(originally published @ Specter Magazine)
Randall hated pitching. He preferred fielding grounders and jumping the fence to retrieve home runs. But it was his turn, and there were no allowances in the rules for Rolaids Relievers. Jeff had collected four consecutive singles, groundballs beyond the pitcher, before turning to Mickey Tettleton, our favorite Major-League emulation, to cap his miracle comeback. The eophus pitch countered the Tettleton. With a hitter slinging a weightless plastic bat through the hitting zone at hernia-inducing speeds, it proved nearly impossible to wait long enough for the loping perabula to drop into the hitting zone. Jeff’s first and second swings resulted in air displacement, neither within three inches of Randall’s eophus. I expected a third. As Randall started his motion, Jeff stood tall (but still very short), limp-wristed, bat cocked. He waited… waited… waited… timing the moment he would throw his hands forward… and then… contact. More than contact. A roof shot, fair, careening off the pitched roof.
Jeff never won. I think I secretly wanted the Tettleton to end the game with that final swing. To leave it at that. That may be how we’re supposed to remember that game; Jeff’s miracle comeback spurring him on to victory, but there was one last problem with the story that had been written. I had one more at bat. And even though I wanted Jeff to win that game, for his sake, for the story’s sake, I couldn’t throw the game. The game had integrity. Whiffleball had rules.
The rules were simple. A hit off the façade of the house was a double, unless it was to the left of the gutter – that was a foul ball – or landed on the second floor balcony off my parents’ bedroom – that was triple, but only if it remained on the sloped balcony. Otherwise, double (or an out should the ball be caught). A carom off the balcony’s iron railing? Double. On the roof or over the driveway gate was a home run unless the fielder had time to jump the fence and catch the ball before it landed. Attempt at your own risk.
Detroit in the 1990s hadn’t yet displaced Pittsburgh as the punchline in any joke about civic decay. The Big Three auto makers still cultivated a dwindling demographic opposed to logic, motivated by “Made in the USA” mantras. These companies survived by preying on consumers’ patriotism: commercials scored by John Mellancamp featuring cowboys and babes and/or babies draped in American flags. Few still believed in the revitalizing power of the Renaissance Center. Meanwhile, the violent crime rate escalated. A fiscal and cultural bankruptcy of a downtown community left the sprawling metropolis awash in burnt-out warehouses, abandoned housing developments and hallowed storefronts that once sold fur hats and purple sweaters. The Detroit Tigers still played in Tiger Stadium, a relic, a treasure chest of obstructed-view seating, naked girders and pigeon shit. The old baseball park had aged more gracefully than the decadent neighborhood, the demilitarized zone, surrounding it. My dad told me that the men begging on each corner were “crazy but probably harmless.” I focused my attention on the battered, sculpted pocket of my baseball glove as we passed, afraid to look these forgotten men in the eye, despite their supposed placidity. Years later, I approached Turner Field in Atlanta. A man approached me. He wore a green polo shirt and khakis. Clean cut. Combed hair. “This is not what God intends for us,” he said, handing me a pamphlet. If baseball had been the fast track to Hell all along, no amount of Our Fathers could rescue my heathen soul. Crazy but harmless, I told myself.
Randall, Jeff and I were mismatched companions formed amongst the ranks of our haughty little prep school, a column-fronted destination for Grosse Pointers and displaced urbanites alike. We shared little but the common goal of not getting shot while learning algebra, as seven had in what would have been my Detroit public school. Randall was half black, half Chinese, an only child, shared in custody after a civilized divorce. At any given moment, he was a mute, a bottle rocket or a stock character from the commedia characterized by exaggerated curmodgeony. Primarily a basketball fan, Randall had learned all he needed to know about baseball from playing whiffleball in my backyard. Jeff was a five-foot-meh kosher Jew that listened to Prince, De La Soul and Johnny Clegg & Savuka. Bottlecap glasses and Looney-Tune histrionics complemented his delusional sense of athletic prowess. I was a lanky six-foot seventh grader that had already begun collecting neurosis and self-doubt like baseball cards. I’d played baseball, basketball and soccer for as long as I could remember walking. Anywhere off the competitive field, however, I was too much myself. Sports were the outlets through which I escaped my own everyday awkwardness. Too tall. Too skinny. Raised on a farm before moving three hours east to the big city. Now I attended a private school with marble stairways and seven ivory columns beyond the front door.
Any ball struck into any of the areas designated “foul” could still be caught. For example, a pop foul into the neighbor’s yard or off the neighbors’ roof could be converted into an out by catching the ball before it touched the ground. This would also entail navigating the neighbors’ Yorkshire terrier named Patches that would attempt to disrupt play. The ball must also remain in the fielder’s possession until he returned to the area of play. Dropping the ball when hopping back over the fence resulted in the out being negated and a strike attributed to the batter. The fielder could toss the ball back to the pitcher before hopping the fence. The ball must then be caught by the pitcher in order for the out to be registered.
Three blocks north of my house on Mack Ave., the city turned. I liked to joke with my Grosse Pointe friends that I lived on the good block of Detroit. A self-deprecating sense of humor had been my best friend through those first weeks of school. Walking from my street out to Mack Ave., I wasn’t allowed to turn right and walk to the video store. I was only allowed to turn left. Left I’d find the cramped little grocery store, a dry cleaner and the baseball card store.
Three walls of glass cases corralled you upon stepping inside the card shop. To the left sat unopened boxes and packs of cards for sale. At the far end sat a tired old man on a stool, his misty sweep of grey hair cloaking his bald head. He never to my recollection engaged any of us in conversation directly; however, when someone with a little extra history got him talking, he’d spout, ad infinitum, about the cards he’d collected, the cards he’d lost. He even had one of those stories, just like my own father, about the box of cards his mother had thrown out when he went off to college. “I’d trade the damn degree for that box of cards in a heartbeat,” we overhead him say on more than one occasion. His favorite stories, however, were the stories of the games he’d watched at Tiger Stadium. Having lived his entire life in Detroit he had plenty. We hung on every word when he talked about the 1968 World Series. Mickey Lolich and Bob Gibson. 1976, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych’s super nova rookie season. But there was always a sadness laced through these stories, even when the Tigers won, even when he got an autograph from an idol or bumped into Ernie Harwell, the Tigers’ longtime announcer outside Gate C. These stories never failed to put a smile on our faces. Even Randall, who probably didn’t know Mickey Lolich from Mickey Mouse.
I first tasted the sadness when I came back to Detroit for the first time in fifteen years. I was struck by how much had changed, how much had decayed, how the entire city had withered. Just as every romantic comedy must have a temporary setback, a breakup followed by a cheerful, sloppy reconciliation, any story about Detroit must too also be tinted with sadness for what was and what will never be again. The forever loss of a vibrant downtown culture. The more than one million city residents departed over fifty years. For the history that still haunts the art deco architecture, the abandoned theaters, apartment buildings, train stations and entire city blocks, the empty plot of land at Trumbull Avenue where Tiger Stadium once stood.
Once per inning, the hitter could emulate the batting stance of any particular major league player as long as that player had what could be deemed a unique batting stance. If you hit a home run while effectively emulating said player, the run total scored on the hit counted double. Any other hit, per usual, was considered an out.
As he waited for the pitch, Mickey Tettleton stood perfectly upright with his arms tucked close against his chest. A wad of tobacco pushed his cheek out like a walnut. His limp wrists tipped the bat behind him, almost parallel to the ground. As the pitch was thrown, he would upgrade his grip on the bat, stride forward and thrash the bat through the hitting zone with a kind of reckless ferocity that always left you wondering how his shoulders sustained such force. Wondering how he ever hit anything at all. More so than Alan Trammell or Lou Whitaker or even the now-retired and mustachioed Tom Brookens (my own favorite Tiger player), more so than any other Tiger player, Mickey Tettleton had become our favorite emulation on the whiffleball court. In real life, Mickey Tettleton was one of the early adopters of the philosophy of three possible outcomes: walk, strikeout or home run. True to form, our emulations, so awkward and overproduced, also resulted in three similar but distinct possible outcomes: pain, humor or frustration, but almost never victory.
I remember that one specific afternoon more clearly than others. I want to remember Jeff hitting a game-winner over the driveway gate or off the roof of my house. I want that to be the end of the story, the miracle comeback. I told this story recently to a friend of mine. We were two thirty-somethings playing whiffleball in Maine behind a Bowdoin residence hall, reminiscing about or respective childhood games in Detroit and Cleveland. We’d constructed our own ground rules, and I’d used this story about Jeff’s comeback as an example of how “emulating” affected scoring. As I said, I wanted to say that he hit that home run, a walk-off dinger, but I couldn’t. It just wasn’t natural. When I really started to think about the story, what it’d all meant to me as a teenager, what it means to be now, I finally understood that this was really a story about Detroit. I wanted that home run to be the end of the story, just as I’d pretended that Detroit had been frozen in stasis the day I left.
In 1965, Detroit commissioned a video to lure the 1968 Summer Olympic Games. This idea, today, seems like science fiction. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra played in the background. Mayor Cavanagh narrated footage of a bustling downtown Detroit, highlighting the cultural significance of a city still boasting two million residents. The streets were clean. Cobo Hall was brand new and the Detroit Auto Show contained within came off as something more than a frivolous novelty chained to tradition. Even John F. Kennedy made a posthumous appearance in the video to give his best pitch for the city. It’s all sanitized – chrome and steel, glass and polish, and ultimately, false hope.
Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops. The Downbeats and the Soul Brothers. The Temptations and Martha and the Vandellas. Motown had reached the height of its influence in 1965 but it was nowhere to be found in that video. Two years later the city would witness the Detroit race riots of 1967. A DPD vice squad visited an after-hours club in a predominantly black neighborhood at 12th and Clairemont and attempted to arrest 82 people who had been inside holding a party for two Vietnam vets. Five days later, 43 people were dead and 1189 had been injured. In the shadow of these riots, the 1968 Detroit Tigers won the World Series in what many consider – that card shop owner included – one of the greatest series ever played. My friends and I, of course, weren’t around for these events. I knew of the riots, footnotes in our history lessons. Watching this video reminded me of the owner of the card shop. How I knew so much about the great seven-game World Series between the Tigers and Cardinals and never considered that these events had been separated by little more than fifteen months. A relative minute. How much did that owner associate one with the other? Recently I’d been thinking about the card shop owner’s other favorite story – Mark Fidrych’s rookie season. Mark Fidrych’s career flamed out after that first year, a year that would go down as one of the greatest ever pitched, as the result of an injury that could have easily been remedied with today’s modern medicine. Sad, but palatable. A spectacular athlete robbed of a gift too soon. But the story, of course, wouldn’t end there. Mark Fidrych died in 2009. He’d been working beneath a 10-wheel dump truck on his farm in Massachusetts when his clothes became entangled in some of the moving machinery. “The Bird,” one of the most beloved of all Tigers, despite only a few fleeting moments of fame, had been hired to haul asphalt for a road construction company. He’d been rendered penniless, never having received the payday that everyone associates with modern professional sports. Sometimes the story needs to end. Sometimes we need discretion to withhold those inevitable conclusions, the outcomes we’d rather not know or remember.
No bonuses shall be awarded for emulating pitchers, though emulation is encouraged as a strategy to deceiving the hitter.
My father took me to baseball card shows all the time. I’d locate the information in the back of my Beckett Baseball Card Monthly and we’d just go. On one occasion Mickey Lolich had been the draw. Autographs for $20. I brought along my autograph book, a coffee-table hardcover called “American League” containing pictures and stories from the history of the junior circuit. There were always card shows to attend back then. Kids still collected cards and dreamt of having their own card someday. I’d accumulated a few choice signatures – Frank Robinson, Denny McLain, Jim Palmer. The picture of Mickey Lolich had come from the 1968 series. When I reached the front of the line, he smiled at me and shook my dad’s hand, a friendly man who genuinely seemed to appreciate the people that had come to meet him that day, if not just for the $20 per autograph. He took the book, the specific page marked with a yellow Post-It. His blue Sharpie swirled effortlessly over the page, diagonally across the lower half of the full-page picture. Before returning the book he took one more glance at the photo. He smiled again, but like the card store owner telling his stories, there was that hint of something else, the same something else that recurred in the face of the card shop owner. I thanked him and collected my book, placing my finger between the pages to allow the marker to dry.
The next inning, after Jeff’s greatest comeback ever, I emulated a gimpy Kirk Gibson and put the second pitch over the driveway gate. But nobody really remembers that Kirk Gibson home run, not nearly like they, meaning Randall, Jeff and I, remember the Mickey Tettleton that wasn’t because in the end, I still won. I almost always won. We remember that game because Jeff nearly vaulted the back fence when he scored the go-ahead run, that Randall collapsed from oephus exhaustion trying to prevent that miniature Hank Greenburg from putting the game winner on the roof. Maybe we’re just supposed to remember all possible outcomes, the fictions as well as the reality, using them at our discretion. Equal parts nostalgia for the stories we’d lived, the city we knew and the city that probably never existed.
Everyone, it seemed, played whiffleball in the backyard of 3499 during those three summers I spent in Detroit. Days like those never happen anymore. Maybe days like that could never happen outside Detroit, outside the backyard of 3499, beyond those middle school years before girls, e-mail and angst. It was all so serious, all so meaningful, those ground rules, those rules to clarify rules, made-up rain delays to take trips to the card shop. The stories we heard, the stories we dreamt and reconstituted all stayed there in our Detroit.
All of us went our separate ways after 8th grade. The truth was that Randall, Jeff and I never saw each other again. I couldn’t really say why. But if I had to guess, I’d say that we were bound together by that city. Randall changed schools. I moved to Pittsburgh. The Tigers of the 90’s moved on and retired. Mickey Tettleton signed with the Rangers. I’d bet, however, that if we met in my old backyard we’d still know all the ground rules and remember each of our strengths and weaknesses. And even though it would never, ever work out, each of us would still take a turn being Mickey Tettleton. We always had more fun as a switch-hitting catcher/DH/first baseman because we got to be someone other than ourselves. Someday I’ll tell my daughter about Detroit and about the years I spent there, the whiffleball games, the awkward overhang of the second-floor porch, about obstructed-view seating at Tiger Stadium, the baseball card shop just around the corner, about Mickey Tettleton. And I know I’ll probably talk with a certain sadness of a city that exists only in the mind of a few thirteen-year-old boys.