I was in a bowling alley when he hit it.
Saturday night was bowling night in 2006, and October 14th, the night of game 4 of the 2006 ALCS, was in fact a Saturday. With all due respect to Hartfield Lanes of Berkley, MI, fine bowling establishment that it is, let’s say at that time the TV situation was less than stellar.
There were no flat screens. No rear projection, no LCD or plasma. There were 3 working TV’s in our half of the alley, the kind that sit nestled between the score screens above the lanes. Good old fashioned 21 inch boxes covered with a warped sheet of plexiglass and mounted 6 feet over your head.
Did I mention there was no sound?
Fortunately our anchor man came to the rescue. Charlie was in his 70’s, a retired Ford Rouge Foreman who once told me the greatest night of his life was being in Baltimore on a Tuesday night in September of 1974 to watch Al Kaline record his 3,000th hit.
Charlie fixed old electronic things in his garage, particularly radios. He brought with him that night a beautifully restored Lincoln transistor radio. Sound problem solved, in style. As an added bonus we heard Dan Dickerson and Jim Price call the action rather than the FOX national team. All was right in the universe.
When Magglio Ordonez crossed homeplate after hitting that home run, that iconic shot that spawned a new generation of Tigers fans, I was jump hugging a 70 something year old ex-marine in a bowling alley. Charlie and I both had tears streaming down our cheeks, neither of us cared, and we were hardly alone.
The Lincoln was at full blast. About 30 people were packed in around our deco-classic swinging chair table, eyes on the box, ears on the radio. Our waitress was working overtime keeping us lubricated. People paced. There was rocking in chairs and a woman knitting while whispering the rosary. The flourescent lights flickered, the sound of pins bouncing on the lanes nearly disappeared. Bowling was on pause.
I can still hear the utterly perfect call from Dan Dickerson crackling through that 4 inch speaker.
In Detroit, Michigan, 2,405 miles as the crow fly’s from his hometown of Caracas, Venezuela Magglio Ordonez evolved before our eyes from All-Star right fielder into legend.
It was his second home run of the contest. Some forget it was Ordonez who tied the game at three in the 6th inning with a solo shot. 22 years to the day after Kirk Gibson hit a pair of home runs to help the Tigers win the 1984 World Series, Magglio Ordonez hit a pair of his own to send the boys back.
You can’t script that. You can’t predict it or statistically plan for it to happen. When Ordonez signed his 5 year, $85 million contract prior to the 2005 season the last thing reasonable Tigers fans expected was October glory in his 2nd season.
But great players exceed expectations, and truly great players are at their best when it means the most. This is perhaps the singular facet of legend. Beyond putting a team on your back, or dominating statistical categories – both of which Ordonez did. Legend is about creating a moment that will be everlasting, and Magglio did just that, and for that we owe a debt of tremendous gratitude.
There was more to Magglio as a Tiger than that night in 2006, and I don’t dare sell him short in bypassing that. He arrived in Detroit 1 year after Ivan Rodriguez, step two as some say in the transformation of an abysmal baseball team. His contract massive, and Ordonez caught his fair share (and then some) of critiques from his former Manager as well as his new fans.
His first campaign in Detroit was cut short due to injury, playing only 82 games, the lowest total of his seven years as a Tiger. There were flashes that first season of what was to come. He hit a respectable .302 and drove in 46 runs. Then in 2006 it was the first of three consecutive seasons with 20+ home runs and 100+ RBI. His .298 batting average in ’05 was one of only two in Detroit where he failed to break the plane of .300. And then came 2007.
117 runs scored. 216 base hits, among which were 54 doubles and 28 home runs. 139 RBI. A 1.029 OPS highlighted by a Major League best .363 batting average. These are not video game numbers, this was 2007 Magglio Ordonez.
In more than 100 years of Detroit Tigers baseball only Hank Greenberg and Rocky Colavito have recorded more than 139 RBI in a single season. Only 6 Tigers have ever posted a higher single season batting average, 5 of them are in the Hall of Fame.
in 2007 Magglio was a force of nature, an unstoppable hitting machine, and a joy to behold. If it weren’t for 54 home runs and 156 RBI from Alex Rodriguez, there would be an American League MVP trophy on his mantle today. Ordonez registered 20 or more RBI in every month of the season except June, where he posted 19. With runners in scoring position he hit .429 over 191 at-bats with 107 RBI. Let that sink in for a moment.
2008 was another ho-hum .317/21 HR/103 RBI season, and the final one where he was fully healthy. At some point everyone breaks down. The body betrays you, and it becomes clear that you can’t play forever. 2009 was the start of the process for Magglio. He still hit .310, and there were moments when his power surfaced, but Ordonez hit a total of 26 home runs in his final 3 seasons as a Tiger, driving in 141 in that time.
The last years were dark in some regards. Many fans turned on him, on the organization for picking up his option and then signing Ordonez to a 1 year 10$ million for 2011. How quickly they forgot.
There was still thunder in his bat and his mind and heart were committed to the game at a level few ever achieve. Never have I heard a teammate or coach question his work ethic, his pride, his dedication to the game. His reputation is that of a warrior, and I’ll remember him that way.
I’m 37 years old. I never saw Al Kaline play. He retired 6 months before I was born. Thanks to my father I grew up knowing what a remarkable ball player he was. Then in my youth there was Kirk Gibson. The greatest baseball day of my life was game 5 of the 1984 World Series. Enough said. And there was Magglio Ordonez. Three Iconic right fielders that anchor the memories of three generations of Tigers fans.
This afternoon at Comerica Park Magglio Ordonez will say goodbye to Tigers fans, making his retirement official in the public eye. With the weather looking better than expected and Justin Verlander on the hill I expect a capacity crowd. I’m heading for the ballpark as soon as I finish blathering on here. I’ll clap until my hands hurt when Magglio is introduced. He’s earned that, and I hope you’ll do the same, wherever you are.
Wherever your heart and mind are currently along the rollercoaster perception of Magglio ordonez as a Tiger, know that today is a day to celebrate. If you’re one of those curmudgeons who still grumbles about the way it ended, who used to boo him when he struggled, who wasted air howling “Magglio Sucks” on message boards and bar stools – do the rest of us a favor and give your ticket to someone with a little class, and respect.
Today is a day to rekindle the memories, to celebrate Magglio and everything he gave this team and this town. And now if you’ll excuse me, I don’t want to miss that.
J. Ellet Lambie covers the Tigers for Motor City Bengals and writes weekly columns on fantasy baseball and card collecting for Full Spectrum Baseball. You can find him on twitter @lembeck451