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?