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!”
There will be no conversation in my house tonight. There will be no conviviality. There will be only conflict…and deathly stares, possibly combined with smug looks of superiority. The husband and wife will set in separate chairs, watching the same hockey game, but seeing it quite differently. The husband calls it “the Rangers game.” The wife calls it “the Red Wings game.” The husband, I, am from New York. The New York Rangers of the 1960s and 70s spent the season in furnished apartments in the sprawling apartment complex in Queens where I lived. It exists today. It’s called Glen Oaks Village. The Rangers were part of my childhood. Boom Boom Geoffrion lived next door to my aunt and uncle and slammed the walls, screaming bad words in French when he returned to the apartment after a loss. Andy Bathgate swung his kids on the swings in the playground of our grade school, P.S. 186. We ran into the Rangers in the Silver Moon diner, and if we paid a buck, we could watch them practice at Skateland, a mile away. Rod Gilbert and Jean Ratelle and Reggie Fleming and Vic Hatfield waited for us afterwards and signed autographs. Ed Giacomin would put a cigar in the mouth hole of his goalie mask and dare his teammates to shoot it out. For $1.50 and our high school ID card we could get tickets to see the Rangers in the old Madison Square Garden. We lived for Marv Alpert to yell “Shot! Score!” The Rangers were life.
But life took me away from the Rangers when my wife and I moved across the country to Tucson, Arizona in 1978. The Coyotes were years from howling in Phoenix or Glendale, or wherever they are now. The only hockey was a pathetic minor league team called the Tucson Rustlers. We lost track of the NHL.
When I was hired by CNN in late 1981 I was excited to move to Atlanta, only to find out the Flames flamed out and moved to Calgary.
In 1989 I was transferred to Detroit to take over the bureau and we were reunited with the NHL. I could lustily root for the Rangers again when they invaded Joe Louis Arena. But over the past 26 years I’ve also become a loyal Red Wings fan and even attended a Red Wings fantasy camp playing alongside Chris Osgood and Hall of Famer Ted Lindsay.
How can you root for both the Red Wings and the Rangers? When does the team loyalty statute of limitations run out. How long do you have to be away from your hometown before you can’t root for your hometown team anymore?
I contend you never have to stop. Yes, I’m also a Yankees fan, but when the Tigers faced the Yanks in the playoffs a couple of years ago, I decided it was the Tigers turn to win my loyalty in hopes our town would see its first World Series victory since 1984. Another Yankee fan called me a traitor and said I could never go back. But it got me thinking about letting go. I’ve now lived in Detroit longer than I’ve lived anywhere. Must I give up my childhood loyalties in favor of teams representing the town where I’ve spent the most time? I don’t think so. I have specific reasons for rooting for my teams. I wish Detroit’s teams the best of luck. The teams that represent my adopted city. But I remain loyal to the teams that represent the first time I attended Yankee Stadium with my dad and brother, saw Roger Maris hit two of his 61 homers in ’61, attended my first NFL game with my brother and saw Joe Namath as the last man between the opponent and end zone take him down, even on gimpy knees. I remain loyal to the team that exposed me to Walt Frazier and Willis Reed even though they are, today, a pathetic shadow of past glory.
It’s OK. We will be sportsman and sports lady like watching the hockey game tonight. I will cheer if the Rangers score…but quietly smile when the Red Wings do too. My wife won’t say a word…unless of course, the Rangers get smoked. Then we’ll have a problem.