By Ken DeLaat
I gotta tell you I really miss baseball. Particularly the Tigers.
While a follower of other sports, to tell you the truth I can take or leave pro hoops if the Pistons aren’t contenders (meaning I pay attention about every other decade) and hockey has never translated to TV for me.
Football is always fun but I don’t really miss it a lot. Golf is an activity not a sport and pro soccer continues to be the next big sport in the US and will seemingly always be.
But baseball? Man, I really miss the game. I’ve caught a few of the South Korean league games that come on at 5:30 am most days and it fulfills a need as well as proving to be pretty entertaining what with cheerleaders and the fans and vendors made out of cardboard or something as well as the announcers banter from a booth here in the states. I haven’t really picked a team to root for nor do I really care who wins, but just seeing the game played gives a tickle to the jones I feel as summer begins in earnest.
But I profoundly miss the Tigers.
I’ve tucked it away with a little anticipation for what will be a short season run to the playoffs which might prove kind of fun if the players and owners can agree.
But I’m not counting on anything for now.
This past week I saw that Claudell Washington, a ballplayer of some note in the 70’s and 80’s, had passed and it brought back one of my favorite baseball memories.
It was 1976 and the enigmatic pitcher Mark Fidrych known simply as ‘The Bird’ was making another dreadful Tiger season bearable by excelling on the mound.
His antics on the field, his down to earth presence and ability to simply win games endeared him to Tiger fans and he packed the stands while other games played in the old barn at Michigan and Trumbull that year usually resulted in a sea of empty seats.
Washington was playing for Oakland in ‘76 and they came to town to face the Tigers. The A’s were in a pennant race after a string of 5 playoff appearances including a trio of World Championships.
The Tigers? They were trying to avoid the cellar.
The Bird was tossing a gem against the visitors. As he mowed through the lineup he faced Washington and with an 0-2 count he brushed him off the plate with a hard inside pitch.
Washington dropped his bat and took a step toward the mound. That’s when 50,000-plus people screamed their intent to do him great bodily harm should he dare go after their golden boy.
Washington looked around before wisely holding up a hand and picking up his bat.
For the next decade and a half every time he came to bat in Detroit he was booed heavily. The Bird was soon out of the game having been pushed into throwing way too many innings and way too many games for that young arm.
But that made no difference when it came to Claudell.
He moved on to the White Sox. Played with Texas, even escaped for several years to the National League where he could avoid the trips to Detroit but the Tiger fans are baseball purists with memories like elephants and they never forgot.
They booed him from that day in ‘76 until his final years with the Yankees and Angels in a career that ended in 1990.
That’s part of why I love the game. Knowledgeable, loyal and fun fans with always a nod to legend, lore and history.
So now Claudell, like Fidrych before him, has passed on.
But the baseball memories linger as they do among aficionados of the game. Mention The Bird to a Tiger fan my age and it will bring a smile of recognition.
And most will also remember Washington.
But likely not with a smile.
“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”-Jacques Barzun
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