Opening Day at Tiger Stadium I’ve never attended an opening day as a spectator, but I do have some clear memories of a couple that I was compelled to cover as a correspondent for CNN. I remember them because one involved almost being beheaded by a ball thrown by a Cleveland Indian, and the second involved mayhem at the old Cincinnati Riverfront Stadium when I covered the banning of Pete Rose from baseball.
I was sent to Tiger Stadium for their home opener in 1995, which occurred only players suspended the strike that began the previous August, wiping out the end of the season and post-season. The fans were angry and tossed beer bottles, baseballs and other debris on the field.
Suspecting the fans would be pissed, I was sent to get some comments from Tigers players before the game. I walked up to giant Cecil Fielder who mumbled some gibberish only decipherable by a code breaker. As I attempted to get the slugger to form actual words, Indians outfield Kenny Lofton decided to take advantage of my vulnerable position and whizzed a ball by my noggin’ so close I saw Sparky Anderson’s life before my eyes. Lofton’s asshole move sparked a chuckle from Fielder who then mumbled something like “igotnuthintosay.” I only know that because a drunk guy in the front row listening to my attempt at an interview was annoyed when I persisted in trying to get the beef slab to give me just ten good seconds of wisdom I could use. He shouted at me, “hesayhegotnuthintosay!” Oh.
I covered the entire arc of Pete Roses’s banning from baseball and that’s worth an entire blog post by itself. But I’ll tell you about the first opening day after Rose was bounced, replaced by Lou Pinella as Reds manager.
We get on the field before the game, which was artificial turf. Not good artificial turf. I’ve been on trampolines with less bounce. Anyway, our first target was team owner Marge Schott. She was not a nice person..banned from managing the team from 1996 to 98 for spewing garbage supporting policies by that great baseball figure Adolph Hitler. Her constant companion, aside from her bigotry, was her dog Schottzie, which she brought to the game. I both the dog and the cur in a front row box seat and I attempt to get some obnoxious comments. Schottzie decides he doesn’t like reporters, hops over the rails and takes a dump at my foot. Marge says she agrees with that comment then goes on to blab blab blab about what a good boy Pete Rose is.
My next quarry was manager Lou Pinella. It was a kick to try to talk to him since I’m a native New Yorker and a big Yankee fan and Looouuuuuuuu was a favorite when he wore pinstripes. Now he wore the scarlet letter R but I didn’t hold it against him. What I did hold against him was that he was a ton taller than I imagined and I was barely able to get the mic up to his mouth. I was glad he turned out to be a cool guy and didn’t let any animals take a crap on my crappy shoes.
And then there was reliever Rob Dibble. Can’t help it. Every time I heard his name I thought of Office Dibble on the old Top Cat cartoon show. When I ask about his feeling about Pete Rose he goes completely bonkers to the point of incoherance in his support of his former manager. Everyone picked up our soundbite which may have been ESPN’s Play of the Day that day.
In the end, between the dog shit and the bullshit our story came out just fine. However, thinking about that distant memory I’m not going to be able to resist, at least once today, hollering, “Hey Officer Dibble!”
I won’t waste time with wordy exposition. It’s time to shut down the various Halls of Fame and replace them with a concept that eliminates subjective voting and often results in unjustified snubs of worthy honorees. I’ll explain my simple and logical substitution in a moment.
The rationale is simple. All too often a player misses a shot at enshrinement for reasons totally unrelated to their performance:
*Not “flashy” enough
*Despite worthy career achievements they’re left off the ballot because the class of candidates is stacked the particular years they are eligible
*Voters/sports writers who have a particular bias against them for one reason or another.
*Despite worthy achievements the player was stuck on otherwise weak teams that didn’t win championships.
*Player spent career, or most of career in small media markets leading to less coverage and attention.
Just this year, beloved former Detroit Tigers second baseman Alan Trammell was finally granted entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but not his long-time double-play partner, second baseman Lou Whitaker who also had a stellar career. In fact, considering the popular stat Wins Above Replacement, Sweet Lou comes out ahead of Tram, 74.9 versus 70.4. Oh sure, you can twist numbers to prove your point and this is just one stat merely to show that two fairly comparable players can be treated very differently.
To go beyond sports, think about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Why in the world are the mega-selling innovators, the Moody Blues, only just being admitted to the shrine in Cleveland?
Look, everyone has their examples of egregious snubs and can make arguments one way or another for their favorites to be recognized with a plaque screwed to the wall of a hallowed hall, but its painfully, and obviously apparent the path to admission is seriously flawed.
So I toss up this jump ball for discussion. First, eliminate voting. The venues would contain constantly updated displays of arrays of, say, top 100 achievers all-time in various statistical categories and winners of honors like the MVP, Cy Young award and Rookie of the Year. Bowing to how the games have changed over the years, similar displays would be broken out into various eras in order to place certain accomplishments in a viable context. There’s no voting. The displays are simply updated. Given we’‘re in a technically advanced age, images, videos and career highlights could accompany a player’s listing.
Given the totally objective method of recognizing player’s accomplishments, it’s time to trash the “fame” part of the name. Let’s face it, many of those not admitted to halls of fame are as famous as those who are.
Instead, call these venues Halls of Recognition? Stay with me. You do something great, it’s instantly picked up by the computerized display system and added to the appropriate display. I would think visitors would be somewhat enthralled watching the displays update as the season progresses, and secure knowing the displays would not be the same upon repeat visits.
Look, I love visiting Cooperstown, Canton and Toronto. Haven’t yet been to Springfield. The museum, exhibits, videos and memorabilia are thrilling to see and only add to my enthusiasm for the sport. Who doesn’t get a kick out of seeing Babe Ruth’s giant bowling shoes or taking a photo next to the Stanley Cup? It’s all very cool. But once I walk into the Hall of Fame area of the buildings for me, the joy of the game is tempered, knowing someone who accomplished so much…giving everything to their sport, was unfairly denied the small gesture of recognition.
He sat in front of his locker with a towel on his head and took no questions. It was the man the Detroit Tigers depend upon to successfully seal the deal when they’re ahead in a game. The “closer.” Two nights in a row Francisco Rodriquez, K-Rod, did not seal the deal. He did not close the door. He made enough mistakes to allow the team the Tigers were beating to beat them instead. It made me think about this particular arrangement where we call on someone else to finish the job we started then allow them to suffer loathing, both self and external, when they can’t quite get it done.
Let’s say we’re writing a news story. I make the calls, do the research and start to write. I’m almost done but I’m outta gas. The words aren’t coming to me and my fingers are tired from typing. I could also use a stiff drink and a hot dog. No problem. I call in “the closer” who is tasked with finishing my story in such a way it not only the front page lead but is so amazing it goes viral and CNN employs a panel of 27 pundits to parse it and assigns it a dramatic theme song and spooky graphics.
But that’s not the way it goes down. The closer is fatigued from bailing out a half-dozen of my colleagues and depleting his hyperbole supply. By the time I call him into my game he’s got nothin’. He gamely takes the assignment anyway because closers never say “no” when their number comes up or they’re offered single malt Scotch. He taps and taps on the keyboard and I feel editorial victory is imminent. It’ll be my byline all over the paper and CNN will ask me to do a Skype interview with Anderson Cooper who will compliment my journalistic enterprise, and cuff links, while privately I will know it was the Closer who won the day for me. But that’s not the way it went down. The Closer falls short. Working on no day’s rest he coughs up three errors of fact and two blatant personal biases. I’m called on the carpet by the Managing Editor and ordered to personally write the corrections and an apology to the readers for allowing bias to breach the body of my story.
Damn Closer! It was his job to complete my assignment, make me look good and pave the way to that Pulitzer. He apologized profusely and promised to pull himself together for the next assignment. I just don’t know if I can trust him anymore. For now on I’ll have to pitch a complete game..from lead to nut graph to conclusion. But I can’t go on indefinitely like this. In a pique of frustration I stole the one thing that would get the newsroom’s attention and hit my colleagues the hardest. When one hapless scribe padded up to the kitchenette looking to fill his empty mug, he was greeted with Alec Baldwin’s greatest line. “Coffee is for Closers.”
In his 1961 book “Black Like Me” author John Howard Griffin recounted his firsthand experiences with being the target of racism in the Deep South, when he tinted his skin so he appeared African-American.
I thought of Griffin’s experiment and book when I stumbled into a much less high-minded and serious episode of appearing to be someone I’m not. For one night, everyone around me thought I was Canadian.
My daughter’s boyfriend is from Nova Scotia, living here now, and had never been to a night time major league baseball game. Checking the Detroit Tigers schedule a few weeks ago, I noticed that June 7th was “Canadian Tiger Fans Night,” and with one ticket package you received a voucher for a swell t-shirt proclaiming you a Canadian Tigers Fan. So of course, I bit on that faster than a Quebecker on a pan of poutine.
I noticed a difference even before I donned the shirt with a maple leaf and the Olde English D on the front and map of Canada on the back. It happened when we exchanged our vouchers for the shirts and the young man handing them out gave us a little smile similar to the one you might give someone who doesn’t speak English. I wanted to help him relax by saying, in English, “it’s ok, eh? we have t-shirts in Canada too.”
People kept stopping us asking if we were really from Canada and did we come all that way, which is comical, or pathetic, since Canada is just a mile away across the Detroit River. We were also asked to turn around so folks could see the backs of our shirts. One or two asked, earnestly, “What is that, a map of Canada, or Ontario, or…something?” Something. Eh?
It was after the game, though, when I honestly felt the pain of being on the receiving end of either xenophobia, or simply the effects of too many 10 dollar beers in a 75 IQ body. As we walked down the ramps toward the exits, a few morons started shouting at us in their worst Canadian accents, “Hey! You Canadian guys! You enjoy the game, EH? Sorry the Blue Jays lost, but no worries, EH? Did you know this wasn’t a hockey game, EH?” I knew they were idiots and probably drunk but for the first time I felt stung as a target of, if not something as serious and ugly as racism, but, as something I could only define as “differentiation.” I immediately recalled “Black Like Me,” as I looked down at my red Canadian Tigers Fan shirt, a scarlet tee, providing the faux skin disguising me as a citizen of the Provinces, and identifying me as a convenient target of stereotype and ignorance.
But this has a happy ending. One of the offenders, a kid from across the river in Windsor, Ontario, confided that he regretted missing the chance to get one of those t-shirts and herald the fact he’s a proud Canadian Tigers fan. Maybe next year. No worries. Eh?
Joe Garagiola was a mediocre baseball player but an All-Star guy. How do I know? Well, aside from reading his wonderful book “Baseball is a Funny Game” and enjoying his self-effacing humor on TV, I had one of those “lightening strikes” nights at Yankee Stadium in August of 1966.
It was what they used to call a “twi-nighter,” a nighttime double-header. The air was stagnant and sticky and somehow my friend Joey and I scored reserved mezzanine seats behind the plate in the pre-renovation Yankee Stadium. The Kansas City A’s were the opponents.
As usual, I arrived at the game very early to watch batting practice when I noticed a couple of familiar faces enjoying a cold drink and some jokes a few rows ahead and to the left of me. Once I realized who they were I grabbed my scorecard and tentatively walked up to them, fearing I’d be told to get lost and not interrupt their conversation. At they time they were the Yankees announcing team and maybe they were strategizing how they’d call the games…or maybe just two pals BSing before they got to work. At any rate my fears were quickly allayed.
The first guy whipped out a substantial pen, said “sure kid,” and scrawled his Hall of Fame name, Phil Rizzuto, “The Scooter,” the Yankees legendary shortstop. The other guy seemed kind of shy and almost surprised a kid would want him to sign too. But he grabbed my pencil, smiled and complied, adding his sprawling signature, to the page. “Enjoy the game…and thanks,” he said.
After the game, as I walked along the warning track on the way to the subway, I quickly bent down and grabbed a blade of right field grass and later Scotch taped it onto the same page as those signatures. That program remains my most important possession, not only because of the autographs and grass, but the warm memory of a couple of legends willing to share a moment and a little bit of themselves with a shy, pimply, 14-year old baseball fan. RIP Joe….and “Thanks.”