Bill Freehan was my idol. When I was a kid, his posters and baseball cards, news clippings and photos were Scotch taped to my bedroom wall. I even remember having a dream about meeting the famous Detroit Tiger. It didn’t come true until years later when he was a coach for U-M and I was an Ann Arbor News photographer.
I wanted to be just like Bill and grow up to become a Tigers catcher. That dream died early on though, when I realized I was actually afraid of the ball.
Freehan reportedly is suffering from Alzheimer’s these days. It’s too bad for many different reasons. Not the least of which is his former team’s current pennant and World Series run. Hopefully he can sit by the television and watch the games. There are many things to be gleaned from the beautiful sport, even if your recollection is failing.
The former catcher isn’t alone in his easy chair. Tiger fans here, where our economy is benched, have a great distraction this year. Whether we fans are dealing with unemployment or medical issues, (or both), watching and looking forward to game after game has given us joy.
Yes, it’s only a game and in the grand scheme it doesn’t really mean anything, but that doesn’t truly explain why so many of us argue about Brandon Inge or love Victor Martinez. Sure, Verlander and Cabrera are super stars, but so are many others on the team. Brilliant fielding by Austin Jackson, hysterical dances by Jose Valverde, career seasons by Avila and Peralta, the list goes on.
The distraction from the everyday and the thrill of watching peak athletic performances gives us a boost and something to do with our unexpected free time. Detroit needs teams like the Tigers, (and Lions and Red Wings and the Wolverines and Spartans). Now, perhaps more than any time since 1968 when our baseball team began to patch things up for the city from the horrendous summer the year before.
I’m sure my wife doesn’t get, exactly, why I spend so much of my time following our Tigers. But my brother and cousin do, as we text each other back and forth during critical games. I won’t go so far as to say it’s a guy thing, since I know many rabid female fans. It’s great fun to hear reports of my youngest, Taylor, talking to the boys at high school about who her favorite player is and the boys’ eyes widening at the thought of a cute girl meeting manager Jim Leyland a few years back.
The playoffs start on Friday and hopefully our team will waltz all the way to the World Series. For many of us armchair Tigers who didn’t have the talent, or were scared of the baseball, this is an inspiring time. We can see vague representatives of ourselves out there on the diamond, making spectacular plays and putting the city in the WIN column.
The feeling is reciprocal. When the Tigers clinched their playoff berth, Leyland broke down on camera describing what the fans have meant to the team. He also realizes what the team means to the city.
Yes, putting our eggs, (and hopes and fears), in one basket is a bit childish, particularly when that basket is one interwoven with entertainment and money and a “boy’s game.” But it’s a lot of fun. We can wear our T-shirts or jerseys and feel like we’re part of something bigger. Two guys sporting old English Ds on their hats can nod at each other while walking into a bagel shop and that anonymous camaraderie means something.
And just like in 2006, when my Ukrainian-born/Israel-raised buddy wrote after Magglio Ordonez’s amazing home run, “Holy crap, even I’m a fan now,” the game at it’s best brings people together.
Detroit needs that. The world needs that. But let’s hope the stinkin’ Yankees don’t get there first!
(As a historical footnote, important to no one except me, in Freehan’s book Behind The Mask he says he never understood autographs. Shaking a hero’s hand was far more impressive, he wrote. When I was assigned to photograph him and introduced myself at an Ann Arbor practice, he went to shake my hand but pulled back instantly because his was covered in pine tar. I was so, so close! But at least I fulfilled a dream I had as a young boy. Even if we wasn’t buying me a Ball Park Frank at Tiger Stadium.)