Detroit Tigers: A Tigers fan fades away

ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 27: A detail view of the seams on a baseball before the game against the Cleveland Indians at Turner Field on August 27, 2013. The Braves won 2-0. (Photo by Pouya Dianat/Atlanta Braves/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 27: A detail view of the seams on a baseball before the game against the Cleveland Indians at Turner Field on August 27, 2013. The Braves won 2-0. (Photo by Pouya Dianat/Atlanta Braves/Getty Images) /

"—I hit the ground hard with a jarring THUD…fearing the worst and expecting disaster. —"

In the Billy Crystal movie “City Slickers” there is a line where Daniel Stern’s character is trying to explain the draw of baseball to Helen Slater. Stern’s character “Phil” says, “even when I was 18 and my dad and I couldn’t communicate about anything…we could still talk about baseball.”

My dad and I were never in a spot where we couldn’t talk about much due to anger…but I guess to tweak Stern’s line a bit, baseball insured we never ran out of things to talk about. Which is important for both fathers and sons/daughters.

My father, John, peacefully passed away last week at the age of 83. It’s a sad moment and it’s not an easy thing to accept. But the realities of life eventually write the final story. My dad’s health had been declining for about six or seven years. They say this prepares you mentally for the eventuality and you might even think to believe it yourself…but it doesn’t really.

The markers on the map to the end were there. The year he stopped deer hunting. The year he stopped picking wild blueberries. The summer he stopped golfing. The winter he stopped removing snow from the driveway. Little by little life was in retreat as will happen to many of us.

However, one thing that stayed with him all the way was Detroit Tigers baseball. A life of following the club was something that didn’t need to halt because his heart wasn’t what it used to be. Which is a wonderful thing because it’s a game that meant so much to us both.

My dad lived in Upper Michigan his entire life and wouldn’t have had it any other way. He married my mom and they shared a life just four weeks shy of 60-years together with my sister and me along for the ride. He worked in the copper mines and when they closed up he eventually settled in as a successful beer salesman. You can’t find a soul with a bad word to say about him.

—After hitting the ground I looked toward the fence to see if the ball was rolling away from me…I was sure at least two runs would score and our 7-6 lead would be gone.—

My dad gave me my first two baseball gloves. (it must be noted my mom bought my third…I needed $115 for a first-rate First Baseman’s glove when I was 15 and didn’t want to ask him for it! Thanks, Mom!)  I remember the thrill of getting them. My dad gave me his old glove to start me off. It was small. It was worn. It was dried out until he took some “bear grease” and rubbed it down turning it from an ugly gray tone to a dark brown nearly black color. It was the glove he used in the 1950s. Any company logo was long since worn off…no clue who made it. It was paper-thin in spots and hurt like hell if you got one in the palm.

My father was a really good pitcher on the local level in “The Twilight League” playing for Wolverine. He was known for having pinpoint control…so much so that his nickname was the 100 percent tongue-in-cheek “Wildball”. I always kidded him for my reputation eventually as a first-ball hitter because when he threw batting practice to me I rarely had to take a pitch. He used that old glove and I cherished it immediately. I still have it. Then I remember him telling me I needed “a man-sized glove” on my 12th birthday and him handing me a Mizuno glove that served me well for years. That’s still here too!

I remember so many stories, listening to the late greats Ernie Harwell and Paul Carey, attending games, and watching countless Tigers and Atlanta Braves games. Mostly stories about the Tigers. His stories of Al Kaline,  Stormin’ Norman Cash, and the ‘68 World Champion Tigers. We watched every at-bat of the Tigers winning the ‘84 World Series and the gem of gems tossed by Frank Tanana on the final decisive day of the ‘87 season to beat Toronto for the AL East crown.

—I didn’t see the ball rolling away. I felt it now. It was in my glove…my first, and ultimately last, game as a center fielder…I sprawled out stabbing the air and whether I found the ball or the ball found me…it was in the webbing!—

My dad and I watched the famous Mark “The Bird” Fidrych pitch his Monday Night Masterpiece where the eventual Rookie of the Year shut down the powerful Yankees with a complete game 5-1 win. Every Tigers fan of the era recalls it. The insane crowd reactions. The Bird putting on a show unlike anything seen before or since on a diamond. I remember the smell of the popcorn we ate that night and the big glass bottles of Coke. More importantly, I recall the bright yellow t-shirt with The Bird’s picture on it my dad brought home two days later with a beaming grin on his face. I wore it everywhere. Best t-shirt ever, dad.

My father could really pitch a baseball. The sheer number of unsolicited stories I’d hear from his teammates were proof. I loved that.

I’m pretty sure I could retire now if I had $10 for each time we talked about a complete game shutout my dad pitched in an All-Star game where he drove in the only run in a 1-0 win.

My dad pitched in an “Oldtimer’s Game” in his mid-50’s. He had literally never touched a ball in years. He took the mound and proceeded to strike out 5 of the 6 batters he faced on the current Wolverine baseball team of 20 to 25-year-old guys. He just kept dropping his big 12-to-6 hammer of a curveball out of the sky and nobody could do a thing with it. That was a good laugh. Lots of those guys told me he should still be pitching all the time.

—I was told there was a loud yell from my teammates and the parents in the bleachers. I don’t recall it. But my most vivid memory…perhaps the most vivid of my childhood…was looking up and immediately locking on to my dad jumping out of his seat in the dugout and waving both arms in the air when I showed the ball was in the mitt. Game over…but the memory will never die.—

My mom and dad watched Tigers games through the last-season like they did every year. Sadly shortened to 58 games for Detroit by the pandemic. Mostly they’d watched the replay the following morning because they didn’t stay up late enough to watch it live. COVID also prevented me a final trip up to see him last summer which is a disappointment that’ll always linger. However, it’s nice to know one thing my mom would tell me…nearly every time the Tigers would win a game my dad would look at my mom and say “Jon will be happy”. He was right.

—I don’t know if it was just luck my eyes locked onto my dad’s reaction to my catch or if it was just a natural inclination to seek out the people who mean the most to you. Either way, it’s emblazoned into my brain long after anyone cared about 12-year old making a possibly lucky catch and Williams Parts & Supply beating Lake Linden, 7-6. It’s a pretty good memory.—

Hopefully, you’re a Tigers fan reading this and you have similar stories about your mom or dad. More importantly, I hope there is still time for everyone to go to a game together with your parents or your kids and create more memories or simply rehash all the old ones. It’s what baseball and my dad gave to me and I know the game has to countless others.

The man may have died but his memory won’t fade away soon. I love you, dad.