This first appeared online at Cezzane’s Carrot, in 2006.
September 1968: The Yankees are in town for a weekend series, it’s late in the game and the Tigers are comfortably ahead with Denny McLain on the mound. The Tigers are destined to win the World Series next month. McLain will win 31 games, a Major League record, but Mickey Lolich will win the Series MVP award.
Old Tiger Stadium in Detroit, before they tore her down
I’m eleven years old and sitting alongside my dad behind first base at old Tiger Stadium—at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull in Detroit—when Mickey Mantle steps up to the plate.
Beyond the twilight of his career, he’s in that crepuscular place reserved for athletes who have overstayed their welcome in a game in which, at some point, experience no longer counts. He’s lost his timing, along with much of his grace, and he routinely swings wildly and misses pitches that, a few years earlier, he would have sent into orbit.
McLain looks in to Jim Price for the sign. He shakes off the first, as well as the second. Then he leans back, steps off the rubber, and holds up the ball for Mantle to see, seeming to ask Mickey where he’d like the pitch. The crowd, which has grown complacent with the home team’s lead, senses something is up. Mantle gamely swings his bat—arcing gracefully through his wheelhouse—to indicate where McLain should leave the ball for him. McLain nods, goes into his wind-up… and bloops the ball right where Mickey wants it, and Mickey fouls off the pitch.
McLain looks at Mantle as if to ask, “What do you want from me?”
McLain lobs the next pitch in the same place and Mantle launches the ball into the right-field bleachers. The crowd erupts.
Mantle has certainly hit longer and more important home runs, but the crowd perhaps has seen the writing on the wall, although they may not yet have read the text: this is Mantle’s final appearance at Tiger Stadium, and the home run will count as the next-to-last round-tripper in his, if not long, then illustrious career. Mantle will retire from baseball the following spring.
I’m retired myself now, Mantle has been long dead, succumbing to a bad liver nearly three years before my dad died, in 1998, and the Tigers have been playing in Comerica Park for thirty years, having abandoned Tiger Stadium at the end of the 1999 season. Several times over the years, the City of Detroit nearly tore down this landmark where the likes of Cobb, Gehringer, and Kaline all played, before finally renovating the old structure to allow minor league baseball to be played on its hallowed ground.
I’m standing on the pitcher’s mound at Tiger Stadium; it’s taken me seventy-four years to make this dream come true. I’m not clad in traditional baseball garb, nor am I grasping a baseball by its seams. I glance down at the plastic bag in my right hand. As the early June light wanes, my mind flashes back to 1998, to just a few days after Dad passed away, to a ringing telephone.
“Michael, it’s your sister.”
“I was over to the VA yesterday to fill out the paperwork for Dad’s death benefit. Did you know that as a veteran, he’s eligible for burial at Fort Custer National Cemetery near Battle Creek?”
“That’s not in line with his last wishes.”
She seemed not to have heard me. “He spent half his life in the Marine Corps; they’ll have a ceremony with a twenty-one-gun salute, and I think he’d be really thrilled to be buried there.”
“Will they take Mom, too?” I asked. Mom preceded Dad by eleven months. Having an aversion to being stared at in a coffin, she insisted on cremation. Dad, diagnosed with terminal cancer a few weeks before Mom passed away, also expressed a desire for cremation, telling my sister and me to expense the cost out of the estate after his death and purchase a niche in the mausoleum at St. Hedwig Cemetery. While we waited for Dad to pass, I kept Mom’s remains, in an urn, at my place.
“Well, yes, they’ll take Mom, too, but honestly, I can’t in good conscience inter her at a military facility. I don’t think she’d want that.” She seemed certain she knew what Mom and Dad both wanted, despite the fact that, to my knowledge, Mom never expressed a wish to be laid apart from her husband, and Dad overtly expressed his last wish to be interred with his wife.
“So what will you do with her remains?” I asked.
“I’m having her interred with Grandma and Grandpa at White Chapel.”
“I see.” What I saw was my sister making a yearly sojourn to White Chapel to visit Mom and our grandparents, and afterward, girlfriends in tow, making a day of it having lunch and shopping at Somerset Mall.
I wondered why she wanted me to accede to this change of venue. As executor, she was free to do as she pleased; then it hit me: If anyone in the family questioned her decision to part Mom and Dad, she could say, “My brother and I decided…”
“What do you, say?” she said. “Dad spent half his life as a Marine—”
“First,” I said, “Dad spent eight years in the Marines and was married forty-three years to Mom. Eight years is but a tenth of his life; forty-three years, by my reckoning, is more than half.”
“Second, he expressed his wishes to be laid to rest at St. Hedwig along with Mom.” I was angry, but I wasn’t sure why.
“Well,” said the voice in my ear, “I’d hoped to have your consent in this, but as executor, I really don’t need it.”
“No, I suppose you don’t.” I hung up.
For the remainder of the day, I wrestled over what to do. Did it matter any longer to Dad, or Mom, where they were laid to rest? They certainly must be beyond caring, and hopefully, in death, they had reconciled their many differences.
In my youth, when I needed him most, Dad had been absent, and so we hadn’t been close my whole life, until that final year, after Mom had gone, when he needed me most. Was I really championing Dad’s last wishes, or merely arguing against my sister, tired of her having her own way? What did it matter to my sister, who was close to neither of our parents? Perhaps she chose to blame Dad for our mother’s illness. Eighteen years battling Parkinson’s. Had it been genetic or brought on by depression, the result of her husband’s oppression and a failure to achieve any of her own dreams?
The next morning I awoke with a start, as well as a solution. My sister had her own aversion—she couldn’t stand the thought of having the remains of our parents in her home. I had held onto Mom’s urn until Dad passed away, then picked up his urn from the funeral home and kept them both at my place. After his memorial service, my sister would take custody, interring Mom at White Chapel, Dad at Fort Custer.
The solution was simple: I opened both urns and combined their contents in a much larger bag, then returned to each urn half the contents of the bag.
The plastic bag in my right hand as I stand atop the pitcher’s mound contains a small portion of both my mother’s and father’s remains, which I kept in a small nondescript container after I sent their urns off with my sister more than thirty years ago. I never told her, and she went to her grave a few years ago, happy that she’d succeeded in granting Mom the divorce she never received while alive. Now, with my own days growing short, I wonder if I did right—both assuring that Mom and Dad rest together, albeit at two different cemeteries, and not telling my sister what I’d done.
Dad loved Mom, of that I’m certain. He showed it as best he could, taking care of her during her long illness; but perhaps he feared love, or the risk associated with it. Through his example, I, too, learned to fear intimacy. An excuse, for lessons learned can be unlearned. We make our choices, are responsible for our own happiness.
“I’m sorry, Dad,” I whisper into the growing darkness at Tiger Stadium, “for laying so much blame on you for so long.”
During his final year of life, I asked him if he had any regrets. He laughed cynically and said, “Many. Every man does.” He said it as if he took comfort in being part of the crowd, which was strange. A devotee of Gary Cooper and John Wayne, Dad had always prided himself as a loner. I couldn’t know then anymore than I do now whether I was one of his regrets—through my birth, that I didn’t follow in his footsteps by joining the Marine Corps, or that he failed in being more nurturing to me when I was a boy.
The sun dips behind the grandstands that line the third-base line, and I feel a chill, more the result of poor circulation than an atypical late spring evening. I set the plastic bag down on the pitcher’s rubber, reach into my breast pocket for an Onyx Vintage ’97—I purchased a box back in ’99 and kept just this one, waiting for a special occasion. I guess this moment qualifies.
I inhale the fragrance of the wrapper, hold it a moment, exhale, clip its end, light it, and take a long, satisfying drag. I let the smoke warm the back of my palate, and a moment later I exhaust it with a long sigh. I discovered the pleasure of cigar smoking two years too late. I’m convinced that this custom is something Dad and I could’ve enjoyed together. I envision us sharing a smoke on a Saturday afternoon over a couple of glasses of bourbon or scotch as we listen to Ernie Harwell call a Tigers game.
Baseball was my first love. As a kid, I dreamed of roaming right field, as Al Kaline had during his illustrious career, making spectacular catches to the delight of the cheering home crowd, of hitting the ball all over the field, of setting records, and of winning the World Series.
But it never happened. None of it.
I never discovered if I had the arm to play right field, or if I’d be able to hit Major League pitching. Both Mom and Dad had discouraged me, fearing I’d get hurt, advising me that Major League Baseball was for only a privileged few, and that I was sure to fail. Despite Dad’s adage that there is no failure in failing, only failure in failing to try, I learned to avoid risk. Today I’m a more tightly wound imbroglio of indecision than I ever was in youth.
I look over to the grandstand behind the first-base dugout. Somewhere in that sea of blue are the two seats from which Dad and I watched, nearly sixty-three years ago, Denny McLain serve up the pitch that Mickey Mantle deposited into the right-field seats. I pick up the plastic bag and whisper, “Did you remember that day, Dad? I wanted to ask you, during those final few days at hospice, whether you remembered, but I feared that you’d forgotten what was for me such a memorable event.”
I’m startled by the sound of Dad’s snort, no doubt heard through the passage of time, for it certainly had not come from the plastic bag.
“He should be fined, maybe even suspended,” Dad tells the eleven-year-old boy I once was.
“Why?” I ask with all the innocence of youth.
“He’s paid to get Yankees out,” he tells me angrily; in my youthful naiveté I’m not certain his anger isn’t directed at me for asking such a silly question. “He’s paid to get opposing players out, not serve up pitches for them to drive out of the park.”
I realized, years later, after Mantle died, that Dad had known more about Mantle’s off-the-field behavior and drinking habits than I did when I was eleven, and that perhaps played a part in his reaction that long-ago afternoon.
I sigh and look toward home plate, where the likes of Lance Parish, Bill Freehan, and Mickey Cochrane once caught baseballs for Jack Morris, Denny McLain, and Elden Auker (the latter long before I was born).
I slowly turn to look toward third base, where Hall-of-Famer George Kell once played, setting a Major League record, in 1950, for fewest errors committed by a third baseman in a season, which stood for twenty-four years; to left field, where Willie Horton played, uniting a city torn apart by race riots in 1967; to shortstop, where Alan Trammell paired with Lou Whitaker as one of the premier keystone combinations for more than fifteen years, highlighted by a 1984 World Championship and that incredible 35-5 start; beyond second base toward center field, where Cobb, the most famous Tiger and the greatest ballplayer of all time, once roamed (I read a biography that described him as relentless, sliding into any base, spikes up, and climbing into the stands behind the dugout to brawl with fans, retiring to manage for a time before fading away, dying friendless, having turned even his own children against him); to right field where Kaline, my boyhood idol, played for twenty years; finally, to first base, where, in 1934 on Yom Kippur, Hammerin’ Hank Greenburg chose not to play, prompting Edgar Guest to write in the Detroit Free Press:
We shall miss him on the field
and we shall miss him at the bat
But he’s true to his religion
and I honor him for that!
First base, where Stormin’ Norman Cash played. A member of those World Series Champions of ’68, Cash would die tragically several years after retiring, falling off a pier in northern Michigan while drunk, to drown.
It’s nearly dark; no lights will be turned on for this night game. I take a long, last drag on my Onyx Vintage, wondering how it could’ve burned down so quickly, and cast it away.
I look around this grand old place that even in silence boasts of so much history—from the first game played in 1912, just five days after the sinking of the Titanic, to Babe Ruth’s seven-hundredth round tripper on July 13, 1934; to Reggie Jackson’s rooftop shot to right field during the 1971 All-Star Game, and others that left the park altogether; to six World Series Championships…
I step onto the rubber and, facing center field, turn the plastic bag upside down to empty its contents onto the back third of the mound.
I recall another ballgame Dad and I attended, this one in 1976, in which Mark Fidrych pitched. Fidrych was affectionately dubbed The Bird for his Big Bird-like hair and mound antics, which included talking to the baseball between pitches and getting down on his hands and knees to manicure the dirt between innings. I smile at the memory and, with effort and a grunt—a sound I often playfully chastised Dad for making when getting up from his La-Z-Boy (he took my sport with grace, no doubt fully aware of what lay in store for me)—get down on my hands and knees to blend the ashes with the dirt.
A few moments later, I struggle, gasping, to my feet, greeted by the familiar dizziness that comes to one taking meds to control high blood pressure.
Regrets. I have my fair share of them: lost loves, missed opportunities, and unfulfilled dreams. But this isn’t one of them. Not today. And not thirty years ago. Tiger Stadium is Tiger Stadium, no matter that Major League Baseball is no longer played here. Somehow it seems fitting that I lay to rest the remains of Mom and Dad here: Dad for passing on to me, if not his love, then his love for the game; and Mom for understanding, if too late, the importance of dreams.
I slow-turn my way around the pitcher’s mound one last time, taking in the majesty of this grand old ballpark—“Tiger Stadium,” I hear Ernie Harwell say in his unforgettable southern drawl. I wave to an imaginary crowd, imagine them cheering my performance tonight, then step off the mound and hobble toward the dugout.