Bill Freehan died Thursday. It wasn’t sudden. He suffered from dementia for several years. Bill Freehan was a champion–the starting catcher on the World Champion 1968 Detroit Tigers. I was just a kid growing up in New York in ’68. A damn Yankee fan, but I was a real happy kid when I opened my pack of Topps baseball cards and Bill Freehan’s big, beefy body filled the one hiding just under the stick of stale bubblegum. Man, he was a great backstop and I had a special affinity for them. Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, John Roseboro, Jerry Grote and Bill Freehan.
Maybe it’s because I’m a lefty and there are no lefty catchers because you need to be able to snap the ball over to first for a pitchout. In the Little League they stuck me in the outfield. When I volunteered to catch, the manager usually sneered, “Sitdown! You’re a damn lefty!”
But catchers were in every play. They ran the show. The great catchers were burly and tough and stuck their bodies between the plate and a guy barreling in from third to lay on the tag and watch the runner skulk off to the dugout when the umpire called them out.
Bill Freehan was like that and I admired him for not only being a catcher, but a great one. Yeah…even when he prevented a Yankee from scoring.
Who knew many years later as a reporter for CNN I’d have a chance to grab a brief moment with Freehan. It was the day the final game would be played at glorious Tiger Stadium. Oh, a bunch of ex-Tigers were there before the game to reminisce about their time at the old ballpark and how much it meant to them.
Damn! There was Bill Freehan shaking hands, hugging his old teammate Suddenly this wonderful player whom I only knew from his trading card and watching his All-Star performances on TV or in the stands was standing right in front of me. When I approached with our camera crew, would he put the body on me and sneer and act all catcher-y?
See for yourself. He comes in around 35 seconds in. This version is before it aired so the identifying supers aren’t there. You’ll hear Bill Freehan very briefly as the real person he was–kind, reflective, respectful. A righty catcher, giving this lefty a memorable moment. Lucky guy…you got to be a catcher. Lucky us. We got to watch.
There’s a line in the Beatles song “Strawberry Fields” that states “nothing is real.” No kidding. The latest blow to tangibility is the move by the Detroit Tigers and many other sports teams and event venues to eliminate real tickets in favor of “mobile tickets.” That, of course, means in order to get in the door or through the gate you have to flash a virtual ticket on your smartphone. If you don’t have a smartphone, one, your kids will laugh at you, and two, you’re probably not being rude at dinner by checking your text messages. Oh, three, you can call a number at the box office to reserve your seats, then have to schlep to a ticket window at the venue to have a paper ticket printed out. So convenient.
Me? I like real tickets. Not because I’m a technical Luddite. I just like ticket stubs. I have tons of them and they all mean something to me.
These Yankee Stadium ticket stubs from the 1960’s remind me of great afternoons with my dad and brother making the trek from our home in Queens up to the Bronx. Mickey Mantle played in every one of those games and we enjoyed multiple “dirty water hot dogs” at each one too. The stub on the right were awesome box seats right near the Yankees dugout.
We lived closer to Shea Stadium where the Mets played and went to plenty of games there too. What I always liked about the Met’’s ticket stubs was the sad face of their mascot Mr. Met with his umbrella on the rain check.
Another Shea Stadium stub was for a concert on July 9, 1971 with Humble Pie and Grand Funk Railroad. Rain was threatening to cancel the show with the rain date the 10th. That would have been a problem, because that was the date of my brother’s wedding and I really liked both rock bands. Lucky for all, the rain held off.
I love the ticket stubs for what New Yorkers call the “old” Madison Square Garden. That’s the one before the current, or “new” Madison Square Garden. With our high school ID card we could get in the old barn for Knicks or Rangers games for $1.50-$2.50.
When the “new” Garden opened in ’68, my family had great seats to see the Rangers vs. the Montreal Canadiens. The seats were green.
A couple of weeks before Woodstock my friends and I had the good fortune to land tickets to the famous Fillmore East, where impresario Bill Graham came out on the stage and introduced a new band from San Francisco “making their first east coast appearance.” Santana blew the doors off the place and the weed-whacked crowd demanded several encores. Just think. They were the third-billed of three acts. Three Dog Night was number two with Canned Heat headlining. Those tickets set us each back a fat $3.50–not bad for both a brilliant show and decent contact buzz!
There are so many more, like this one from Resorts International in Atlantic City where my wife, my parents and I saw Rodney Dangerfield melt down when he got no respect from a heckler. They traded f-bombs as the crowd joined the fun and Rodney walked off telling us all to screw ourselves. Instant memory.
My wife and I went to grad school at the University of Arizona the first year the old Pac 8 conference expanded to 10 to include both the UA and Arizona State. All of a sudden we were in the big time. Near the end of our time there, the Arizona Wildcats beat mighty USC and UCLA in successive games..and our stubs prove we were there for both of them.
Another memorable stub from our grad school days was when the Arizona Wildcats faced the California Golden Bears. Quarterback for Cal was John Elway. You can see we got our money’s worth. Not only did we see a future Hall of Famer, we got in for free.
Sure, there were stubs from a Broadway show, Bob Dylan, Chicago and Eagles concerts,
the Grand Ole Opry and the old Schaefer Music Festival concerts in Central Park. Ah..the Schaefer shows. Thousands of buzzed music fans gathering in a converted outdoor skating rink. The two stubs you see here represent a couple of the times my old school buddy and I met after work from our summer jobs in Manhattan. One was to see J. Geils Band, the other was a total surprise. It was supposed to be The Byrds, but then canceled for some reason and a very wasted, but brilliant, George Carlin stepped in. I think we made out pretty well.
I have many, many more, but you get the idea. You may remember events you attended by gaining admittance via ephemeral mobile tickets. If you put your mind to it. But here’s the big difference. You can say you were there. I can prove it.
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!”
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?