I don’t leave games early. Ever. And you better believe I’m not going to start now. Not after Saturday. The Detroit Tigers were down by seven runs at one point and pulled off a 9-8 comeback win against the Chicago White Sox, complete with a rain delay, a three-run ninth and a walk-off home run by Miguel Cabrera. Beautiful. There’s no other way to describe it.
Okay, so it was ugly early on. So ugly, I even turned the channel for a minute. No, I wasn’t actually at Saturday’s game. Which is a good thing, because I would have been tempted to break my own rule. Maybe I would have left in the fifth, when the Tigers were losing 8-1. If not the fifth, then maybe by the rain delay in the bottom of the eighth, when they were still down by three. But to be perfectly honest, I know I wouldn’t have left.
I don’t say this with pride. I’ve annoyed my fair share of friends who have had to stick it out at the worst of games. Two-hour rain delays. Ten-degree college football games. Scores such as 52-10. But I can’t help it. I can’t leave. Because of something that happened when I was a kid.
Tiger Stadium. July 20, 1985. It was just my dad and I that night. And that was rare.
It was a spur of the moment decision to go to the game. I don’t remember all of the circumstances, but my mom and sisters were not part of the equation. And it felt as if we were getting away with something. We’d gone early to get a burger at Nemo’s, something Dad did only when he went with “the guys.” I felt as if I had finally made it into the club.
Bottom of the eighth. Tigers down by one. Runner on first. One out. A guy named Alejandro Sanchez stepped up to the plate. The rest of the lineup that night read like a who’s who of recent Tigers history — Kirk Gibson, Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammel and Chet Lemon. Jack Morris on the mound. But Alejandro Sanchez? He’d come to the team late and missed out on the magical 1984 season. To be honest, I don’t really remember much about him, except for this one pivotal at bat. He hit a home run — one of only six he would hit that season — to put the Tigers up by one.
I will never forget him.
After the high-fives all around, I sat back down, smiling. That’s when my dad turned to me and said something I will never forget: “Let’s go.”
It was as if I had opened only one birthday present and someone had said, “Let’s save the rest of these for next year.” Being with my dad at the game was the best. Leaving hadn’t even occurred to me. Seeing my complete lack of enthusiasm, he explained, “We’ll beat the traffic.”
How could I argue with that?
This year, two of the games I have attended have gone into the ninth inning with better than a touchdown lead by the opposing team. And both games, I stayed. The first was vs. the New York Mets, and, had I left, I would have missed history. Tigers utilityman Don Kelly came on to pitch in the ninth. He’d never pitched in his major-league career. You would have thought it was the World Series the way we — the remaining 5,000 or so fans — cheered. I wouldn’t have missed that for anything.
Less than a week later, we were playing the San Francisco Giants and the game was only three innings old when they stopped for the rain. Two hours and 25,000 fewer fans later, they picked up right where they left off. The Giants would score 15 runs that night, but I don’t remember any of them. No, what I remember is — yep, you guessed it — Don Kelly. He was called on to catch the remaining six innings of the game — the first time he’d caught in the majors. And that night, he became the only active player to have played every position. Again, not for the world.
But that night with my dad so many years ago, we headed out of the park with a few like-minded fans and made our way toward the car. That’s when the trouble began.
Dad hadn’t thought about the car.
In the lot.
Blocked in, the way they used to do.
By everyone who had stayed at the game.
When we got to the car, he surveyed the lot for an exit. No dice. He laughed, so I laughed, not quite knowing what was so funny. We got in, turned on the game and listened to Ernie Harwell make the call as Texas tied it in the top of the ninth.
With the windows down, we could hear the crowd at the ballpark. Taunting us.
Again, my dad laughed. This time, I didn’t.
The game would go 15 innings, with my dad and me listening to the last hour and a half from our car in a lot on Trumbull.
“We’re never going to be able to leave a game early again, are we?” he said.
I couldn’t look at him. I just shook my head.
Not long after that fateful Tigers game in 1985, my dad took me to a cold, midwinter Michigan-Purdue football game. He had two season tickets, but I wasn’t usually the person who got to go. Early in the third quarter, it was a blowout, with Michigan up by something like 40 points. My dad turned to me as the sleet rolled down my glasses and asked a question he already knew the answer to: “We’re not leaving, are we?”
We stayed until the bitter, freezing, miserable, wonderful end.
As for the Tigers, we probably won’t see sleet at the games in September.
But October … well, that’s a possibility.
We’re getting close.
These are exciting times for Detroit baseball.
You might want to stick around until the end.