Mag­i­cal sea­son get­ting spot­light

The Detroit News - - Sports -

Detroit ow any­one can say the 1968 Tigers were a big­ger story than the ’84 world cham­pion Tigers, who started with a 35-5 blaze and sealed their World Se­ries with a cou­ple of crash­ing Kirk Gib­son home runs, re­quires some deft dance steps?

HBut, in one man’s ex­pe­ri­ence, the ’68 team was so ex­tra­or­di­nary in its play­ers, in its dra­mat­ics, and in its place on Detroit’s and Michi­gan’s sports time­line that it’s no won­der the Tigers will spend much of this 50th an­niver­sary year cel­e­brat­ing the dog­gonedest cham­pi­onship sea­son any of us has ever seen, lis­tened to, or been over­whelmed by.

To their credit, the Tigers un­der­stand this. It was the rea­son be­hind a classy Mon­day press con­fer­ence at Comer­ica Park head­lined by three play­ers from their ’68 fairy tale: Al Ka­line, Wil­lie Hor­ton and Jim Price.

Mickey Lolich, hope­fully Denny McLain, and prob­a­bly Mickey Stan­ley, as well as oth­ers who were part of ’68’s gran­deur will no doubt be called for a bow, es­pe­cially dur­ing the for­mal week­end when all of this takes shape: Sept. 7-9 at Comer­ica Park when, of course, the Cardinals hap­pen to be in town. It was the Cardinals who du­eled the Tigers in seven World Se­ries games in ’68, the last three of which went to Detroit, a grand flour­ish to a year when trail­ing in a ball­game was sim­ply an in­vi­ta­tion for the Tigers to cook up an­other batch of late-in­ning the­atrics.

“For those who re­mem­ber, this will be some­thing per­sonal,” said Duane McLean, the Tigers’ ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of busi­ness op­er­a­tions, ex­plain­ing why the Tigers and a spon­sor­ing Comer­ica Bank will to­gether cel­e­brate ’68. “For oth­ers, it will be a his­tory les­son.”

Among some of the scrap­book pages, and his­tory lec­tures, com­ing:

McLain be­com­ing the only pitcher in the past 84 years to win 30 or more games … Hor­ton with a throw, and Ka­line with a hit, turn­ing around Game 5 at Tiger Sta­dium and pulling the trig­ger on their World Se­ries rally … Lolich win­ning three games in that seven-game dog­fight with the Cardinals, the last com­ing on a pre­pos­ter­ous two days of rest.

There will be archival dives into Gates Brown’s sen­sa­tional pinch-hits and homers into Tiger Sta­dium’s up­per deck … Rec­ol­lec­tions of Jim Northrup hit­ting two grand slams in one game a few weeks af­ter beat­ing up Jack Aker when the Tigers got tired of be­ing thrown at … Of the slash­ing sin­gle by Don Wert that brought home Ka­line with Detroit’s pen­nant-seal­ing run … Of their man­ager, Mayo Smith, turn­ing base­ball his­tory on its head by de­cid­ing on the eve of the World Se­ries that Stan­ley would traipse from cen­ter field to be­come the Tigers’ new short­stop — when he had not played a sin­gle mo­ment of short­stop in his big-league ca­reer.

There will be crack­ling au­dio of Ernie Har­well’s play-by-play calls, video snip­pets of Norm Cash driv­ing a pitch into the heav­ens, Dick McAuliffe charg­ing the mound af­ter Tommy

John hit him, and sto­ries about Tom Matchick’s ninth-in­ning homer off Moe Drabowsky, as well as Hor­ton’s homer against Mel Stot­tle­myre in a jewel of a

1-0 game.

There will be nods and grins about how Daryl Pat­ter­son came to the mound that night at Bal­ti­more, with the bases loaded, and blew away three Ori­oles bat­ters as if he had used a flamethrower on them.

“I’ve had guys tell me, ‘That’s how I got through Viet­nam,’” said Price, now the team’s ra­dio an­a­lyst, whose part­ner, Dan Dick­er­son, did a smooth job em­cee­ing Mon­day’s kick­off.

Price refers there to Tigers games that would have been car­ried on Armed Forces Ra­dio dur­ing a year when Amer­ica was deal­ing with strife and sor­row on an ex­cru­ci­at­ing level.

This was a time when Viet­nam’s sac­ri­fice of lives and of a na­tion’s soul reached an apex. This was the year Mar­tin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were as­sas­si­nated nine weeks apart.

And this was a year in Detroit when a city and its cit­i­zens con­tin­ued to mourn and con­front the rav­ages from ri­ots that a year ear­lier had been the worst in Amer­i­can his­tory.

Much is nat­u­rally made of the Tigers’ heal­ing ef­fect on a city and metro area dur­ing that dreamy base­ball sea­son of ’68. But the Tigers’ glory, their gen­uine mys­ti­cism, tran­scended 12th Street and Metro Detroit.

For those of us who lived in the state’s hin­ter­lands, far from ur­ban re­al­i­ties, the ’68 Tigers were as prom­i­nent, as im­por­tant, as nec­es­sary, for rea­sons quite sep­a­rate from Detroit’s an­guish and re­cov­ery.

We needed, all of us that year, a win­ner, some­thing to cel­e­brate on a state level ev­ery bit as much as a town needed to be part of the Tigers’ week-by-week, gameby-game rap­ture.

Think of 1968 on Detroit’s sports arc.

The Tigers had not played in a World Se­ries since 1945. The Lions and Red Wings each had their 1950s runs, but those cham­pi­onships had be­come old mem­o­ries or, to some of us, seemed like folk­lore.

The Pis­tons had only been in town a bit more than a decade and were reg­u­larly dread­ful.

The city, the state, the Tigers galaxy — every­one was hun­gry to cheer, to view Detroit’s su­perb base­ball play­ers and per­son­al­i­ties as some­thing more than ex­cel­lence on dis­play at Tiger Sta­dium.

This was a team all of Detroit and all of Michi­gan wanted a na­tion steeped in base­ball per­spec­tive to see as this re­gion saw the Tigers that sum­mer of ’68 — as ex­tra­or­di­nary, down­right heroic, cham­pi­ons.

What could be ap­pre­ci­ated again Mon­day as Ka­line, Hor­ton and Price sat in three chairs on a small stage rem­i­nisc­ing about ’68 was the kin­ship these men en­joyed then, and still share.

“It amazed me what he did,” Hor­ton said of Brown, the charmed pinch-hit­ter who was be­hind so many of that sea­son’s nearly end­less come­backs. “He set a tone for all of us.”

As did Cash, the Texas quip­ster and merry-maker, whose first-base skills and left-handed bat were as col­or­ful as his per­sona.

“We used to call him the John Wayne of base­ball,” Hor­ton re­called.

“He’d al­ways have a Marl­boro and a Bud­weiser.”

But what they forged, ul­ti­mately, was a deliri­ous Oc­to­ber party in Detroit, af­ter Bill Free­han had caught a pop-up near home plate at Busch Sta­dium in St. Louis and then picked up Lolich as if Free­han were rais­ing the World Se­ries tro­phy.

“We were world cham­pi­ons,” Ka­line said, vic­tory’s glow and sat­is­fac­tion still light­ing his face.

“For one year, we were the best.”

As­so­ci­ated Press

In 1968 Mickey Lolich, left, and team­mates brought a ti­tle to a city that des­per­ately needed a boost.

LYNN HEN­NING

As­so­ci­ated Press

Tigers Dick McAuliffe, from left, Jim Northrup and Mickey Stan­ley lift the World Se­ries tro­phy. Up­com­ing fes­tiv­i­ties will pay homage to the 1968 team.

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