Even though I had been a member of the Mayo Smith Society for 10 years, I had never been able to carve out the time to make it back to my home town of Detroit to coincide with the Society’s Annual Gathering. Well, there was that one time in 1994 when I was going to go, but the players’ strike foiled that. I had a job interview in Monroe, about halfway between Detroit and Toledo, the day before the now-canceled event, and after the interview (I didn’t get the job), I continued south to Toledo to take in a twi-night doubleheader at old Ned Skeldon Stadium between the Toledo Mud Hens, Detroit’s Triple-A affiliate, and the Richmond Braves, Atlanta’s top farm club. I didn’t quite make it to the ballpark in time for the first pitch, which is just as well, since Richmond hit a grand slam in the top of the first inning while I was still listening to the game in the car. Toledo dropped both games of the twin bill, and that marked my last games at Ned Skeldon Stadium.
But back to Detroit, and Tiger Stadium. If I was ever going to get to an Annual Gathering at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, then 1999 was going to have to be it. I made my flight reservations, let my mother know we’d have to fold out the couch that weekend so I could have a place to sleep, and registered for the gathering.
It turns out I was not the only one who thought this way. The Society collected registrations not for one hundred, not two hundred, but three hundred people. I don’t know if there had been such a clamor to be at an Annual Gathering in the heady early days of the Society in the mid-1980s, but this was something else.
While I hung out with the Society’s resident sabermetrician, David Raglin, on occasion, I wasn’t exactly part of the Mayo Smith brain trust. On this day, I was a Tigers geek along with 299 other fans.
The number of registrants was so high for this last visit to Tiger Stadium, the group had to be split into three. If you ever heard stories of how the Tigers’ clubhouse was cramped with 25 baseball players (or 40 or so Detroit Lions when football was played at The Corner), imagine what it was like with 100 trying to stream their way around the dugout and clubhouse, marveling at even the ordinary things like the phone to the bullpen. One thing that received deserved oohs and aahs was the bone used to “bone” bats to make them somehow harder. It was a relic, we were told, from Ty Cobb’s day.
We trampled into the shower area and saw the plenitude of shampoos and shaving creams the players used, the baskets where sunflower seeds and other snacks were hung against what few bare walls there were, the old green locker stalls with their well-ventilated metal dividers, the cramped manager’s office, and the famous tunnel connecting the clubhouse to the dugout. We chatted as amiably as we could with reliever Todd Jones, who was in the clubhouse way early, and became a great friend of the Society during both of his tours of duty with Detroit.
Back above ground, each group was entertained, one at a time, by former Tigers catcher and then-coach Lance Parrish. He was affable to the extreme, and let out a hearty laugh after being asked what it was like to catch Jack Morris, well known for his temper.
My group’s last part of the tour may have been best of all: a chance to play catch on the field. We just paired off and tossed balls back and forth. I imagine our hearts were racing every bit as much as a rookie making his big-league debut. And our games of catch didn’t even count in the standings!
There was a fair amount of grumbling about the impending closure of Tiger Stadium, being shuttered to make way for the in-progress Comerica Park 1.7 miles away. Noted Detroit humorist (“they Don’t Make Nun Names Like That No More”) and actor (“Body Heat”) Thom Sharp was just another one of the 300 making this pilgrimage. I sang him a song parody I had composed about the state of affairs in Detroit to the tune of Petula Clark’s “Downtown” (“Using tax bucks to build the Tigers a park where they’ll lose ninety games – downtown”; “Don’t forget the nightlife, it sucks more than a Hoover / But what’s the use, you couldn’t get there on the People Mover / Broken again”). Much to my surprise, he told me he liked it. Not that he (or I) ever recorded it. But it was good to be able to commiserate about the end of Tiger Stadium.
However, with a lot of time between the end of the tour and the start of the game, I made my own personal pilgrimage to the Comerica Park construction site. I didn’t have a hard hat –- or even much of a camera -– but I took as many photos I could from as many perspectives as I could of the work in progress, knowing the site wouldn’t look this way again for a long, long time. I even got some shots from inside the Detroit Athletic Club’s parking garage, now visible down the left field line at Comerica Park.
There was also plenty of time to visit the Designate Hatter, on Michigan Avenue a block west of Tiger Stadium (since renamed the Detroit Athletic Company). Steve Thomas and his team were already longtime partners with the Society, and I looked for what memorabilia I could afford. I picked up a few items, and hunkered down for the game – but not until making a last-minute search for the car of Dave’s father for some object I can’t recall. But I made it back in time for the first pitch. As bad luck would have it, the Tigers were playing Baltimore, the closest city to Washington where we could see the Tigers play. It’s not as if the schedule could’ve given us a different opponent. But there was no complaining about the result: a 4-3 win over the Orioles, with Dave Mlicki getting the win over Scott Erickson, and Jones picking up the save in front of 42,377.
I had invited my mother to take in the series finale the next day, but she demurred. I had already made a deal to park my car not far from Tiger Stadium at a place that didn’t sell parking spaces (I’m still not saying where it is because that place is still there after all these years), and I had an extra ticket from the upper-deck four-pack I’d bought. But I invited my best friend and his son (my godson) to take in the game, my treat. They had to come in from Cedar Springs, nearly three hours away, but was going to be their last opportunity to see Tiger Stadium, too.
Before meeting up with them, I was spied by a girl I had dated in college, along with her husband, who was the kid brother of a high school classmate I wish I had dated. (Good times!)
I told my friend and his son I had been at the previous day’s game, so my intent was for them to be able to enjoy the whole game from their seats. If they needed something from a concession stand, I’d fetch it for them. Sure enough, pangs of hunger and thirst developed for them, and they gave me some ideas of what they wanted. But when I got to the first concession stand in the upper-deck concourse, the line was so long I immediately despaired of seeing any more of the ballgame; this can happen when there are 37,911 in the stands.
My bright idea: run down the ramps and go to Tiger Plaza and hope the concession counters there didn’t close with the first pitch. It was a brilliant move. There couldn’t have been more than two people in line ahead of me, and I picked up everything they’d asked for (and a little something for myself), and made my way back up the ramp. Passing the original concession stand, I recognized many of the same faces still waiting to advance in line. I could not have lost more than an inning of play while making the concession run. On second thought, given Detroit’s 11-4 loss that afternoon, maybe those poor shlubs lining the concourse had the right idea!
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By: Mark Pattison