Being part of the first team to call Comerica Park home meant that some of the 2000 Detroit Tigers hitters were able to carve out unique places in ballpark history by becoming the first hitters to achieve certain feats.
This is the fifth part of an ongoing series about the memorable moments and games from the Tigers’ first season at Comerica Park. Part one is about the home opener. Part two covers the Tigers’ first CoPa home run and series win. Part three is about the first series sweep in their new home, which came against an unlikely opponent. Part four is about the first interleague game at Comerica.
April 28: The First Leadoff Home Run
Luis Polonia was the last Tiger to hit a leadoff home run at Tiger Stadium. He did it in team’s final game at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. It was fitting that he’d also be the first Tiger to do it at Comerica Park. After Jeff Weaver set the White Sox down 1-2-3 in the top of the first, Polonia sent an 0-2 pitch from Chicago’s James Baldwin to the seats in right field. It was his first homer of the season. Polonia also notched a pair of singles, which gave him half of the Tigers’ six hits that day. Unfortunately, the White Sox won 3-2.
(Weaver went the distance in the losing effort, which made him the first Tigers pitcher to throw a complete game at Comerica Park.)
Polonia added two more leadoff homers later in the season. Both were on the road. The only other Tiger hitter to open a first inning at home by going deep that season was Damion Easley on July 26 against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Easley became the Tigers’ primary leadoff hitter after Polonia was released at the end of July.
June 13: The First Multi-HR Game By a Tiger
Bobby Higginson was the one who coined the infamous nickname “Comerica National Park”. That came after a frustrating moment at home in mid-April when he launched a rocket that fell just short of its desired landing point. Instead, a would-be home run was caught at the wall in deep right-center. He didn’t hit his first CoPa homer until May 23. Coming into this game against the Blue Jays, he’d only hit three at home, although one had come the day before.
In the first inning, Higginson stepped into to face rookie lefty Clayton Andrews with two aboard after Damion Easley walked and Brad Ausmus singled. Higginson got ahead 3-0 in the count. He thought the fourth pitch was a ball and started heading toward first, but it was a called strike. That worked out okay, though. Higgy jumped on the next pitch and drove it over the right field wall to give the Tigers a 3-0 lead. Juan Gonzalez followed with his 10th homer, giving the Tigers back-to-back homers at Comerica Park for the very first time.
The Tigers added one more run before the first inning was done. The five-run rally was a harbinger of things to come.
After Ausmus homered in the second inning, Higginson singled off Andrews. Blue Jays manager Jim Fregosi decided his rookie had enough and went to the bullpen. Andrews faced a total of 12 batters. He never again pitched in the majors. His dud of an outing was a far cry from the first time he’d faced the Tigers back on May 28, when he retired all 12 batters he faced during four shutout innings of relief. Higginson, who ended the kid’s big league career, said that the Tigers felt they “owed him a little bit”, adding,
"“The last time we faced him, guys were coming back and saying ‘I can’t understand why we’re not hitting this guy.’ He’s not overpowering, and his fastball is nothing special.”"
Reliever Darwin Cubillan, another Jays rookie, got the Tigers out in order in the third, but he couldn’t stop the Bengal bats from flaring up again in the fourth. Shane Halter and Deivi Cruz led off the inning with singles. Easley drove them both in with a double. Ausmus singled, and Easley held at third. Higginson followed with another three-run bomb, becoming the first Tiger to enjoy a multi-homer game at “Comerica National Park”. For the second time in the game, the Tigers put up a five-spot in an inning. The game had become an 11-0 blowout.
The Tigers peppered another Blue Jays reliever, John Frascatore, with hits in the fifth. Before he could retire anybody, singles from Halter, Cruz, and Easley, plus an Ausmus double, plated two more runs. Higginson worked the count full against Frascatore before singling to right. That scored Easley, and the Tigers had a 15-1 lead. Higgy was 4-for-4. His seven RBI matched a career-high set back on June 30, 1997. After what amounted to a full day’s work at the plate, Rich Becker came in to pinch run for Higginson. The final score of the rout ended up being 15-3. Higgy commented,
"“We had guys on base all night. Guys were doing their job getting on, and I was doing mine driving them in.”"
The only other Tiger to hit two homers in a game at Comerica in 2000 was Billy McMillon, who did it in his Tigers debut on August 5 against the Twins.
June 17: The First Walk-off Home Run
The Tigers drew one of the biggest crowds of the year (39,569) for a Saturday afternoon game against the Indians. Not everyone there was a Tigers fan, though. Cleveland fans who regularly packed Jacobs Field back then would often invade Detroit to support their team when the Tribe played in the Motor City. The Tigers’ C.J. Nitkowski estimated that 30 to 50 percent of that day’s attendance was made up of people rooting for the road team.
The outsiders had a good time in the fourth inning when Indian Russell Branyan crushed a grand slam against Tigers starter Hideo Nomo to give Cleveland a 4-0 lead. Detroit clawed back in the bottom half on an RBI single from Juan Gonzalez and a two-run home run from Wendell Magee. The Indians made it a 6-3 game in the fifth on a two-run homer from Roberto Alomar. Undaunted, Bobby Higginson cut the lead to a run with a two-run homer of his own in the seventh. Tony Clark tied the game at 6-6 with an RBI double in the eighth.
The Tigers were able to keep the Indians off the board after Nitkowski took over for Nomo. The lefty pitched 3.1 innings of flawless relief. He retired all 10 batters he faced, which included guys named Sandy Alomar, Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel, Roberto Alomar, Dave Justice, Jim Thome, and Travis Fryman (yes, the former Tiger). He racked up five strikeouts. After Nitkowski, Doug Brocail came in to throw a 1-2-3 ninth inning on only seven pitches. Higginson observed,
"“Our bullpen did a great job getting us back to the dugout and keeping the energy going.”"
On the first pitch in the bottom of the ninth, an over-energized Brad Ausmus grounded out to pitcher Steve Karsay. Higginson, representing the potential winning run, walked. That brought Gonzalez up.
After his RBI single earlier, Gonzalez struck out in each of his next two at-bats. Tigers fans booed him each time. That wasn’t anything new. Gonzalez, a career .294/.343/.572 hitter before being traded to Detroit, was only hitting .266/.315/.522 coming into the day’s action. After averaging just over 43 home runs and 140 RBI in his last four years in Texas, he had hit only 11 homers and driven in 24 runs in his first 52 games in a Detroit uniform. Fans hadn’t warmed up to the struggling superstar, and he hadn’t warmed up to playing half his games in Comerica Park. By this point of the season, it was a foregone conclusion that “Juan Gone”, an impending free agent, would be gone once his contract was up. Trade speculation had begun. Gonzales acknowledged that his feelings had been hurt at times by the booing, but said “fans are fans”.
Fans, more than anything, just want a reason to cheer, and Gonzalez delivered a big one. On a 1-1 pitch from Karsay, he hit the first walk-off home run at the new Tigers ballpark. His two-run shot to left gave the Tigers an 8-6 win. He said,
"“I’ve had a lot of big moments before, but here it’s an exciting moment. It was an exciting moment not only for me, but for everyone. I’m trying to help us win ballgames. I’m only human. I’ve never put my head down, and I’ve never quit.”"
His heroics gave the Tigers their first win in a game that they’d trailed after seven innings. They came in with an abysmal 0-32 record in those situations. Manager Phil Garner felt like the Tigers were going to get a win, and he had a hunch that Gonzalez would be the hero. He exclaimed,
"“He’s a special player, and this is the kind of thing he can do for you. This win felt the best of any this season. The Yankees sweep was big, but we haven’t had a game like this where we just battled back like this to win.”"
The Tigers didn’t hit any other walk-off homers that season. In a twist of irony, the next walk-off homer that Gonzalez hit also happened in a Tigers/Indians game. He smacked it on May 23, 2001. Unfortunately, he was wearing a Cleveland uniform at the time. He signed with the Indians in January 2001.
June 27: The First Grand Slam
The Yankees rolled into Comerica Park looking for revenge after getting swept during their first visit in May. They struck first with three runs off Hideo Nomo in the fourth inning. Tony Clark led off the bottom half of the inning with a home run to left off David Cone, one of the pitchers that the Tigers had victimized during that sweep. It was Clark’s 11th of the season.
In the fifth, the Tigers added another run after three straight singles from Luis Polonia, Brad Ausmus, and Bobby Higginson began the inning. Two batters later, with Clark at the plate, Ausmus and Higginson pulled off a double steal. Clark ended up walking, which loaded the bases.
Dean Palmer strode to the plate. In their prior encounters, Cone had handled Palmer pretty easily. The Detroit third baseman had only managed seven hits in 38 at-bats against the New York righty, dating back to 1992. This time, Palmer got Cone. He rocked a 2-1 pitch deep to left that landed in the stands. It was the first grand slam by a Tiger in Comerica Park history, and it gave the Tigers a 6-3 lead. Palmer’s team-leading 15th homer was the end of the day for Cone.
The Tigers bullpen gave up a couple runs in the seventh, which trimmed their lead to 6-5. A sacrifice fly from Paul O’Neill drove in the tying run in the eighth.
The game stayed tied into the bottom of the 11th. Yankees manager Joe Torre sent Mariano Rivera to mound to start the inning. Higginson greeted the future Hall of Famer with a single. Two batters later, future Hall of Famer Derek Jeter couldn’t field Shane Halter’s grounder cleanly, and the ball bounded into left field. As Higginson rounded second, his spikes got caught and he stumbled. He made it safely to third, narrowly beating a throw. Robert Fick also grounded to Jeter, who tried to throw a hard-charging Higginson out at the plate. Higgy collided with catcher Chris Turner and knocked the ball loose. From the on-deck circle, Damion Easley noticed that the ump hadn’t made a call because Higgy hadn’t touched the plate, and he yelled to his teammate. Higginson barely beat Turner back and was called safe. The game was over.
The eleventh inning craziness on the base paths overshadowed Palmer’s grand slam, but without it, the Tigers wouldn’t have been able to snag their hard-fought 7-6 win.
Jose Macias hit the only other Tigers grand slam at Comerica Park in 2000. His blast helped the Tigers pick up a win against the Royals in the second game of a doubleheader on July 22.
September 2: The First Inside-The-Park Home Run
The Tigers, who were 6-17 in April, had improved by the time the season’s last full month rolled around. In June, July, and August, they went 48-35. Bolstered by an 18-10 August, their best month of the season, the Tigers were only five games back in the AL Wild Card race coming into the day’s play. A victory over the Rangers the night before had put the Tigers over .500 for the first time since Opening Day.
It was a special day at Comerica Park. Before the game, the late Norman “Turkey” Stearnes was honored. He had been posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame earlier in the summer. Stearnes played for the Detroit Stars of the Negro National League from 1923-1931, but never had the opportunity to play for his hometown Tigers. His daughter, Joyce Stearnes-Thompson, was one of the speakers in the pre-game ceremony, and his widow, Nettie, was there as a distinguished guest. The first 10,000 fans in the ballpark were given a Stearnes poster.
The game drew 35,060, and Juan Encarnacion put an early charge into the crowd with his first inning home run off Rangers lefty Kenny Rogers.
Two batters later, Juan Gonzalez stepped in against his former Texas teammate. After missing 19 games in July due to tendinitis in his left ankle, Gonzalez rebounded in August with what was arguably his most productive month in Detroit (.325/.360/.479 with 38 hits and 19 RBI). “Juan Gone” sent a fly ball soaring to deep center field. Gabe Kapler, who was part of the package that the Tigers sent to the Rangers in exchange for Gonzalez, wasn’t able to track it down. The ball ricocheted high off the wall and bounced away from Kapler. Gonzalez motored around the bases and broke into a smile as he headed for home. He beat the throw for an inside-the-park home run. Not only was it the first of his career, it was the first by a Tiger in Comerica Park. Gonzalez said,
"“My first and maybe my last. It’s a crazy game.”"
Gonzalez turned out to be right. It was the only inside job he pulled off in his career. He said that it was exciting, but added that he didn’t feel like he’d caught his breath until the sixth inning. Although his stay in Detroit was maligned, Gonzalez racked up quite a trifecta by hitting Tigers’ first home run, first walk-off home run, and inside-the park home run at Comerica Park.
Texas got on the board in the fourth to cut the Detroit lead to 2-1. The Tigers scored a couple more off Rogers in the fifth to make it a 4-1 game. Rogers wasn’t sharp that day (four runs on eight hits and four walks, with no strikeouts), but his best work at Comerica Park would come years later as a Tiger in the 2006 postseason.
The Rangers picked up a couple runs in the seventh, but the Tigers added an insurance run in the eighth. The final score was 5-3, Tigers.