A powerful memoir of fathers, sons, and the end of a baseball era.
- St. Martin's Press
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Game 1: Monday, April 12
Eighty-seven years earlier on a Saturday in April 1912, days after the Titanic sank, the Detroit ball club played its first game on this diamond. It was called Navin Field and it was about half the size then, jammed with more than 24,300 fans. Cleveland's "Shoeless Joe" Jackson scored the inaugural run and Ty Cobb responded a half inning later by stealing home. The Tigers won 6-5 in eleven innings, christening a field that over the decades has hosted all the greats. Ruth and Gehrig. DiMaggio and Williams. Mantle, Mays, and Aaron. Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens. Boston's Fenway Park opened the same day. They are America's oldest ballparks.
It was that year on a Tuesday in July when Theodore Stankiewicz, a twenty-six-year-old welder, married Anna Tuchewicz at St. Hyacinth Church in Detroit, beginning a union that would produce ten children and a thousand stories. Teddy, as pals called him, had fled Poland after being drafted into the German army. He followed his two brothers, who at six foot five stood nearly a foot taller. We know little about his life in Europe, except that he grew up on a farm and lost his father early. Anna, Teddy's bride, was eighteen. She worked in a cigar factory and like her younger siblings lived with her parents, a stern Catholic couple from Europe. Nine months after the wedding, they began their family. First Clem was born, then Edward, Theodore, and Irene. While expecting her fifth baby in early 1920, Anna took ill and lost her eyesight. She spent months in bed, watched over by her sisters and mother, saying rosaries and praying to Saint Anne to save her child, telling God that while she might not be worthy of His mercy, the baby should be spared. For Anna, every joy and every tragedy found its roots in her faith. In March when the child was born, her sight returned. She pronounced both as miracles and bestowed upon her son, my father, the most sacred name she could imagine, Joseph Marion.
Generations of Detroiters have watched baseball at Michigan and Trumbull Avenues. My grandfather cheered Cobb and "Wahoo" Sam Crawford. As a teen in the 1930s my dad packed peanuts beneath the bleachers for a chance to behold the G-Men: Gehringer, Greenberg, and Goslin. Later he took me to see Kaline. Now I take my sons and they have their own favorites. The tradition is not unique to us.
Game time is a good hour away when Bobby Higginson strides to the bench after batting practice, his unsmiling lips framed by a tight goatee.
"Hand this to him," he says, pointing the barrel of his black baseball bat at an unsuspecting boy two rows back. Higginson, an intense right fielder prone to outbursts, slides the cracked bat over the glossy roof of the Tiger dugout. He pauses, watching that it gets to Mickey Bozymowski, and disappears down the steps into the clubhouse.
The boy holds the bat like a sacred sword. He caresses its neck, sticky with pine tar, and looks up to his dad, who says, "Oh man!" Michael Bozymowski has been a baseball fan since the 1960s. "Oh man!" he says. "I don't believe this."
The team's most popular player has anointed Michael Bozymowski's son, at the home opener no less. Does Higginson realize that he has etched a moment into one family's history -- that in sixty years Mickey Bozymowski will be recalling this day for his grandchildren? Mickey's dad knows it. He grins, shakes his head, and lets his eyes drift over the grass field.
"I just had to be here," he says.
Nearby, Alan Trammell, the former shortstop and first-year batting coach, gives autographs at the edge of the dugout and a knot of fans tightens toward him. In 1978 as I was finishing high school, Trammell was beginning his first full season. He and Lou Whitaker were the Golddust Twins. On this Monday in spring, with his shades perched on the bill of his ball cap, he looks younger than forty-one. He is trim, and boyish in the face. The acne scars of his youth have smoothed.
"You the man, Al," someone shouts.
Trammell signs a baseball and politely excuses himself. "I've got to go to work now," he says, as if he needs to explain.
The park is a circus of sound. The click of ball meeting bat echoes from the batting cage. The Jumbotron screen over center field blares highlights of last year's Sammy Sosa-Mark McGwire home-run race.
"Ice-cold beer," yells an unpracticed vendor, the words strange on his tongue. "Wash down the pretzels. Wash down that popcorn. Ice-cold beer."
Few are buying yet. The veteran, Art Witkosky, knows this. He resembles a white-haired Johnny Cash and the only thing he is selling at this moment is himself. Witkosky hoists a bag of buns above his head, posing for the press. Though he's been hawking hot dogs since Nixon's presidency, Witkosky never tires of opening day.
Above home plate in the WJR radio booth, Hall of Famer Ernie Harwell prepares for his broadcast. Harwell is one of my boyhood idols, a fatherly figure I listened to in bed in the dark on late summer evenings, with the Tigers playing on the West Coast and the signal coming in clear on the transistor radio and the crickets chirping outside my window. I imagine him a considerate man and I hope to meet him. Callously fired years earlier, Harwell, eighty-one, has returned to do play-by-play, his fortieth Detroit season. In a Greek sailor's cap and tan overcoat, he settles into the open-air booth behind fencing that protects him from foul balls, lest he meet the fate of H. G. Salsinger, the late sportswriter who took a blinding ball to the face in 1954 and never returned to the park.
Today Harwell's unhurried voice, hinting at his Georgia childhood, floats from the radio, slow and sweet and sincere as a mother's praise.
"Baseball greetings, everybody, from The Corner. It'll be the last time we say that on an opening day. This is a great occasion and the weatherman has blessed us with some good weather. It is sunny. It's not warm; it's cool. But it's sunny and we are very thankful for that."
Wind snaps the American League team pennants that line the roof of the stadium like flags atop a castle. Tiger Stadium is a double-deck fortress, the only major-league park encircled by two levels of stands. From almost all seats you can see nothing outside the park, no landmarks, no buildings, no cars. Just the sky, the seagulls, and several planes circling above trailing banners that read, Think Ford First, Ron's Body Shop and Suspension, and Deja Vu's Totally Nude Showgirls. The park embraces you.
In the upper deck along the right-field foul line, it is cold in the shade, colder than the announced game-time temperature of 47 degrees. Fans with ski hats and winter gloves struggle to get warm. A woman trudges up the narrow chipped steps in a fuzzy feline costume and my dad gives her a second look.
He sits to my right so I can talk into his hearing aid. He's got eyeglasses as big as flight goggles. Somehow you can see the kid in him.
"Never been up here before," he says.
Dad has been coming to games since the 1920s when his father bought tickets with the extra change he earned brewing coffee during lunch breaks at the Chrysler plant. In Poland Theodore Stankiewicz had never heard of baseball. In America he worshiped it, spending more time at ball fields than in the eastside Catholic churches where his children were baptized. When he arrived in America, the Tigers played at Bennett Park, named for Charlie Bennett, a star catcher who lost his legs in a streetcar accident. Bennett Park came down in 1911, replaced by the larger Navin Field, to accommodate the burgeoning city of immigrants and the demand to see Ty Cobb, the American League's top hitter and fiercest competitor. The park expanded several times, doubling in size by 1938 and taking the name of new owner Walter Briggs.
It was Briggs Stadium when Harold "Prince Hal" Newhouser made it to the big leagues after his senior year in high school. Newhouser lived in the city and starred on local teams. Before he became a pro he had pitched for Roose-Vanker, the American Legion state champions. My dad batted against him in a single game that has become part of family legend.
Two years ago Dad, my brother, and I came for the retirement of Newhouser's uniform number, 16. On the drive down Dad said he felt like a boy. Then he paused, stared off through the tinted car window and exhaled with a subtle, satisfying "hmmm."
"Sometimes when I'm shaving, I don't recognize myself in the mirror," he said. "I see an old man."
For the ceremony Dad stood by the dugout, camera in hand. When Newhouser, in poor health, stepped onto the field, Dad edged closer to the diamond. I think he hoped that his former adversary would spot him in the crowd of thousands and recognize him as the wily second baseman who sixty years earlier had spoiled his sandlot no-hitter with two bloop hits that rolled into the crowd for ground-rule doubles. Weeks earlier, before the ceremony, Dad had sent him a letter recalling their encounter. Who could expect Newhouser to remember? He had gone on to face some of baseball's best hitters. He had gone on to pitch in All-Star games and the World Series. He had even been the American League's Most Valuable Player -- twice.
But before that, when he was a fast-throwing phenom, he had had to face my dad and my dad had gotten the better of him. Grandpa Stankiewicz watched that scrub game with a cigar in his hand and two in his shirt pocket. He took pride in his son's hits.
"You swung on a line, Joe," he said.
Newhouser died last November. (He never did answer Dad's letter.) His number hangs on the facing of the third deck and whenever I look at it I think of my father.
In the bleachers awash in sunshine, shirtless young men punch beach balls into the breeze. Occasionally one drifts onto the field, halting the scoreless game between Willie Blair and Minnesota's Eric Milton. Some shutouts arise from precise control, an overpowering fastball, or a nice mix of pitches; others result from lousy hitting. That's the case today and there is no worse scenario for an opener. The stands are packed with partygoers who hunger for celebration, not baseball. They'd be as happy at a demolition derby if there was beer. And I resent them for it because this should be a solemn, respectful time, not an excuse to get drunk.
A well-endowed woman flutters the bottom of her blouse, baiting the men who sit nearby. The fans to her right cheer. She looks to her left and swirls her arms into the air. The hoots and applause grow again. Inspired, she frolics into the aisle and fulfills her promise, hoisting her top over her jiggling head. Her admirers boo as police escort her from the park. One tosses a roll of toilet paper over the guardrail. It unfurls, a white, three-ply ribbon.
In the late innings several college-age men leap the outfield fences and dart onto the field, easily evading the middle-aged security guards who take care not to flop before a sellout crowd of over 47,000. One intruder trips near the Budweiser sign in left-center. Another slides bare-chested and headfirst into second base.
Everyone wants to be a star.
If this were a movie, Bobby Higginson would be at the plate with another black bat and Mickey Bozymowski would be big-eyed and hopeful. Instead it's Damion Easley, the second baseman, who finds himself where every ballplaying kid dreams of glory: bottom of the ninth, two out, the winning run on third, and the count at three balls, two strikes. Easley is poised to be the hero. The fans can feel it. They rise from their seats, their cheers building to thunder. But the not-so-mighty Easley strikes out.
Relief pitcher Todd Jones, with his bleached-blond goatee, enters in the tenth inning. He has on Al Kaline's Wilson A-2000 glove, the same glove Kaline used in 1974, his final season. "I just think something of his needs to be on that field," Jones said earlier. He pitches flawlessly. His successor, though, surrenders a twelfth-inning home run and the Tigers lose their sixth straight following a dismal start on the road.
"Tough loss," says Dad, as if I were a kid again who needed consoling.
On some level, I do. But not about the game.
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