Hot dogs, heroes and home runs

May 5, 1999 at 12:00 am

It’s never easy to say goodbye to an old friend. Nevertheless, I’ll have to do that Sept. 27, when the Detroit Tigers play the last game at Tiger Stadium, barring playoffs.

I’ve visited ballparks big and small in the United States and Canada, and Tiger Stadium is still the best there is. I love that old ballpark as much as I can love anything inanimate. I’ve never spent a moment inside of its used-to-be-and-still-should-be dark green walls that I didn’t have a wonderful time.

I’ve learned to love all the sights, sounds and smells of the place – the precise white and brown geometry of the infield contrasting with the huge, green expanse of the outfield; the flagpole in center field standing tall above the diamond.

Before the game, batting practice lets me hear the satisfying thwack of bat against ball, ball against glove echo through the near-empty stands.

And no hot dog (Ballpark Frank or otherwise) tastes better than when there’s a doubleheader going on in front of it.

For me, Tiger Stadium is home to a lifetime of memories. My first game was back in the early ’60s. Al Kaline hit a homer, the Tigers won and I was hooked. I once saw three games within two weeks; it was heaven for this little boy.

Just as good was Bat Day – I wish they still had it. The park would be jammed with kids, each proudly waving the bat they’d received as they passed through the turnstiles. I got a yellow Willie Horton model one year. I think I slept with the darn thing.

In 1984, I was living in Florida, and planned my vacation around a Tiger home stand – a doubleheader against Kansas City. The Tigers lost both games, and looked like a high school team while doing it. In his diary of that championship year, Sparky Anderson called it the worst day of the season.

When the Tigers made the playoffs in 1987, I’d moved back to Detroit, and had finagled seats to two games. I’ll never forget little-heralded Pat Sheridan popping a homer into the stands, just a couple sections away from where I was sitting, to win the third game of the playoffs – the only game the Tigers won in the series. In game four, Darrell Evans was picked off third base, making a bonehead play and killing a rally that might have won the game. When he came to bat for the first time the next day, I joined the rest of the crowd in giving him a loud, raucous ovation of forgiveness. Hell, we knew we wouldn’t even have made the playoffs without his ability and leadership.

I once had a chance to see the locker room, sit in the dugout and walk the field. Wow! I made sure to bring along a ball, and got several autographs. I even got to stand in the tiny radio booth, the best seat in the house.

Speaking of autographs – whenever I hear of athletes charging for signatures, I think about the day I watched Cal Ripken Jr. stand in the Oriole bullpen for 45 minutes, getting soaked during a rain delay, signing autographs for all comers.

I’ve also had several chances to see my three favorite players – Curtis Pride, Jim Abbott and Skeeter Barnes – in action. I have cerebral palsy, which has prevented me from ever playing in a meaningful ball game. Yet former Tiger Pride is deaf and Abbott (who grew up rooting for the Tigers in Flint, but never played for them) was born with just one hand. They somehow made it to the big leagues. Each gets my mental standing-O whenever I see them play.

As a minor-leaguer, Barnes played with something like 40 different teams before he joined the Tigers as a utility player. He didn’t play often, but always looked like the happiest guy on the field. When asked how it felt to ride the bench so much, he replied, "Man, I’m just glad to be here."

Me too, even though on a hot day, the centerfield bleachers can feel like a 10,000-seat frying pan. I had a date there one sweltering afternoon, and decided the best way to deal with the heat was to dump a glass of water over myself. She was horrified; we did not last.

And Tiger Stadium won’t last, either. Neither my heart (I hate corporate welfare) nor my wallet will allow me to see any games at Comerica Park.

I bought a mini-season ticket plan this year so that I could be sure to see the last game. I’m sure I’ll be teary-eyed and choked up when that day comes. I’ll never get to visit my old friend again.