darrell Evans — winners! winners! — their human heap growing, here came Trammell and Heath and Nokes, Walewander, Terrell, Lemon. . . .
Here came the AL East. Theirs at last. Never seven like this
Whoo. You get tired just recounting it. And that is how it left you. Tired. Drained. “I’m gone,” rasped Trammell after Sunday’s finale. “I’ve never played seven games like this.”
A beautiful war. Yes. And for those on the scene, it remains now on the front step of the brain, the whole thing, big moments, little ones, happy moments. Heath pouring champagne on fellow catcher Matt Nokes. Dan Petry crediting Sparky Anderson, even though Anderson had removed Petry from the rotation. Larry Herndon doing a TV interview!
As the celebration continued, I passed rookie Scott Lusader headed for the door.
“C’mon, we’re goin’ to Casey’s,” he said.
“I . . . can’t,” I said, surprised to even be asked. “I gotta write.”
“Aw,” Lusader said, “just string some similes and metaphors together and knock it out.”
One of the problems with baseball is that it goes too slowly. The other is that it goes too fast. There will be lots more said and written about these Tigers this year — we may even see a World Series, which carries a lexicon all its own. But to bury these seven maddening, glorious games too quickly would be sad. A shame. Don’t do it.
For the record, I rose Monday morning and shampooed my hair. The champagne
washed out. The memories did not.