FS Detroit staff remembers Tiger Stadium

AN ENCOUNTER WITH ERNIE

By Dave Hogg


For me, there are two sets of Tiger Stadium memories — one as a kid and one as a sportswriter.

The first set starts as far back as I can remember, listening to Ernie Harwell and Paul Carey announce the games on WJR every summer night.

Even though I grew up in Oakland County, the only major league baseball I saw before my 10th birthday were three games at Riverfront Stadium. My family always went to Cincinnati for a weekend every summer, spent a day at Kings Island and another day seeing the Reds play. It was fun — we were watching Sparky’s “Big Red Machine” — but it was an ugly stadium with fake grass.

Finally, in August 1979, I got to see the real thing — Tiger Stadium. We had seats in the lower deck in right field, so every flyball disappeared from sight, but the grass was green and the hot dogs were the best thing I’ve ever tasted. I don’t remember much about the game itself, other than Willie Horton hitting two homers, including a grand slam. Unfortunately, he did that for the Mariners. That seemed like a betrayal to me, but I was only 10 at the time.

(Thanks to Baseball-Reference.com, I can fill in the blanks. The Mariners beat the Tigers 8-4. Mike Parrott pitched a complete game for Seattle, beating Dan Petry. Champ Summers hit two homers for the Tigers, and Jason Thompson hit one.)

Over the next decade, we probably went to a dozen more games at Tiger Stadium, and we went to games all over the Midwest and East Coast on summer vacations. There was never any question as to which stadium was the best. The corner of Michigan and Trumbull was baseball in a way that buildings in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Montreal, Minnesota and other cities could never match.

In 1990, my relationship with Tiger Stadium abruptly changed. Thanks to The Associated Press’ sports editor in Detroit, Harry Atkins, I went from covering Oakland University basketball to the NBA. On April 28, I got a new assignment and found myself going into Tiger Stadium’s media entrance for the first time. Unlike my first game in Cincinnati and my first in Detroit, this time I was interviewing Sparky Anderson instead of peering at him from the cheap seats. That was a thrill but paled compared to what came next.

After leaving the Tigers’ clubhouse, I made my way to the media lunchroom. I got some food and found an empty table over in the corner. I recognized some of the writers from their pictures in the paper, but I decided that I’d just stay out of everyone’s way for my first game.

Two people made that impossible. As I was eating and hoping I remembered the directions to the press box, a gruff voice asked me if I was the new guy from AP. I looked up to see Bo Schembechler. Remember when Bo was the president of the Tigers? If not, don’t feel bad. It’s a period that everyone should probably forget.

Anyway, Bo introduced himself and wished me luck. I was a bit stunned — I’d spent a lot of New Year’s Days cheering for Bo to finally win a Rose Bowl — but I thanked him and then tried to finish my dinner before anything else happened. It didn’t work. About a minute later, someone pulled out one of the seats at my little table and asked if they could join me.

In the past 22 years, I’ve interviewed a lot of famous people without blinking an eye. They haven’t always been happy with my questions, but that’s part of my job. In 1990, as a 20-year-old covering his first baseball game, I wasn’t quite as cool.

I’m pretty sure I stammered out something, and the gentleman sat down. He then reached out his hand and said the most meaningless four words ever uttered:

“Hi, I’m Ernie Harwell.”

Well, yes. I had recognized the voice. After all, in my 20 years on Earth, I’d probably heard him more often than anyone other than my dad. I know I introduced myself to him. I think I made some small talk, but I don’t remember anything other than the feeling of “Oh, my gosh, I’m having dinner with Ernie Harwell.”

It’s now 2012, and I’m writing this in the Ernie Harwell Media Center at Comerica Park. Sparky’s retired number is on the bricks on right-center field. Even Willie Horton, whom I have now forgiven, was in the press box before the game.

Tiger Stadium is now a poorly maintained baseball diamond in a field with a flagpole, but the memories it provided for millions of people remain. On behalf of all of them, happy 100th birthday.

THE FINAL THANK-YOU

By Art Regner

For me, I’ll always remember seeing the field for the first time, walking up the ramp to my seat, anticipating not only the game but the green of the old ballpark. (When I was a kid, it was green — before it was blue and orange.)

With each step, the field started coming into view, until I was standing at the top of the ramp with the usher asking me for my ticket.  He always had to ask me a few times because I was soaking up the splendor of Tiger Stadium. Once I saw that panoramic view, it took my breath away. It was beautiful.

Whether I was sitting in the lower deck or upper deck or the bleachers, it didn’t matter — Tiger Stadium just looked cool.

But like many things you love, your most memorable moment is bittersweet, if not downright sad, because it’s your last memory.

Tiger Stadium’s final game was a fitting tribute to the grand old ballpark. All the former Tigers players coming back home to pay final homage to their field — the last hit ever in the stadium, Robert Fick’s grand slam in the bottom of the eighth inning, the constant buzz in the crowd, an 8-2 Tigers victory.

It was a special day that, deep down, you wished would never end.

Once the last out was made and the closing ceremony had concluded, it was tough to leave.  I was with my radio partner at the time, Terry Foster, and we just hung around in the press box until the stadium had emptied out.  It took a while because so many fans lingered for a final picture, a final glance, a final memory. 

Finally, we took the rickety, old elevator down to the field level and started to leave. But before we did, Terry and I looked at each other, and he said, “Let’s go look at the field one last time.”

We walked up a ramp and sat in a couple of seats that were halfway between the visitor’s dugout and the visitor’s bullpen. Tiger Stadium was pretty much empty except for a few TV crews shooting their reports.  The lights were still on, and a few of the grounds-crew members were prepping the field for a game that would never be played.

After several silent minutes, Terry tapped me on the shoulder and motioned it was time to leave. We were headed to the Lindell AC for a burger and a few toasts to honor our dear friend.

As we were leaving, I turned around to get one last look at Tiger Stadium. And then it hit me. Memories flashed so rapidly in my mind that it was staggering.

It seemed I recalled every game I ever attended at Tiger Stadium. Games with my grandfather, father, sister, niece and dozens of friends and relatives. Games where the weather was too hot, too cold, too snowy or too rainy. Games as a child, a teenager and an adult.

It was a weird and fantastic rush.

Terry was all the way down the ramp while I continued to mind trip. He called out to me, “Earth to Dr. Regner. It’s time to go.”

I started down the ramp, but I had to turn around for one final look. I gave a salute to the old ballpark and said, “Thank you.” 

I couldn’t say goodbye.

A NOLAN RYAN NO-HITTER

By Dave Dye


Like many baseball fans, I feel as if I have a lifetime of memories from Michigan and Trumbull.

The goose-bump curtain calls for Mark “The Bird” Fidrych during his magical 1976 season remain unforgettable. Empty ballpark the day before he pitched, Game 7 World Series atmosphere the day he pitched, empty ballpark the day after he pitched.

The home run that Cecil Fielder hit over the LEFT-field roof on Aug. 25, 1990, off Oakland’s Dave Stewart isn’t far behind. Only three players hit one over that 94-foot-high roof in Tiger Stadium history. Fielder was the only Tiger. The other two were Minnesota’s Harmon Killebrew and Washington’s Frank Howard.

I’ll also never forget the standing ovation Tigers fans gave Darrell Evans the first time he came to bat a day after he had been the goat in a playoff loss by committing two errors and getting picked off third base. It was an emotional, eye-watering moment that showed the true class of the Detroit sports fan.

Two of the ballpark’s greatest characters — Gus the Hot Dog Vendor and Herbie Redmond, the dancing, cap-tipping groundskeeper — also stand out among the endless Tiger Stadium memories.

But at the top of my list actually was the day the Tigers got no-hit by California Angels flame-throwing right-hander Nolan Ryan on July 15, 1973.

It was a Sunday afternoon. I was 12 years old, living in Ann Arbor.

In those days, if my family was going to a Tigers game, it was always planned out well in advance. But we got up that morning, finished a bunch of yard work and decided at the very last minute to go to the game.

This was the second of Ryan’s major league-record seven no-hitters. Under the circumstances, it felt like I was meant to be there to witness history.

Nearly two decades later, toward the end of his career, I got the opportunity to interview the soon-to-be Hall of Famer.

He was with the Texas Rangers by that point. I was a reporter for the Detroit News, sent to Chicago to do a couple of different stories, including one on Ryan.

I went into the Rangers’ clubhouse after a game and set up an interview with the living legend for the following day. I was to meet him in the visitors’ dugout at the new Comiskey Park at a certain time before batting practice. When I got there, Ryan was being interviewed by Jerome Holtzman, a veteran baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune.

I sat nearby, awaiting my turn. But their interview lasted quite a while. I got worried that I might be out of luck. I expected Ryan to say he didn’t have any more time. I’d seen that happen before. He didn’t know me. I was just another sportswriter to him.

But as soon as he finished with Holtzman, Ryan immediately walked over to me and apologized. I expected I would have to go up and introduce myself to him again, but he had remembered me and was saying he was sorry for not being available at the exact time we had set up. It was easily the classiest moment I had ever experienced with a professional athlete.

Ryan went on to give me a great interview, explaining how the “circle change,” not the fastball, was the biggest reason for the success late in his career.

Meeting the man, finding out how incredibly polite and gracious he is, made the memory of seeing that no-hitter when I was just a kid seem that much more special.


ACCOLADES FROM SWEET LOU

By Michael J. Happy


My favorite sports figures ever are Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell.

No need to explain why for avid Tigers fans.

For the others, Lou and Tramm were terrific ballplayers and, to the best
of my knowledge, gentle human beings off the field during their lengthy
tenure in Detroit.

My first-born son is named after the longtime Tigers double-play combo.
Louis Alan Happy was born on Dec. 15, 1998 — six years after a date at
Tiger Stadium with my future wife.

Shannon and I weren’t even engaged at the time. We had met just a few
months earlier at Towson University in Maryland and we’re paying a
summer visit to my family in Michigan. Of course, I had to take her to
my favorite hometown stop, Tiger Stadium, during
our stay.

It must have been early June, middle of the week, a night game. As we
watched Tramm and Lou turn yet another double play, I told Shannon about
my man crush on them, how I wanted to have a son named Louis Alan one
day.

I’m not sure what she was thinking at the time. She simply smiled and said, “That’s nice.”

It was nice of her to agree to the name years later — after the
courtship, engagement, wedding, move back to Michigan and, finally, months
of waiting to know if it was a boy or a girl.

Now that you know how much I admire Lou and Tramm, here’s my top Tiger Stadium moment:

It happened on May 22, 1995, my 31st birthday. My dad took me to an
afternoon game, Tigers-Mariners, at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull
to celebrate. We had upper-deck box seats on the porch in right field
and arrived hours early to watch Tigers batting
practice.

Slight of build, still boyish face, Tigers ballcap turned backward on my
head, I probably looked like a teenager to the group of Tigers players,
including Whitaker, on the warning track below.

Don’t recall who hit it, but one of the Tigers launched a long ball
toward us, and I could tell it wouldn’t quite reach the seats. I extended
my left arm over the rail, twisted my glove hand to the right and
snatched the ball in the pocket of my Wilson Ron Cey
mitt just before it hit the facing of the upper deck.

As I reeled my catch all the way in, Whitaker looked up at me and shouted, “Nice catch, kid!”

Indeed it was — made even better by one of my sports idols acknowledging it.

By the way, Louis Alan Happy, at the tender age of 21 months, attended
his first baseball game during the final weekend at Tiger Stadium and
tasted French fries for the first time in the food court on Michigan
Avenue before the game — another lasting memory.