Has it really been 20 years since the Detroit Tigers began playing at Comerica Park? Yes, it has! In this ongoing series, we’ll reminisce about some of the first season’s memorable games and moments.
Once upon a time, the year 2000 represented the future. Fascinated visionaries were eager to offer predictions about what life in Y2K might be like, ranging from a Boston Globe writer in 1900 who foresaw the advent of nighttime baseball to late night TV icon Conan O’Brien, whose prognostications were much sillier.
Although it had been quite some time since a Detroit Tigers team had generated any kind of excitement amongst fans, there was a different kind of buzz to experience in 2000. For the first time ever, the Tigers would no longer call the corner of Michigan and Trumbull home. Tiger Stadium was relegated to the annals of history once and for all, and Comerica Park stood ready as the future became the present.
April 11: Day One
The Tigers came into the the 2000 home opener against the Mariners with a 1-5 record. Righty Brian Moehler, who started the Tiger Stadium finale the previous September, took the mound on this historic Tuesday afternoon. Before the game, he joked that it still felt like the Tigers were on the road. It was also a chilly afternoon, with the temperature hovering around 38 degrees. That didn’t bother Moehler. He said,
"“The weather wasn’t that bad. Once I started to throw, I didn’t notice it. My hands didn’t go numb, and I had a good grip on the baseball.”"
After the pomp and circumstances of the opening ceremonies had ended, it was time to play ball. The Mariners’ Mark McLemore was the first man to bat at Comerica Park. He led off the game by flying out to center. Mike Cameron, father of current Tigers prospect Daz Cameron, became the ballpark’s first base runner when Tigers shortstop Deivi Cruz committed the first error. Cameron then became the first pickoff victim when Moehler got him. That cost Seattle a run when the first man to get a hit at Comerica Park, John Olerud, doubled to deep right.
In the bottom of the first inning, the Tigers began adding to list of CoPa firsts. Designated hitter Luis Polonia, who led off the Tiger Stadium finale with a home run, was the first Tiger to bat at the new stadium. With an eye on making history, Polonia admitted that he’d been preparing for this at-bat for months. He ripped the first pitch he saw into deep center. The first Comerica Park hit by a Tiger was also the ballpark’s first of many, many triples. Asked about his spacious new surroundings (note: this was before the left field fence was moved in, which adjusted the left-center power alley from 395 feet to 370), Polonia answered,
"“I like it. A lot of guys with power might complain, but I’ve got nothing to complain about. It is huge. When you’re standing at home plate, center field looks like its 600 feet away. You’re not going to hit as many home runs as in Tiger Stadium. But it’s the perfect stadium for me. I just slap the ball all over the ballpark.”"
Second baseman Gregg Jefferies drove Polonia in with a single, giving the Tigers the first run and RBI in their new home. Left fielder Bobby Higginson was the first Tiger to be retired when he flew out to shallow center. First baseman Tony Clark was the first Tiger to strike out. With two outs, catcher Brad Ausmus and third baseman Dean Palmer drew the Tigers’ first two walks, which loaded the bases for right fielder Karim Garcia. Freddy Garcia, the Mariners’ righty (who would pitch briefly for the Tigers in 2008), became the first pitcher to balk. That forced in Jefferies, and the Tigers led 2-0.
Detroit doubled its lead in the second on Higginson’s two-run triple, which scored Juan Encarnacion and Polonia. Higginson had only one extra base hit and no RBI in the Tigers’ season-opening six-game road trip. He remarked,
"“For myself, it’s been awhile since I got a big hit…I’m not the fastest runner, but you don’t have to be a real burner to get (a triple) in this park.”"
Comerica Park made a positive first impression on Higginson, who called it “one of the best ballparks in the league” and said that it made coming to work more fun. He seemed to appreciate the defensive challenge that the ballpark’s big outfield provided. Higgy noted that getting better at learning opponents’ hitting tendencies and getting good jumps on balls headed for the gaps would be important. As a hitter, though, it was only a matter of days before he came up with the infamous nickname “Comerica National Park”.
In the top of the fourth, the Mariners’ Carlos Guillen, who would thrill fans in Detroit with some pretty big hits at Comerica Park as a member of the Tigers a few seasons later, became the first opposing player to drive in a run there. His RBI double made it a 4-1 game. Seattle added a run on an Encarnacion error in the fifth to make it 4-2. That gave the Tigers’ center fielder the dubious distinction of being the first Detroit player to be booed by a CoPa crowd.
The first dazzling defensive play belonged to the Tigers’ Clark, who was known more for his power hitting than his fielding. In the top of the sixth, Moehler got into a jam when Dan Wilson singled and Guillen walked. That turned the Mariners’ lineup over. Clark had to dive to his right to snag a line drive off McLemore’s bat. “Tony the Tiger”, showing off catlike reflexes, bounced right back up and was able to beat Guillen back to the bag for an unassisted double play. Clark commented,
"“I was fortunate to be able to read the ball as it came off his bat. I was blessed by being 6-foot-7, and I took full advantage of it. It also helps to be 20 pounds lighter this year. I noticed early on that I’m able to get to more balls than in the past.”"
The Tigers added a run in the sixth on Jefferies’ second RBI single to bump their lead to 5-2. Jefferies’ contributions were a welcome boost. He started in place of regular second baseman Damion Easley, who had strained a rib cage muscle while swinging during an at-bat two days earlier. Jefferies hadn’t played second on a regular basis since 1991.
In the bottom of the eighth, Tigers reliever Doug Brocail became the first pitcher to throw a 1-2-3 inning at the new ballpark. Closer Todd Jones, who threw the final pitch at Tiger Stadium, took the mound for the ninth inning. Oddly enough, none of the relievers who pitched in the game for either team used the brand new Comerica Park bullpens. Because of the cold weather, Tigers manager Phil Garner and Mariners manager Lou Piniella agreed that pitchers could warm up in the batting cages under the stands. For Jones, it was a new experience. He said,
"“I couldn’t really tell what was going on from down there. You could hear the P.A. guy, but you couldn’t tell if anyone was scoring any runs. Then the change in temperature was a shock to the system when I first got out there. It was definitely tough to get used to, but I hope we do it again tomorrow night because it’s supposed to be even worse.”"
With the Tigers leading by just three runs, Jones worked around a leadoff walk to Cameron and a single by Olerud by striking out Alex Rodriguez and Edgar Martinez. (Martinez, the first future Hall of Famer to play in a game at Comerica Park, went 0-for-5 with a pair of Ks.) Jay Buhner grounded out to second to end the game.
The Tigers were 5-2 victors in the first game at their brand new address. Moehler was the first pitcher to be credited with a win, and Jones notched the first save in ballpark history. It was a successful housewarming party, one with an attendance of 39,168. As Clark noted,
"“The ballpark itself is well laid out. It’s up to us to give it a flavor. When you walked around Tiger Stadium, you saw the chips in the paint and the dings on the wall. It’s up to us to put chips in the paint and dings in the wall at this place. Today was a good start.”"
The Mariners beat the Tigers 4-0 on April 12 to spoil Comerica Park’s first night game. The Tigers would still have a chance to win the first series in their new home, however.
April 13: First Shutout and First Series Win
For the first time, hometown fans would be able to see the Tigers’ new superstar, Juan Gonzalez, who was the crown jewel of a 9-player deal with the Rangers the previous November. The season got off to a rough start for “Juan Gone”. He missed six of the Tigers’ first eight games, including the prior two at Comerica, due to a sore right hamstring. Finally, first-year manager Phil Garner was able to write Gonzalez in as his DH in the cleanup spot.
Also making his Tigers debut on this day was starting pitcher Hideo Nomo, who was signed as a free agent in January. On Opening Day in Oakland on April 3, he got the win with a solid seven inning performance. The righty’s first inning in Detroit’s home whites was interesting. After Mark McLemore led off with a single, his attempt to steal second was thwarted by catcher Brad Ausmus. Alex Rodriguez walked, but he too was cut down trying to steal.
In the bottom of the first, Tigers fans gave Gonzalez a warm welcome as he strode to the plate. It appeared that he was pretty eager to hit again. With Gregg Jefferies on first and one out, Gonzalez lined a single to left on the first pitch he saw. On the play, Jefferies made it to third on a error by Mariners left fielder Raul Ibanez, but both runners were stranded.
Nomo and Mariners starter Gil Meche traded scoreless innings through the first five. Nomo ran into trouble in the sixth. McLemore walked, David Bell singled, and A-Rod walked. John Olerud lofted a fly ball to left field, which Bobby Higginson gloved. McLemore tagged up and raced home. Ausmus braced himself for the impending collision, and Higginson’s laser beam throw snuffed the runner out. Despite the double play, there were still two Mariners on, and the dangerous Edgar Martinez was up. He grounded back to the mound, and the ball deflected off Nomo. Second baseman Jefferies alertly fielded it and was able to throw Martinez out to end the threat.
After Nomo walked Jay Buhner to lead off the seventh, Garner went to his bullpen. LOOGY Jim Poole struck the left-hand hitting Ibanez out. Next in was Danny Patterson, who came to Detroit in the Gonzalez trade. He loaded the bases on a single and intentional walk, but got out of the inning unscathed.
The scoreless tie continued on into the bottom of eighth. Shane Halter, who had taken over at second for Jefferies in the top of the inning, walked in his first plate appearance. With Gonzalez looming, Mariners manager Lou Piniella went to his bullpen. He called on Jose Mesa, a former All-Star closer who had saved 33 games in 1999. Anticipation rose amidst the Comerica Park faithful, and Gonzalez was ready. Describing the moment from his perspective, he said,
"“When I go to home plate and the situation is no score or tie game, I go with a lot of concentration. I knew (Mesa) is a power pitcher and (would throw a) fastball, and I jumped on it.”"
He sure did. Gonzalez thrilled Tigers fans with a line drive double into right-center that scored Halter standing up. John Lowe of the Detroit Free Press wrote,
"“Perhaps the only more dramatic resolution would have been a homer. And yet, the double was more appropriate to spacious Comerica Park. As the ball rolled up the distant gap, the crowd roared louder and louder for Halter to score, cheering him like a Triple Crown candidate coming down the stretch of the Belmont Stakes.”"
Gonzalez got a standing ovation from the crowd of 20,781 as he was lifted for pinch-runner Karim Garcia. Higginson singled Garcia to third and scored on Dean Palmer’s sacrifice fly. The Tigers led 2-0.
Todd Jones took over for the top of the ninth. After getting a quick first out, the Tigers’ closer lived up to the “Rollercoaster” nickname that Ernie Harwell had given him. He gave up back-to-back singles to Mike Cameron and McLemore, but Bell grounded into a 5-4-3 (Palmer to Halter to Tony Clark) double play to end the game.
The Tigers celebrated their first shutout victory at Comerica Park, and Gonzalez got a big bear hug from Jones. “Juan Gone” made a big impact in his home debut as a Tiger, and he was feeling pretty good about it. He proclaimed,
"“It’s exciting because we won, and I drove in the winning run. The team feels more confident when I’m in the lineup.On my first at-bat here, I was feeling a little anxious. It was exciting to see the fans react to me the way they did.”"
(To be continued.)