I boarded the idling bus just as the autumnal dusk began its irrevocable turn towards the dark of the October night.
It was no longer day; but not yet evening. One of those perfect in-between moments that defy definition. An instant like so many others — except I suddenly recognized a guy sitting across the aisle with his wife, maybe two or three rows back on the far side. And I was delighted to see him.
He had a kind of odd look on his face, as if he were tired, maybe even exhausted. I’ve heard the term a “thin smile,” and I’m not precisely sure what it describes. But I have the sense this look would qualify. It was a subtle, self-satisfied expression. And he had good reason, that early October evening, to feel proud, and to be sporting a smile of terrific proportion. In fact he had every right to sport a broad and beaming grin. Because at that moment on the bus, exhausted thin smile and all … he was the most famous and highly regarded person in the metro Detroit area. Beloved, even.
I crossed the aisle, extended my hand, and tried my best not to sound like a babbling fool. “I just have to tell you,” I began awkwardly, “that that was the most impressive single performance I’ve ever seen in sports. I’m here because I work for the newspaper, for the Free Press, but I want to thank you, on my own, for doing what you did for us,” I said, surely sounding like a babbling fool.
Newspapermen are supposed to be, by someone’s unwritten standards, neutral and impassive observers of the public events they are hired to witness. I hear that sportswriters pretty much adhere to such rules — no cheering in the press box. But what the hell, I was a city desk reporter, not a baseball writer, and more than that — I was a Detroiter. I had suffered through the Detroit Tigers teams of the 1950s. I had agonized through the letdown of 1961, when a Tigers team won 101 games during the season but sat on their collective butts at home, in front of their TVs, when the postseason came. And let’s not even mention the 1967 season. That wasn’t sports, that was brutality fed to us in 162 awful portions. 1967, the year that the devil himself took time off to serve as the Commissioner of Major League Baseball and Mayor of Detroit.
When I was a kid, my grandfather had told me about the World Series losses of 1907, ‘08, and ‘09. But he passed in late March of 1968, and how it pained me that he had narrowly missed this magic moment. My dad had given me the grim details of the humiliation heaped on our city by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1934.
So there was no way that I was not going to take the unique and, well, holy opportunity to personally thank Michael Stephen Lolich for personally (and as near single-handedly as could ever be achieved in that revered team sport) throttling that same St. Louis contingent and leading us to the great Promised Land — Super Bowl Schtuper Bowl, then and now — of American sporting competition.
I thought, of course, of Mickey Lolich and that long-ago night of October 10, 1968, when the Tigers clinched a 2011 post-season appearance, a soul-refreshing accomplishment felt across our city.
I had been sent that night to meet the Tigers’ plane when it landed in Detroit after dispatching the Cardinals on their home field, with special instructions to find Lolich. What he achieved in that Series was the stuff of legend, an accomplishment of near-miraculous proportion. Think of it:
—In that seven-game World Series, the Tigers were embarrassed in the First Game in St. Louis. But Lolich pitched and won the Second Game, even hitting a home run in the process, the only four-bagger of his long career.
—The Tigers lost Games 3 and 4 here in Detroit, amid baseball’s most beautiful setting, in a disastrous weekend debacle. Facing a humiliating home-field elimination, they won Game 5 here when Lolich pitched, and won, the greatest baseball game I’ve ever witnessed. He even added a clutch hit as he led the Tigers nail-biting 5-3 comeback.
—Returning to St. Louis for what many baseball experts expected to be a Cardinal coronation, the Tiger hitters exploded to win Game 6 in a walkover; and then in one of the great showdowns of modern baseball history, Lolich — impassively staring right through those Cardinal hitters — pitched and won Game 7 over St. Louis ace Bob Gibson … on only two days rest. His third complete game victory … in seven days.
And the city went bonkers. That, of course, is another story. Just as my experience of boarding (and then hiding in the rear of) the Tigers bus for a chaotic three hour ride downtown is best left to a later telling.
I just wished to point out here that the Tigers once DID have a hero named Mickey Lolich, and when the chips were down he proved himself the greatest clutch performer in the team’s 110-year history. And that one of the great events of my life was having the opportunity to tell him, on behalf of my grandfather and my father, and every kid in this town who ever cherished his Tigers baseball cards … on the very day of our triumph … what his amazing heroics meant to us, and to our sense of local community.
Let us hope that there’s a lightning-charged version of Mickey Lolich lurking somewhere on the present Tigers bus. Let us forever remember what the Mick achieved for all of us when the glaring spotlight of a sporting world shone brightly onto and reflected sharply off the olde English “D.” And remember this, please, about that same Mickey Lolich:
When I babbled to him as I did, like a fool, thanking him for redressing hurts he never witnessed on behalf of people he mostly never knew … he looked me squarely in the eye, making me feel, hours after his triumph, as if I had just been the first to congratulate him. And he said “Thank you so much for saying that. You have no idea how much that means to me.”
Swear to God. He said it just as sincerely it sounds. Looking up, looking right into me — thin and satisfied weary smile and all. It was one of the great moments of my newspaper days.
It was dusk, neither dark nor light. A memorable October, 1968 evening. One of the great times to be a Tigers fan, and a Detroiter.