Guest Post: Call in the Closer: a Grandmother’s Love of the Detroit Tigers


The following heartfelt story is a guest post submitted by reader Ben Axelrad.

I’d like to tell a story about my grandmother, Helen Axelrad, a diehard fan of Detroit Tigers baseball for more than 85 years. If you’re a diehard fan of Tigers baseball or grandmas I think this tale might speak to you.

In late July of 2012 Grandma Helen contracted an infection that eventually led to pneumonia. On Tuesday the 25th she is admitted to Beaumont Hospital and placed on a respirator. By Thursday evening it is clear this is a fight she won’t win. The nurses tell us, in fact, that she likely won’t last the night. So we stay by her side, to be with her when she leaves this life and goes wherever it is we go. The Tigers are on, so we turn on the TV to give her one last ballgame with her boys.

Helen and Paul in 1941. Photo from Ben Axelrad.

Tigers baseball would have to described as Grandma’s first love. As a child she went to games with her mother. As a teenager she snuck in with her friends. Story has it she used her first love to win her great love: impressing her future husband Paul by rattling off the top of her head every statistic from the 1935 team. Eventually it became a love she shared with her son and then both her grandsons. During her life she watched or listened to over 10,000 games. So, if she has to go, watching the Tigers with her boys is just about the best way it can happen.

We always want a win, but this time more than usual. With the best pitcher alive, Justin Verlander, on the mound against an unintimidating Cleveland team, it seems like a safe bet. But JV isn’t himself this night and the Indians respond to being called unintimidating by handing us a 5-3 defeat. Sadly, it seems Grandma will go out on a loss. All that’s left is to wait for that inevitable final moment. Before we know it, we’ve waited all night.

The staff is somewhat surprised that Grandma’s still with us on Friday morning. But, as my Dad says, “Grandma never skips an at bat.” It’s true. She continues to foul off pitches, unwilling to go down without a fight. She keeps fouling them off on into the evening. So we turn on the Tigers game, this time against the Toronto Blue Jays, hoping Grandma will get her farewell win.

She doesn’t. When Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera hit back-to-back homers in the first inning it seems like she will – that’s a farewell salute if I’ve ever seen one – but then we stop scoring runs and the Blue Jays start scoring them. Final score: 8-3, Toronto. Still, Grandma refuses to go down.

A nurse tells us that people have different ways in which they choose to leave this life: some want to be surrounded by loved ones; others prefer to go alone. Some choose to go as quickly as possible; others wait for a particular moment. We all agree Grandma is waiting for one last Tigers’ win with her boys; to give death a moment of celebration. It’s her way.

The Tigers and Jays have a day game on Saturday – Anibal Sanchez’s first as a Tiger. Wouldn’t it be kismet if his first victory was Grandma’s last? The answer is no, it wouldn’t be. Because if it would, the Tigers wouldn’t lose 5-1 like they do.

After three straight losses, we must face the sad reality that maybe Grandma’s last victory is not meant to be. Death is not obliged to grant us a perfect narrative. We also must accept that Grandma might be one of those people who’d rather die in private. We give her that option and go home for some much needed rest.

But Sunday morning comes and Grandma is still among us. We’re happy she didn’t want to die alone. We want to be with her, and we want that stinkin’ victory. Doug Fister is on the mound for the series finale in Toronto, so we gather around the TV once again. When the Blue Jays score a first inning run we get the feeling it’s going to be another long afternoon. But then Jhonny Peralta comes up with two men on in the second and puts us up 3-1 with a towering tributary home run. Fister is nearly perfect for the next seven innings and Peralta adds a second long ball in the top of the 9th. With but a half inning left, the Tigers lead 4-1. Fister sill has gas in the tank so we hope to see him come out to finish what he started. Instead, the bullpen gate opens and out runs Jose Valverde.

Grandma, like many Tigers fans, suffered from an anxiety disorder known as papagrandephobia. It’s characterized by cold sweats and increased blood pressure the moment Jose “Papa Grande” Valverde enters a game. She endured a lot in 85 years of fandom, but Valverde was too much drama for her. It’s not that she didn’t like him – how could you not like him? It’s that she didn’t trust him – how on earth could you possibly trust him? Sometimes, if the situation got too stressful, she would simply turn off the TV and wait for me to call and tell her she could breathe again.

July 29, 2012; Toronto, ON, CANADA; Detroit Tigers pitcher Jose Valverde (46) and catcher Gerald Laird (9) celebrate a win against the Toronto Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre. Detroit defeated Toronto 4-1. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

So there we are, in the bottom of the 9th, Tigers up 4-1. Valverde takes the mound to take his warm-up pitches. Apparently this alone triggers an acute bout of papagrandephobia because Grandma decides to turn off the game the only way she can: She finally dies. Death trumps anxiety. We huddle around her and watch with fingers crossed as Valverde plows through the Jays uncharacteristically drama-free. Like many times before, I lean in and tell Grandma the victory is safe. Only this time she will not start breathing again. The Tigers have given her the win she needs to say goodbye.

When a perfect confluence of events (AKA the White Sox giving away a pennant) earns us a spot in the postseason and then pitching carries us all the way to the World Series, it seems another chapter to the story is unfolding.

The last time Tigers won a World Series, in 1984, my family and I were there. In the first row of the upper deck, a stone’s throw from where Larry Herndon caught the final out in leftfield. We got the seats because Grandma miraculously won a ticket lottery. Maybe she got lucky. Or maybe the universe felt like it owed her one. A few months earlier – on her birthday no less – my Grandpa Paul developed a blood clot in the lungs and died somewhat instantly.

Needless to say, his sudden death left Grandma inconsolable. While the pain would dull, her love for him never did. She lived another 28 years without him and never so much as looked at another man. This wasn’t because of religion or principle; she simply loved one man and one man only.

So, for a minute there, we thought maybe this season would mirror 1984’s and the Tigers would win it all in Grandma’s honor. Then the San Francisco Giants showed up and swept that theory out the door. But, as I think about it now, maybe it wasn’t about winning a championship this time. The year my grandfather died, Grandma needed a victory more than anything. She had just lost her soul mate. All she had were her boys and the Tigers. But this year she was rejoined with her one true love.

I don’t know if heaven is real or just a place we made up because it’s nice to think our grandparents are there. What I do know is that happy endings are better than sad endings. So I choose to believe that my family and Tigers baseball were there for my grandma until she was ready to be returned to her one true love. Sure, a World Series victory would’ve been nice, but loyally loving the Tigers means, win or lose, there’s always next year. And as next year becomes this year, in the heaven of my mind, my grandparents are together watching. Go Tigers!

By Ben Axelrad