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Thursday, October 19, 2006
Burning love for the Tigers

By David Fleming
Page 2

My parents didn't believe in air conditioning. And no matter how much we begged or pleaded, they refused to give in to the miracle of Freon. "It's a fad," Mom insisted.

So as teenagers growing up in a suburb of Detroit during the 1980s, my three brothers and I were forced to cool our bedrooms at night with a gigantic, industrial-sized fan. The only problem with this system -- besides the fact that it actually made the house hotter while using up twice as much juice as an A.C. -- was that in the middle of the night our ratty old mutt of a dog would sprawl out, belly up, in front of the fan and by morning the entire house, and all its occupants, would smell like wet cockapoo.

(Which, it occurs to me now, might just explain my less than stellar performance with the ladies.)

Anyway, to keep cool during the day, we spent most of our time on a screened-in porch off the back of the house. The flaw with this plan was that each fall my brothers and I were in charge of moving all the furniture and the TV back inside the house before it got too cold. Which meant that, rather than spend the required 12 minutes needed to move everything, we usually ended up watching TV in our winter coats and moon boots until the threat of frostbite nudged us into action.

This is why, when I think back to fall 1984 and the last time the Detroit Tigers were in the World Series, the first thing that comes to mind is watching Game 5 with my mom and older brother, Bill, on that windswept porch with the infield grass at grand old Tiger Stadium going blue-then-yellow/red-then-back-to-green occasionally on our wavy TV that was probably older than the dog.

Up 3-1 in the Series, the Tigers were clinging to a 5-4 lead in the eighth, trying to become the first team since the 1927 Yankees to go wire-to-wire. Off our seats now, kneeling in front of the tube, we watched as Kirk Gibson warmed up in the on-deck circle waiting to face Padres reliever Goose Gossage with two on and two out.

As legend has it, Sparky Anderson flashed four fingers at Gibby, telling him Goose was more than likely to walk him. And Gibby, the big, knuckleheaded lumberjack, flashed back 10 fingers. That cocky SOB. God love 'im. It was a bet. A 10-dollar wager that Goose would pitch to him. And sure enough, there he was, all walrus mustache and arms, perched on the mound persuading the Padres manager to let him do that very thing.

Gibby dug in and took a few chops at the air with the bat. Then my brother Bill spoke. (He's a big shot FBI agent now and an assistant coach on a playoff-bound high school football team in our hometown, but at the time he was in his second year of law school, living at home, surviving off Funyuns and Slurpees and driving a sweet silver Dodge Charger with red and yellow racing stripes. The very same one I melted into a solid block of steel after forgetting to add engine oil on a road trip to Maryland. But that's another column.)

Here's what he said:

He hits this out, we're going down there.

On cue, Gibby, who had hit one out in the first inning and freakin' stolen home earlier in the game, cranked a three-run homer into the upper deck -- and we were off before the ball landed.

Talking softly enough so we could still hear legendary Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell's call, our 15-minute drive downtown turned into a Chris Farley skit.

GIB-BEE!?! We'd shout. Are you kidding me? Thatwasawesome.

There was Jack Morris with a demeanor as nasty as his split-fingered fastball. Awesome. And MVP Alan Trammell, who hit, like, .450 in the Series? 'Zawesome. Then there were hurlers Willie Hernandez and Aurelio "Senor Smoke" Lopez, who had this bizarre extra mule kick at the end of his windup that every kid in Little League used to imitate. Awesome. Sweet Lou Whitaker? Lance Parrish? Sparky? 'Zawesome.

We made it downtown just as the game ended and parked near the old Detroit train station, fairly close to the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, where an enormous crowd had begun to celebrate outside Tiger Stadium. Inside, Vin Scully called it "baseball's version of New Year's Day at Times Square." Even the players' kids were pouring champagne on people.

Outside, it was even crazier. Speakers blaring. Horns honking. Strangers high-fiving and hugging, people everywhere dancing and celebrating. Absolute euphoria. One of those times when you throw yourself into something unknown and dangerous with no reservations whatsoever because, well, everyone here was family, right?

As we double-timed it toward the stadium, though, people passed us going in the opposite direction carrying souvenirs they had, literally, pried out of Tiger Stadium: signs, seats and huge chunks of infield turf. Everything except Tiger Stadium's troughlike community urinals, it seemed. This should have been our first indication that things were getting ugly fast. But we were having too much fun. Instead, shoot, I ran up to some guy in acid-washed jeans and a monster mullet carrying a yard of turf over his shoulder and, with his blessing, tore off a piece of grass and jammed it down into the front pocket of my pants.

We continued on, unimpeded, right to the doorstep of Tiger Stadium. Once we got there, the sea of fans in front of us parted and, like a couple of Forrest Gumps, we marched right off the sidewalk, through the street and up to the front of the crowd.

The first thing that hit us was the blinding glare and radiating heat from the car and trash fires -- the kind that makes you instinctively put your hand up over your face for protection. Blinded for a moment, the only thing that registered was the ominous clip-clop pounding coming from what sounded like an army of police horses. Their strategy, I guess, was to line up and squeeze the crowd off until it panicked, burst and dispersed. Instead the stampede of horses was soon drowned out by the thud and jingle of shattering beer bottles raining down onto the cement in front of us.

The whole thing had gone from a happy-go-lucky celebration to something ugly and out of control in like, 30 seconds. It always does.

We were trapped, right between a line of police on horseback and an overturned cop car that had been set ablaze. Caught, right at the very setting where, later, a beer-bellied doofus named Bubba Helms would gleefully hold up a Tigers World Series banner, backlit by a torched cop car, for the iconic image that, sadly, has long outlived the atmosphere that created it.

I stood there frozen in my tracks, jaw agape, the horses inching closer, the flames getting hotter until Bill grabbed a fistful of my hair and most of my shirt collar and hauled me backward to the curb by the scruff of my neck. I fell down, hard, onto the wet bricks. I double-checked my front pocket -- my turf had survived -- then we both turned around and raced back to the car, never looking back.

Now, I know it would make for a better column here if I made as if I was appalled and disgusted and scarred for life by the incident; that on the way home, I crumpled up my T-shirt with the iron-on Mark Fidrych logo and threw it out the window or that I never played whiffle ball again in Pat Armstrong's backyard taking my buddy Or deep while pretending to be Chet Lemon. But it wasn't like that. Not at all.

Don't get me wrong. It was an ugly, scary, despicable and embarrassing display. But did it diminish, in any way, what the Tigers did that season, the yearlong boost they gave a decaying city or what has always been one of the best -- if not the best -- sports towns in the country? Hell no.

Hockeytown? The Pistons? And now the Tigers? (Man, just think how great it would be if the NFL ever decided to put a team in Detroit.) Luckily, this city has celebrated so many subsequent world championships without incident that the 1984 thing is just a blip on the radar screen.

Listen, if you're going to follow any team for any amount of time, sooner or later you're going to get gut-punched and humiliated by the team you love. It's called being a fan. And it was a good lesson to learn so early in life: that sometimes the very thing that brings you the most joy can leave you singed and smelling like horse manure in less than 30 seconds.

Bill and I didn't talk about the riot on the way home that night, just like we didn't talk about Gibby's four strikeouts during the series. We talked about his homers, about the series, about how much we couldn't stand Steve Garvey, about Larry Herndon and Rupert Jones, and the great clutch hitting by role players like Rusty Kuntz.

And that same night when I got home, I went out into our backyard and transplanted my divot of Tiger Stadium turf into a section of dirt under an oak tree behind the porch.

For years, the grass in that area was a shade or two darker than the rest of the yard. I was proud of that divot. It was my green badge of courage. And every time I thought about it growing there -- even in 2003 when Trammell, of all people, managed the Tigers to a near record 119 losses -- it was nice to have a living reminder of the 1984 Tigers, the team, the time and the place where my own love of sports (and my healthy fear of fanaticism) took root.

Wouldn't you know it, though, a few years ago my folks sold that house. Bill still lives nearby, but I don't know for sure what happened to my World Series memento. I'd like to believe it's still there, growing, flourishing, a living bridge between the Tigers' last two trips to the World Series.

But with my luck, there's probably a brand-new, 3-ton central air conditioning unit sitting on top of it.

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His first book was "Noah's Rainbow: a Father's Emotional Journey from the Death of his Son to the Birth of his Daughter." His next book, based on the controversial 1925 NFL Pottsville Maroons (ESPN Books 2007) has been optioned as a movie by Sentinel Entertainment. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.