I've mentioned before, on more than one occasion, that I grew up a baseball fan, in a baseball town. But I also grew up way Up North in Michigan, which meant that I was (and still am) a devout follower of the Detroit Tigers. But in those days, in that place, it was something on the order of a five-hour drive to Detroit, so we didn't go to Tiger games very often; maybe once a year. Maybe.
In 1968, I was twelve years old. Also in 1968, my beloved Tigers had a very good team, eventually winning the World Series. The '68 Tigers were comprised of one Hall-of-Famer (Al Kaline) a few perennial, or at least occasional, All-Stars (Bill Freehan, Willie Horton, Norm Cash, Dick McAulliffe, Mickey Lolich, Earl Wilson). . . and Denny McLain.
In recent years, it has become painfully clear that Denny McLain is one of the great a**holes in the entire history of professional sports. But for 1968, Denny, the pitcher, was in a class all by himself. He won 31 games, which, even in those days, was an absurd number (from 1934 to the present day, he is the only pitcher to surpass 30 wins; just to give an idea). Every four days, all summer, Denny took the mound, allowing hardly any runs to the other team, striking out a lot of them, and almost always coming away with the win.
Everything Denny touched in 1968 turned to gold for him. Heck, I recall a game he pitched against the Baltimore Orioles, which was one of the few televised games we got Up North in those days. He had runners on first and second, with nobody out and Boog Powell at the plate (and you just have to hold a special place in your heart for a guy named 'Boog', dontcha?). Well, Mr. Powell crushed the pitch Denny sent him, sending a screaming line drive heading directly toward a spot somewhere between Denny's belly-button and. . . a bit lower than that. Reflexively, Denny coiled up, just trying to protect himself from the projectile whistling toward him, and the ball lodged in his glove. For a split second, you could practically see Denny do a double-take - "You mean, I'm not dead? Oh, look - the ball is in my glove!" Both runners had broken with the pitch, so Denny whirled and threw to second, doubling off the runner, and the shortstop threw the ball to first, beating the runner who was desperately trying to get back there. So Denny went from his life flashing before his eyes to a triple play in about a second. It was that kind of year for him.
But honestly, as incredible as his '68 season was, I didn't come here to talk about Denny McLain (about whom, the less said, the better, as a general rule)
In 1968, the one game I went to was on the night of August 21, a Wednesday, against the Chicago White Sox. I'm not sure why we'd have gone to a Wednesday night game; we almost always went to Saturday afternoon games, since that gave us the time to get to Detroit, watch a game, and get back home on more-or-less the same calendar day. I vaguely recall that my dad had some manner of business in Detroit, so he took my brother and me with him, and dropped us at Tiger Stadium while he took care of his business.
As a twelve-year-old boy, walking into a major-league stadium was almost a transcendent experience. We walked to the gate, gave the usher our tickets, and then walked up the ramp into the stadium, trying to locate our seats. Up a long concrete ramp, turn a corner, climb another ramp, and then a sign saying 'Section XYZ', with an arrow. At the top of the ramp, we emerged onto a concourse. Looking to our left, we saw it - a bright, well-lit expanse of luminescent green grass. The ball field at Tiger Stadium. It bore a superficial resemblance to the fields we played on back home, but I think the grass at Tiger Stadium that night was the purest, greenest grass I'd ever seen.
Our seats weren't great - we were in the lower deck, near the top row, on the first-base side. Which meant that we were well behind the posts - roughly every 30 feet or so - supporting the upper deck. It also meant that the upper deck hung down low in front of us, so any ball hit reasonably high in the air disappeared behind the upper-deck overhang. Then we'd follow the movements of the fielders to try to gage where the ball was headed, craning our necks and swiveling our heads to see around the posts. If the fielder moved a few feet, then settled into a spot, looking up, we knew it was an easy fly ball. If the fielder took off running, glancing over his shoulder as he ran, that meant trouble. But we didn't care - it was just great to be watching the Tigers - the first-place Tigers - play ball, in their great green cathedral.
The game itself was a fairly low-scoring affair (as were many games in '68), and frustrating to watch. Pat Dobson started for the Tigers, and pitched very well, but midway through the 8th inning, the Tigers trailed, 2-1. Then in the bottom of the 8th, Mickey Stanley hit a home run to tie the score at 2, which is where the game stood at the end of nine innings.
The White Sox didn't score in the top of the 10th, and with one out in the bottom of the 10th, the pitcher (by that time, Darryl Patterson had relieved Dobson) was due up, so Mayo Smith, the Tigers' manager, sent Jim Price up to pinch-hit (and don't you just have to wonder a little, about parents who would name their infant son 'Mayo'?).
Now, every team has its role-players - guys who aren't the big stars, but who fill an important role on the team, and make a valuable contribution, even if they aren't the 'big dogs'. And there are many more role-players than stars. Every twelve-year-old boy will generally have one or two of those 'role players' that, for whatever inscrutable reason, they take a liking to. Jim Price was one of those guys for me. Don't even ask me to explain it; he just was. Or maybe he became one that night. But I'm getting ahead of myself. . .
Anyway, Jim Price, who was nominally the Tigers' backup catcher, came into the game to pinch-hit for the pitcher in the bottom of the 10th inning, with the game tied at 2-2. And he hit the ball into the lower-deck seats in left-field. As I described above, the ball left his bat and, from my vantage-point, quickly disappeared behind the upper-deck overhang, at an angle and speed that suggested that this could be really good. Our eyes shifted to the White Sox' outfielders, and we watched as the left-fielder scurried back and back and back, onto the warning track, and then up against the fence, until all he could do was look up, and watch the ball fly over his head, a few rows into the stands, the Tigers winning the game, 3-2.
So - from way Up North, we could only go to one Tiger game a year. And that was the one game that I attended in the championship season of 1968, when I was twelve. Jim Price played in all of 64 games for the '68 Tigers, coming to bat 132 times, and hitting .174. Not that great. He hit 3 home runs in 1968, and 18 in a five-year major-league career. But one of 'em was when I was there to watch. . .
When I was in high school (I want to say it was the fall of '70), we had our annual fall sports banquet, and since I'd played football that fall, I was there. The organizers had pulled off a real coup, getting for the speaker, a beloved member of the exalted '68 Tigers - Jim Price (I guess Al Kaline had a previous engagement). . .
These days, Jim Price is the color commentator for the Tigers' radio broadcasts, so every time I have the game on the radio as I'm driving somewhere, I have Jim Price's voice to keep me company, and to remind me of that night in August of '68. . .