Lee Patrick Sullivan is a Detroit native, and journalist living in Washington, DC. He has worked for CBS News, the BBC, Reuters, Bloomberg-TV and CNN. Despite his career taking him to London, New York and Washington, DC he has never wavered from his loyalty to his beloved Detroit Tigers.
My love of the Detroit Tigers can be traced to one source. My grandparents. Mostly my Grandmother, Frances Stansell. Every year, she would sign me up for the Pepsi-Tigers fan club. For a small fee (I think it was $20 or something) fans received an official Pepsi-Tigers fan club hat, and tickets to 10 Tiger home games. It was mostly a promotional tool to get young fans excited, and fill the seats when the team was bad, or bad teams were coming to town. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox games were never part of the Pepsi-Tiger Fan Club deal.
My grandpa and grandmother split the Detroit Tiger duties with me. If we were watching the Tigers on TV or listening on the Radio, it was with my Grandfather Parker Stansell. Parker didn’t get passed the 6th grade, but when it came to numbers he was a whiz. He could memorize every player’s average and knew what the new average would be with a hit or an out… all done without a calculator. When we did yard work at their home at 6517 Horatio on Detroit’s Southwest side, the tones of Ernie Harwell and Paul Carey would be on the transistor radio. Come to think of it, Parker would turn down the sound on the TV so he could hear Ernie call the game, not George Kell and Al Kaline.
We never missed a game. If I was at their house, the game was on. And this was a time when the Tigers weren’t exactly good. Alright, they were bad. Really bad. But that didn’t matter, they were our Tigers. I can still remember the starting line-up of some of those awful teams. Danny Meyer and Justin Thompson at first base. Garry Sutherland and Tito Fuentes at second. Shortstop was Tom Veryser. Third, Arilleo Rodriquez. Outfielders included Steve Kemp, Ron LeFlore, and Rusty Staub.. Behind the plate, Milt May. I know I’m mixing up seasons here, but those are the names I remember. Those are the names I would hear Ernie call out from the transistor radio hidden under my pillow at night.
My grandfather used to suggest baseball played a part in him moving from South Carolina to Detroit in 1949. He grew up in Georgia, and at the time Atlanta didn’t have a professional team. But there was a prominent Georgian in the majors, Ty Cobb. So Parker grew up a Tiger fan. He used to say about moving to Detroit, “I thought if Cobb could handle you Yankee sons of Bitches, I could too.”
When it came to going to the stadium to watch the Tigers in person. It was always my grandmother. In the nearly 50 years Parker lived in Detroit—just down the street on Michigan Ave – less than 2 miles from The Corner- he never set foot in the place.
I loved going to games with my grandmother. Tiger Stadium was one of the greatest experiences in sports. Baseball had been played on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, since the 1880s. That means Civil War Veterans watched Tiger games on that dirt.
The area around the Stadium was pretty run down and all concrete. The Stadium, mere feet from the street. It always smelled like onions, mustard, hotdogs and beer. And there’s no sight better than walking up that tunnel… away from the concrete outside, and the dark tunnels inside… and seeing this vast field of green. It impressed me every time. Parker would always drop us off then pick us up at our meeting place, the Firestone Store across the street. Every now and then, Parker would have too much to drink.. pass out.. and Grandma and I would walk home.
I like those days the best. It was a nice walk, and I got more time to be outside.
From age 7 to my college years this ritual continued. Of course once I turned 14, I was too old for the Pepsi-Tiger Fan club, but that didn’t stop Grandma and me from heading down to the Corner of Michigan and Trumbull several times a year. We would sit there, with our watered down Cokes, destroying a comically large bag of peanuts. At the end of the game we’d look on the ground, below the seats, and there would be a mountain of empty peanut shells. Frances would say the same thing every time. “We didn’t eat all those peanuts did we? Those must be from last night’s game, we didn’t eat that much.”
Frances taught me how to keep score. And If I started a game keeping score, I had to finish it. At age 9 I knew what FC meant and that a DP started by the SS went 6-4-3.
A couple of major events put a large blank spot in my Tiger watching years. My grandfather passed away in 1991, and in 1992 I moved to Atlanta. I tried going to a few Braves games, but it wasn’t the same. The stadium was too new and bland. I couldn’t walk home from the games. And my grandmother wasn’t sitting next to me.
In 1995 I had moved to New York City and was back in Detroit visiting my grandmother. She had been suffering from a bought with the shingles… and still dealing with missing my grandpa. She had stopped following the Tigers, as had I. The strike shortened season of 1994 and the late start of the current season only added to our apathy. But on a visit to her home, I suggested we go to Tiger Stadium. The White Sox were in town for a Friday night game. Grandma didn’t feel like going. I told her I bought seats behind first base, so she could see her favorite player, Cecil Fielder. She was worried that we couldn’t go because Parker wasn’t there to drop us off. She didn’t want to go. The shingles has taken a lot out of her. She couldn’t walk that far, and except for Trammel, Whitaker, Gibson and Fielder.. she didn’t know any of the players. But, she loved her grandson and agreed to go.
I knew grandma couldn’t walk that far, so I suggested take her tp the same gate Parker would drop us off, go park the car, then race back to go into the game with her. She thought it was a good idea. After dropping her off, I went looking for parking. You have to remember, Tiger Stadium didn’t have a parking lot. That’s right. A major league ballpark, with no parking. You had to go on the hunt for a space in one of the numerous empty lots around the Stadium. I found a spot- several blocks away, and then high-tailed it back to the Stadium. Grandma was there clutching her purse, standing by herself, looking a combination of scared and angry. I ran up to her and she let me have it. “Where were you? What took you so long? Bums keep coming up to me asking me for money, asking me if I want to buy a ticket. I’m done TAKE ME HOME!” Grandson or not, she was pissed. She was scared and she wanted to go home. I explained to her, the three options she had in front of her. One was to take a short walk into the Stadium and sit down. The second option was for her to walk a very long distance to the car and go home, or the their option was for her to wait there by herself again while I go get the car. Going into the Stadium sounded best to her and we went in.
I sat her down, and started the tradition to getting a bag of peanuts and our two watered down cokes. I returned to the seats just as the Tigers took the field. Cecil wasn’t at first. Whitaker wasn’t at second. And Kirk Gibson wasn’t in right field. Instead, the likes of Chad Curtis, Scott Fletcher and Danny Bautista were taking the field. Frances took her score card and little pencil, threw it to the ground and said, “I don’t know any of these clowns. And I’m not keeping score for them either.”
The game had a lot of scoring, but that didn’t matter to my grandmother. She stared into the stands, looking at her watch every now and then. The ice melted in her coke, she maybe took a couple sips. She ate a few peanuts, but the bag just sat, mostly filled, on her lap. She was a trooper, and stayed all 9 innings. She knew I didn’t like to leave games early. The Tigers were losing 7-6 in the bottom of the 9th. Lou Whitaker grabbed a bat and was pinch hitting…Grandma, although happy to see a familiar name come to the plate, made a snark comment… “the pitcher is right handed and they have Gibson on the bench, looks like Sparky has lost it. Lou will strike out.” Sure enough Lou Whitaker struck out swinging. The next batter was Cecil Fielder. Grandma said, “They won’t give him anything to hit. He better not swing at a bad pitch.” Sure enough the White Sox pitcher (I can’t remember his name) walked Fielder. With fielder on first, the next batter was Travis Fryman. The snarkyness continued from Frances. “Oh great, another right handed batter, two outs.” Sure enough, Fryman strikes out swinging.
The next batter due up was Juan Samuel. I said to grandma, hey this next guy is 3 for 4 today, we might see a walk off. Again, with the snarkyness from Grandma, “He’s right handed, they need a left handed batter,. Gibson is on the bench and Sparky is too bullheaded to use him.” Just as she said that, an announcement came over the public address system, “Now batting for Samuel, number 23 Kirk Gibson.”
Grandma’s eye’s perked up, as if she had seen a ghost. She reached over and grabbed my hand and started squeezing… then she started saying “Come on Gibby, come on Gibby…” Gibson swung and missed on the first pitch. And grandma squeezed my hand a little tighter… the second pitch was a called strike.. .the grip on my hand more intense. The third pitch, off the plate, ball 1. I looked over at my grandma. Just moments before she was staring into the abyss, wanting to be anywhere BUT Tiger Stadium. Now she was laser focused on Gibson. The White Sox pitcher winds up, and delivers… GIBSON CRUSHED IT!!!! TO THE DEEPEST PART OF RIGHT CENTER!!! HOME RUN TIGERS WIN!!!!! Grandma jumped out of her seat and just screamed at the top of her lungs “GIBBBY!!!!!” Peanuts went everywhere!! And got all over us and the people sitting in front of us! We hugged and jumped up and down several times!
Once Gibson made his curtain call, we headed to the exit. I suggested she wait, while I get the car. Frances said, “I can walk!I’m going with you.” We must have walked about 6 blocks to the car. Frances, on an adrenaline high. She was reminiscing all the Tiger games we had gone to in the past. The time Reggie Jackson pointed at me a smiled. The time Grandma’s Brothers, Guy and Lonnie, along with her sister Ruth.. all went to a double header with us. It was an end of May game, between two teams that weren’t that good.. in front of sparse crowd of about 15,000… but it was one of the best Tiger games of my life. Seeing the life back in my grandma’s eyes.. hearing the feistiness in her banter as she continues to berate Sparky Anderson. It was a great night.
Nights like that don’t happen with any other sport.
That’s why I love baseball.