Oct. 28, 2012, pre-game:
Tonight, for Game Four, I am holding the Kaline Ball.
Saturday night I held the Ernie Harwell/Alan Trammell ball for Game Three. Didn’t work. Despite keeping it right in front of me the whole way, and with a roomfull of friends all decked out in Tiger regalia, my team went down 2-0 to the suddenly stupendous San Francisco Giants. Just as suddenly, the World Series shrank down to one game, a loss in which would relegate this one to Tigers infamy.
A sweep? Inconceivable! Not my Tigers. Clearly, stronger stuff is needed to bring the mojo back to Detroit and the hits back to Tiger bats.
It’s time for the Kaline Ball.
The Hall of Famer signed the ball in a reunion day for the 1968 World Champion Tigers that was held some years back at Tiger Stadium. My Dad and I lined up for the autographs of Al and other Tigers from that team, including John Hiller, Jon Warden and Daryl Patterson.
When I told Patterson his team had created great memories for me that summer, he cracked, “You probably remember more of it than I do.” The ’68 Tigers were well-known for partying.
Patterson’s signature shares the slightly scruffed Little League ball with several other scrawly autographs. But Al Kaline’s name clearly owns the ball, elegantly occupying its own space between the seams, just as he occupied right field like no other player of his time, fielding flies and firing bullets with the grace of Fred Astaire.
The ’68 Tigers were my team, the guys I’d grown up with, scored games for, imagined myself as in backyard games of whiffle ball. I collected their cards for 5 cents a pack. Willie Horton, Norm Cash, Mickey Stanley, Mickey Lolich, Denny McLain: I can still recite their season stats with greater accuracy than I can recall what I ate yesterday.
Those Tigers occupy the same place in my heart as the Tigers of 1935 did for my Dad. The players of that incredible team loom in my mind like legendary ghosts: Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, Mickey Cochrane, Schoolboy Rowe, Tommy Bridges. Dad saw them win Detroit’s first World Series, and talked of them often as we watched the ’68 team beat the Cardinals.
Here we are 77 years later, in a world unimaginable to a 14-year-old boy winging the Detroit Free Press onto porches from his bike. I don’t really understand the changes any better than Dad did. But I am grateful that the old English D on the Tiger uniforms remains, occupying its own space on the pristine white jersey.
Do I believe holding the Kaline Ball will make a difference tonight? It’s not a question of belief. It’s just what baseball fans do. When Armando Galarraga was on his way to his shoulda-been perfect game in June 2010, I did not move from my position in the recliner for the final two innings. Didn’t even take my chin off my hand. How could I take the chance?
So here we go: the National Anthem is being sung with soulful wails. The players hold their hats over their hearts. The game is about to begin, in ridiculously cold weather in Comerica Park.
No team has ever come back to win a World Series from a 3-0 deficit. But certainly no World Series game has ever been watched by this fan holding a ball signed by Al Kaline.
Anything can happen. It’s baseball, after all.
Postscript, Monday, Oct. 29 (the bleak morning after): Kaline Ball not enough. But I held it anyway, finding comfort in its perfect, familiar solidity. It felt like history, a great game, memories of my Dad. That was enough, until next year.