Monday, April 12, 2010

Motown And The Matchup That Never Was

Originally written January 8, 2010.

I remember sitting in my college apartment during Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS. It was a fairly sizable apartment, number 2N at 2060 Ridge Avenue, near the corner of Ridge and Simpson. It had three very large bedrooms at a relatively reasonable distance from campus and a relatively reasonable price considering. There was ample street parking and a lot that was free on weekends right next door, not to mention a nifty little porch in the back alley where I would sit to study when the weather was nice.

Of course in Evanston, that was about four weeks out of the school year.

There was one problem with the living room, however, in that I’m fairly certain it was, well, slanted. It drifted towards one corner, which everyone noted when they came by. That debate, typically, was reserved for more light-hearted and drunken occasions of which, being that it was my senior year of college, there were many. But the night of Game 7, the lighthearted conversation was scarce.

The Mets were playing that night. After rallying to force Game 7, tonight was the night, at long last, I would see my Mets return to the World Series. They had gone six years earlier, when I was 15 years old, but I didn’t nearly appreciate the staggering difficulty of the feat. I spent most of my teenage years watching the Yankees win titles, and assumed, finally, it was the Mets turn to make a run.

That was foolish. After seeing them drop to the dregs of multiple 90-loss seasons in the early part of the decade, 2006 was an exciting blast of fresh air. That was a year when everything – absolutely everything – went right.

And then the NLCS came against St. Louis, and the bats went cold. All of them.

But after forcing Game 7, at home, the Mets got on the board in the first inning and at that moment I was convinced that all would be right. Everything was in order. Little did I know that would be the last run the Mets would score that year. I wouldn’t realize it for a while. In the bottom of the 6th inning, Endy Chavez made the greatest defensive play in Mets franchise history, and possibly the greatest I had ever seen in my life.

With the game tied, the Cardinals Scott Rolen hammered a fly ball to left field that looked like a no-doubt two-run homer, but instead Chavez leaped over the eight-foot high wall and snow-coned the ball in his mitt, bringing the homer back and throwing out Jim Edmonds at first for an inning-ending double play.

As soon as Carlos Delgado caught the ball at first base I collapsed to the couch and simply repeated “Oh my God” to myself over and over again. That was the moment. That was it. At that moment I knew the Mets were going to the World Series. They had to. How could they not after a play like that. It was a forgone conclusion. God had preordained that the blue and orange would be playing in the fall classic, and that would be the seminal moment we told our children about decades later – the moment when Endy Chavez saved the eventual 2006 World Champion New York Mets.

It wasn’t meant to be.

New York loaded the bases in the bottom of the inning, and surely that would be when the floodgates opened, but instead, the Mets were unable to get the go-ahead run across. Yadier Molina hit a two-run homer in the top of the ninth inning, and Carlos Beltran would strike out looking with the bases loaded on a knee-breaking curveball from Adam Wainwright. That was the season. The Cardinals, not the Mets, would faced off with the Detroit Tigers in the 2006 World Series.

I had been text messaging my girlfriend to give her updates, and though she was a Yankee fan, she understood the dire circumstances. When I sent her a text saying “2007 World Series Champions” implying that next year would be the year, she responded with, “OH MY GOD! NO WAY! NO WAY!”

This was followed a few seconds later with, “Oh, I misread… sorry.”

What made this more painful was that Detroit, where Games 1 and 2 of the World Series would be played was but a five and a half hour drive from Chicago. I had already made up my mind that when the Mets got to the World Series in Detroit, I would spend what I had to to make the. But as so often happens, my best laid plans ran astray.

Fortunately for me, I got another chance to see my boys in Motown – albeit with less impressive stakes.

The New York Mets were expected once again to compete for the NL East crown in 2007, but the schedule makers did them no favors. Their interleague slate was a bizarre sampling across all three divisions of the American League, the rhyme or reason behind which I couldn’t quite figure out. But regardless, the Mets visited the Tigers in early June. Not only would this represent a rare chance to see the Amazins in a new park, it happened to be comfortably wedged between my final exams and graduation from Northwestern. With no real plans to occupy my time, the room for a day trip was ample.

So with that in mind, I waited patiently the day tickets went on sale, scooped up four for the Saturday afternoon game and plotted my moves. On June 9, 2007, I would be in Detroit, Michigan at Comerica Park.

Typically when I buy tickets from teams, I’ll have them left at will call rather than sent to my home. This reason is two-fold. Firstly, most teams have individualized ticket stubs that they print out on sight as opposed to generic “Ticket Master” stubs. Since I keep all my stubs, the more interesting the better.

Secondly, and most importantly, if I’m picking up my tickets at the stadium, I can’t lose them in the months before I actually attend the game. That’s a big one.

So with eons before the game it became an after though as I sifted through the final five months of college. The problem this brought about, however, as I sifted through my final classes and graduation arrangements, is that I forgot to find people to take the other three tickets.

Whoops.

Fortunately, Alan Allmen came to the rescue. I originally met Alan when my roommate Sam and I had he and our friend Evan use their senior class priority to net us a better dorm room sophomore year. There was the potential for a snafu, however, and Alan had made it clear he did not want to be stuck rooming with the New Jerseyan.

Yes, it would have been terrible for him.

It would all work out and Alan and I would become friends to the point that I attended his wedding the following summer. By the time my senior year had rolled near its end, Alan and his wife Rachel lived on the south side of Chicago, and Alan, a native of the Detroit suburbs, was more than willing to make the day trip. But what of the other two tickets? Zach Silka, my former compatriot in the Daily Sports office and one-time roommate had since graduated, and moved back home to Toledo. Toledo being within driving distance of Detroit and Zach fancying himself a Tigers fan, he was more than game and brought a friend to take the final ticket.

At times I couldn’t tell if Zach was a baseball fan, trouble-maker or both. This theory was brought to test near the end of my junior year, when I brought my laptop to Intro to Music on Opening Day so I could watch the Mets game online. Zach made sure to grab the seat next to me that day, but this was particularly curious considering Zach was not taking that class.

Beyond that I have two particularly strong memories of living with Zach, the first being that even though he graduated a third of the way through senior year, he left all of his furniture at the apartment so we, and our friend Abe who took his place the rest of the year, could use it. The working idea was that Zach would come back for commencement and leave with all his furniture. No fuss no muss. Of course, Silka curiously had not yet shown up yet by the morning of graduation. When I called him to find out where he was he told me that his family had actually decided not to come. This raised a question however.

“Ok, Zach,” I said. “But what about all of your furniture?”

“Oh…. Um, well, congratulations, Dave! Happy Graduation!”

I wasn’t quite sure what, exactly to do with my new presents: a coffee table, desk, dresser and a mattress, and Zach will swear to this day that he had sold the furniture to Abe and it was no longer his responsibility, but I’m fairly sure that isn’t the case. Fortunately, over the remaining few days I managed to hastily sell all of it on craigslist and pocket a few hundred dollars of walking around money.

The other, and perhaps more relevant memory that comes to mind is from October of senior year when Zach sat on the edge of our couch before screaming and collapsing to the ground after Magglio Ordonez clubbed a three-run walk-off home run off Oakland’s Huston Street in Game 4 of the 2006 ALCS, clinching Detroit’s 10th American League pennant. Zach also likes to claim he was there the last time the Tigers won the World Series in 1984. He was, in fact, not alive yet, but his mother was in attendance and pregnant with him at the time.

With all four tickets spoken for, I got behind the wheel of my 1994 Camry wagon on June 9, 2007 and headed for Alan’s apartment. Alan was one of the more dependable people I knew, and sure enough he was waiting for me on his apartment stoop when I pulled up. In he jumped and off we were for the 330-minute venture to the Motor City.

I had never been to Michigan before and was dutifully impressed with the wide array of fireworks stores at the Michigan-Indiana border along with the periodic billboards boldly proclaiming religious, pro-life or libertarian sentiments. This is not specifically endemic to Michigan. You’ll find these charming bits of local culture in any sparsely populated, rural stretch of highway.

But what you won’t always find is Culver’s. And like nearly every road trip I made across the Midwest, a stop for butterburgers and frozen custard was not optional.

Eventually, we neared Detroit and Alan gave me a brief history of the city and its landmarks, specifically the many buildings that, during the height of the auto boom came to symbolize Detroit’s grandeur and now epitomized its economic struggles. Detroit is not a bad looking city, as many of those from the area had told me. It simply looks like a place where money hasn’t been put into the infrastructure in decades, which, for the most part, is true.

But beyond that, Detroit still has a number of scenic landmarks, and a beautiful riverfront cityscape. The historic Fox Theatre is near the stadium, as are a number of parks and historic churches. Looking back on it, the city of Detroit clearly has its problems, particularly having seen the economic troubles endured by the major automobile companies in late 2008, but it is a hub of culture and character that deserves to be saved and reborn.

The people I came across were generally nice, city and what it has to offer was interesting and the antiquated architecture of some of its buildings gave it an old-timey appeal that I found heart-warming. One of those older buildings which stood at the time and has since been demolished was the original Tiger Stadium nee Navin Field. Amongst the older buildings in the Majors it did not sit far from the Tigers’ new home of Comerica Park, which replaced it in 2000.

Another older building was the one I parked in for $10 a few streets away. It clearly had been built at some time in the 1920s and I found its tight corners fascinating, which is a good thing because they were also treacherous and the fascination forced me to focus on not hitting the walls. In fact, the ramp up to the parking deck was so sharp and narrow that I’m stunned I didn’t.

With the first five-hour plus drive of the day behind us Alan and I walked up to the park to get our tickets. Comerica is a beautiful stadium and while it is similar in its appearance and intimacy inside to most of the current ball parks being built, it has one very notable, and obvious structural difference. If you can’t figure out the Tigers play here you must be extremely visually impaired, because there are statues of tigers everywhere.

EVERYWHERE.

The main entrance to the stadium has two enormous prowling tiger statues arched over the top of the gate, with six more tiger statues in other areas of the park, including the two full color statues that stand atop the centerfield scoreboard. In addition, 33 stone tiger heads surround the outside of the building with baseballs in their mouths. The ubiquity almost seems hokey, but I heartily enjoy it. A team’s home should look like its home, and Comerica Park clearly belongs to the Tigers.

We picked up our tickets at will call, left two there for Zach and headed into the building. Comerica on the inside provides all the standard niceties that you’ll find in newer stadiums. It has outfield picnic areas and varied food options, with the usual wide concourses. The most interesting part is the section beyond the outfield wall in left center that pays tribute to the team’s history.

There are enormous statues of each Tiger who has had his number retired such as Al Kaline or my personal favorite, Hank Greenberg. Greenberg’s statue is my favorite not only because of his Jewish background, but also because all the statutes are designed to give them a super-human quality, and Greenberg’s which features not one but three baseballs coming off his bat, looks particularly powerful. The only Tiger whose number isn’t retired that still gets a statue is Ty Cobb. Of course, that comes with the disclaimer that the Georgia Peach’s number isn’t retired because he has played in an era when players did not yet wear them. The only non-player to have a statue in the building is longtime Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell near the first-base side. Given that man’s dedication to the franchise, and the city of Detroit, he may be the most deserving of all of them.

The field itself is absolutely enormous. Center field stretches out to 420 feet, while left center is 370 from home plate, and that’s after the club shortened the fences following the 2002 season. My only real aesthetic problem with the stadium is that the shortened left field fence is a painfully obvious alteration to the park’s original lay out. The space behind the shortened fences was used to create new bullpens, and as well, the flag pole contained within the area is no longer in the field of play. But the wall itself looks flimsy and temporary – the only scar on an otherwise picture perfect stadium.

That afternoon was picture perfect late spring weather, and Comerica had its Sunday finest on – even if it was actually Saturday. The ivy on the fountain in dead center field gave the park a certain natural quality that is rare, even in newer buildings, and matched perhaps only by the ivy-covered walls of Wrigley Field. Comerica also features two other minor quirks, namely the strip of dirt running from home to the pitchers mound, and the home plate shaped dirt field surrounding the batter’s box.

I dig it.

We were seated near the top of the upper deck and just to the left of the left field foul pole. Despite the nonpreferential viewpoint, the sightlines are still pretty good. There is little on the field of play that I couldn’t see from one of the worst vantage points in the building. As Alan and I stood in our seats, we were joined by Zach and his friend Ryan. I hadn’t seen Zach in nearly six months and it was good to catch up with him, as I told him how the rest of senior year went and he regaled me with the wild stories of Toledo’s bar scene.

The game itself was a fairly unexciting affair because the Mets had Oliver Perez on the mound. The excitement with Perez was that his stuff was so good that any day he stepped on the mound there was a chance of him throwing a no-hitter. He was also absent-minded, lazy and unpredictable, so there was a more likely chance that you’d see him get pasted.

True to form, he served up a three-run shot to Carlos Guillen in the first inning as Detroit jumped ahead 3-1. The Tigers would eventually build an 8-3 lead, and while New York would score four runs in the seventh and eighth innings, you never got much of a feeling that Detroit wasn’t in control.

This didn’t particularly bother me. After all, if you have a great regular season you’re still going to lose roughly 60 times a year. The Mets at the time were 12 games over .500 and in first place and I never would have expected what happened that September when New York took a seven-game lead into the final 17 games before completing one of the great collapses in baseball history. But, this trip was less about the chance to pick up a win than the opportunity to see a new team, a new building, a new city and a new fan base. Of course, when I saw the Tigers fan base it was met by a sizeable Mets contingent. Something I’ve learned in years of traveling to see the Metroplitans is that they travel awfully well.

I’ve run across large crowds in orange and blue in Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Boston, Washington and Philadelphia. That this was an afternoon game made this a particularly strong group, but there was no tension, no discord. Instead, there was a jovial and conciliatory atmosphere as opposing fans cheerfully ribbed one another and laughed afterward. A man at a Mets game once told me a Mets-Red Sox game at Fenway was the most peaceful place he’d ever been because everyone was unified in their hatred of the Yankees.

This was not exactly the same, but I drew some clear parallels. After all, the Mets and Tigers almost never play each other. Why should there be any conflict?

That day, was purely about love of the game.

As I walked down the steps of the upper deck and towards the exit ramps, I was stopped by a group of middle aged fans. One who appeared to be in his mid-40s, was wearing a Mets jersey with a script “New York” on the front that they sported in the 1980s. He told me that while Mike Piazza, who was on the back of mine that day, was good, the only guy better was player on the back of his. It was Lenny Dykstra. I think I would argue that. And I'm damn sure Piazza is better at handling finances.

The eldest one of the group, who had to have been in his 60s put his arm around me and patted me on the back with joking condescension as if to say, “Don’t worry, buddy. It’ll be ok.”

“It’s alright,” I told him. “We’ll see you in October.”

And we all laughed. Because that’s what everyone was thinking.

No one in the building that day had thought the Mets and Tigers wouldn’t meet again in the World Series that year, and as a result, everyone was cheery and pleasant.

Little did we know that neither team would even make the postseason, the Tigers themselves would have a tough second half that left them eight games became the surprising Cleveland Indians. In the end both Mets and Tigers fans would have to watch on TV as their stadiums wound up empty.

Despite the final score that day, I was satisfied with another successful trip as Alan and I got back in the car, carefully pulled out of the narrow parking garage, and hit the highways for the five and a half hour ride back to Evanston.

And there was a stop at Culver’s along the way of course.

The day itself was long from end to end, and I was extremely tired by the time I got back to my apartment, but I somehow managed to go to a bar afterwards. In fact, I think I made a point to do so every night for the next two weeks.

I had to. College was almost over.

1 comment: