The first pitch

Detroit was already trailing the Texas Rangers 1-0 when Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammel drew first-inning walks. Many in the Tiger Stadium crowd of 51,238 were still looking for their seats.

That's the way it goes on Opening Day. There are lots of folks — frequently a lot of suits — who don't attend many baseball games. They get lost, or distracted, or both.

But most of the fans were paying attention by the time the next batter stepped to the plate. It was Darrell Evans, the Tigers' first big-bucks free agent.

The first pitch to Evans was a ball. On the next pitch — his very first swing in Tiger Stadium — Evans socked a three-run homer. The place exploded. The noise was deafening, the kind of sound only Tiger Stadium could produce.

The year was 1984. Dan Petry pitched a four-hitter, Kirk Gibson made a great running catch in the ninth, Detroit won the game 5-1 and the Tigers' record improved to 6-0, their best start since 1911. They were just getting started.

That team, of course, went on to win the World Series championship. But that Opening Day win was part of a 35-5 start that made possible all the wonderful things that followed.

Opening Day has always been something special in Detroit. It is a combination of New Year's Eve, St. Patrick's Day and the Fourth of July all rolled into one.

Heaven knows, there have been a lot of them.

Professional baseball in Detroit dates to 1881 when the city sported a franchise known sometimes as the Wolverines and sometimes simply as the Detroits. And if you want to win some bar bets, the ballclub was in the National League for its first eight seasons.

I haven't been around quite that long. Still, I've seen my share of Opening Days. I didn't become "Dr. Baseball" by accident. I spent 29 years with the Associated Press in Detroit, the last 21 of them as the AP sports editor for Michigan. I started covering the Tigers in 1972 as a backup sports writer. I've been a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America since 1977.

The Tigers opened that special 1984 season on the road. Jack Morris had already pitched a no-hitter against the White Sox in Chicago by the time the club got home.

In 1987, the next time they contended, the Tigers opened the season in Detroit, bowing 2-1 to the New York Yankees in 10 innings. That game is memorable because a throwing error by Darnell Coles contributed to a New York run in the first.

Now, the thing you have to know is that Darnell Coles was one of the really good guys. All the players liked him, and so did the writers. And he wasn't a bad ballplayer. Yet, for some reason, he started making errors. Finally, on May 11, Coles got so frustrated that he picked up a ball and threw it over the roof.

And this was during infield practice.

Fun isn't the only Opening Day constant. Weather can be a factor too. That's why the day after Opening Day is almost always a day off. This is Michigan, after all. So, if it's snowing or raining — or both — on the day of the scheduled opener, they can shoot for the following day.

It was 34 degrees and there were faint flurries falling when Detroit left-hander Scott Aldred delivered the first pitch in 1996. Two degrees above freezing. Still, the Tigers managed to defeat the Seattle Mariners 10-9, so the fans went home happy.

And that's what it's all about. Happiness.
I used to go to the ballpark early on Opening Day just to chat with the fans. Before that 1996 opener, I talked to one guy at the windswept corner of Michigan and Trumbull who had come all the way from Elkhart, Ind. His name was John Marks. He said he got off the night shift at 3 a.m. and drove to Lawrence, Mich., where he picked up his girlfriend, Susan Caroselli. It was her birthday and Marks had purchased Opening Day tickets.

"I've already got 202 miles on me today, but it's worth it," Marks said.

My last Opening Day was April 11, 2000. That just happened to be the inaugural game at Comerica Park. It was brutally cold — again. The Tigers beat the Mariners 5-2 as Todd Jones (remember him?) earned his second save of the season.

Jones was another of the good guys. He loved Detroit and he loved the history of the Tigers and the various incarnations of its venerable home field — from the original Bennett Park to Navin Field to Briggs Stadium to Tiger Stadium. They had all been located on the same site. Jones thought Comerica Park was just OK.

"This was exciting," Jones said after that Opening Day victory. "But it doesn't compare with saying goodbye at Tiger Stadium. It's like playing Augusta or playing the Buick Open.

"Nothing against the Buick Open, but it ain't the Masters. This place [Comerica Park] is nice, but it's not Tiger Stadium."

Maybe not. But the new ballpark, already 10 years old now, is building a nice history of its own. It already has hosted a World Series and an All-Star game. And, who knows, it might have hosted the 2009 playoffs if the Tigers' season hadn't been forced to a 163rd game.

So here we are in another April and another Opening Day. That means politicians will be out. The governor and mayor will toss the ball around. The press box will be jammed with writers and reporters from outstate papers; many won't be back until Opening Day next year.

Some say if you want to see the real baseball fans, come out for the second home game.

Another constant through most of my Opening Days was Ernie Harwell, who became the voice of Detroit baseball in 1960. He was the broadcaster for almost 40 years, missing only 1992 after an unpopular firing. Ernie is sick now, and the thoughts and prayers of many on this Opening Day will be with him.

Want to win some more Opening Day bar bets? Remember this: Navin Field opened on April 20, 1912, the same day as Fenway Park in Boston. Fenway now is baseball's oldest ballpark. Detroit rallied to beat Cleveland 6-5 before 24,384 fans. It might have been a front page story. Instead, the sinking of the Titanic five days earlier still dominated newspapers the next morning.

Not even Opening Day could compete with that.

Harry Atkins, a Michigan native, is a graduate of Wayne State University. He retired a few weeks after the 2000 season. He was inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame in 2002. Send comments to [email protected].


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