Closing ceremony brought a lineup of stars back to Tiger Stadium

Mark Fidrych and Bill Freehan lead the queue of former Tigers preparing to take the field for the final game ceremony at Tiger Stadium, on September 27, 1999.

After a dismal decade in which the Tigers piled up losing seasons and made plans to abandon their historic ballpark, the franchise absolutely stuck the landing with the closing ceremony after the final game at Tiger Stadium on September 27, 1999.

That ceremony was 18 years ago and it served as a template for subsequent closing ceremonies at other ballparks. The Tigers may not have handled their exit from the ballpark gracefully, but they nailed the final game and ceremony. The memories from that night will live on forever.

The highlight was a procession of 66 Tiger greats, spanning the 1935 world champions to the current team. Each player emerged from under the bleachers and behind the flag pole in center field and took their position on the diamond. I remember watching from my dorm room couch; it felt like the series finale to my childhood. It was a fitting curtain call for some of the greatest players ever to call Michigan and Trumbull home.

Leading off was the inimitable Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, who assumed his familiar pose at the pitcher’s mound, crouching down and massaging the dirt with his hands. But this time he pulled out a baggie from his pocket and filled it with dirt as a souvenir. The tall, gangly mop-topped Fidrych still looked like the tall, gangly mop-topped pitcher who had captivated baseball back in 1976. The immensely popular Bird was a perfect leadoff man for the closing ceremonies. 

Next out of the tunnel was Bill Freehan, sporting a nifty goatee. A Michigan native, Freehan was the Tigers’ field general behind the plate for 15 seasons and the heart and soul of the 1968 championship team.

Dave Bergman emerged, looking like he could still come in for a clutch pinch hit, maybe a heroic game-winner like the legendary walkoff home run against the Blue Jays in 1984 on Monday Night Baseball.

Dick McAuliffe was next; he hit into only two double plays the entire 1967 season; unfortunately one of them came in the bottom of the ninth to end the Tigers’ season and their playoff chances. Tom Brookens was a gritty infielder with a great glove who was a mainstay throughout the 1980s.

Dick Tracewski was a backup infielder on the 1968 champions, then a coach on the Tigers for over 20 years, including manager Sparky Anderson’s entire tenure. (Anderson was recuperating after surgery in California but addressed the crowd by video on the large center field scoreboard.) Larry Herndon was next, jogging his long, lean legs to his post in left field, where he caught the championship-winning out off the bat of Tony Gwynn in 1984.

Mickey Stanley ran out looking as if he could still play the game. The gifted fielder validated manager Mayo Smith’s gamble to move him from the outfield to shortstop for the 1968 World Series. Dan Petry, the understated and underrated number two starter on the 1984 champs, tipped his cap to the crowd and strode onto the field.

Harry Eisenstat, 83, jogged slowly but surely to the mound. Hank Greenberg took Eisenstat, his only Jewish teammate, under his wing when he joined the Tigers in 1938. In a July doubleheader that year, Eisenstat got both wins in relief and Greenberg hit two home runs.

John Hiller was the only link from the 1968 world champions to the Sparky Anderson era, pitching until 1980. Hiller miraculously returned from suffering a heart attack in 1971 to set the American League record for saves in 1973.

Steve Gromek was best known for a photo taken with Larry Doby after they won the 1948 World Series with Cleveland, but the Hamtramck native finished his career with the Tigers. Detroit native Billy Pierce was on the Tigers roster for the 1945 World Series but did not make any appearances (he did pitch in the Fall Classic for the White Sox in 1959).

Frank Tanana got a warm ovation, 12 years after his epic complete game shutout here against the Blue Jays gave the Tigers an improbable division crown on the final day of the season.

Mickey Lolich bounded toward the mound, waving to the crowd with both hands. Overshadowed by Denny McLain in 1968, Lolich gave one of the best World Series pitching performances of all time, with three complete game wins, to give the title to the Tigers.

Willie Horton grew up down 12th Street and came to the ballpark often as a kid. As he took the field one last time he was overcome by emotion, his eyes filling with tears. Jim Northrup, the “Silver Fox,” hit a grand slam in Game Six and a two-run triple in Game Seven of the 1968 World Series. There was Mike Henneman, at the time the Tigers’ franchise leader in saves, and a steady presence in the bullpen in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Earl Wilson was a solid starter and one of the best hitting pitchers ever. Billy Rogell was the starting shortstop on the 1935 world champions, then served for decades on the Detroit City Council after his playing days. Jimmy Outlaw was the starting third basemen in the 1945 World Series; he started the season in left field but moved when Hank Greenberg returned from the war.

George Kell, riding in a golf cart, got a cheer from the crowd—a few of whom may have remembered him as a Hall of Fame player, but most came to know him as the Tigers’ longtime play-by-play television announcer.

Virgil “Fire” Trucks strode in slowly. He went 6-19 in 1952 but threw two no-hitters that year, one at Tiger (then Briggs) Stadium. Jake Wood led the majors in triples his rookie season on the 101-win 1961 Tigers. Wood was the first black player to emerge from the Tigers farm system and become a regular starter, signaling the team’s sorry history of stubborn segregation was finally over.

Jim Bunning, a rookie U.S. Senator, was back in uniform. He threw a no-hitter for the Tigers, and then, after a trade the Tigers might have wanted back, threw a perfect game with the Phillies. In 1953, Billy Hoeft became the ninth major league pitcher to throw an “immaculate inning,” striking out the side on nine pitches.  

Brad Ausmus was one of three players on the 1999 roster to appear in the postgame lineup. Ausmus was a co-captain and the Tigers’ only representative at the All-Star Game that year at Fenway Park. Whatever happened to that guy?

The submarine-throwing pitcher Elden Auker was the other member of the 1935 world champions at the ceremony, with Rogell. Each of them threw out a first pitch and Auker addressed the crowd afterwards.

Ron LeFlore, the stellar baserunner discovered by Billy Martin in a Michigan prison, was immortalized in a TV movie in 1978. After the ceremony he was arrested on charges of failing to pay child support.

Steve Kemp and Jason Thompson were power hitters who helped put the spark back in the Tigers offense in the late 1970s. Darrell Evans, Dave Rozema, and Milt Wilcox were key contributors in 1984. Lance Parrish had one of his best seasons that year, while Jack Morris merely had a great decade. Each of them received rousing ovations from teh standing-room only crowd. 

Charlie Maxwell was called “Paw Paw” for his hometown and “Sunday Charlie” for his best day of the week back in the 1950s. The popular Gates Brown was one of the great pinch hitters of all time. John Wockenfuss was a fan favorite for 10 seasons; it’s too bad he couldn’t have been here for the 1984 title but he did return an MVP in Willie Hernandez in a last-minute spring training trade that year.   

The smiling Chet Lemon graced center field for over a decade at Tiger Stadium, while Aurelio Rodriguez did the same in the infield for nearly as long with his powerful throwing arm. Willie Hernandez had a meteoric 1984 followed by a forgettable denouement in Detroit, but now enjoyed an appreciative cheer in a more fitting final appearance.

Late in the ceremony, Kirk Gibson entered, both hands raised, mirroring the pose he famously struck after crossing home plate in Game Five of the World Series in 1984 after crushing a Goose Gossage pitch. The famous “Big Daddy,” Cecil Fielder launched plenty of home runs of his own from Tiger Stadium and one out of it. No Tiger has hit more than 50 dingers in a season since.

Everyone in attendance was wondering who would be the final player to emerge onto the sacred field. Al Kaline, Mr. Tiger, would have been a great grand finale to this procession, if not for …. Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell, closing it out by taking the field—together, of course. The great double play combo stepped on second base together, shook hands, and doffed their caps to the crowd. There were few dry eyes in the crowd.

Watch the Final Ceremony at Tiger Stadium from September 27, 1999:

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About Nathan Bierma

Nathan Bierma is a freelance writer, web designer, and educational technologist living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is on Twitter at @nbierma.