(Blogathon ’16) Dan Epstein: The First Time

This guest-post is part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer are not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.

The spring of 1976 was a time of sheer, unfettered happiness for me. I turned ten that May; the inchoate anger I’d felt over my parents’ split six years earlier had largely burned off, and it would be at least another year before adolescent angst began to severely kick in, leaving me free and clear to focus on reading UFO and Bigfoot magazines, shooting BB guns (I won my second straight “First Place” trophy in air riflery at the Ann Arbor “Y” that March), chewing pre-spider-egg-rumors Bubble Yum, and getting pumped up about the impending Bicentennial celebrations. And best of all, I’d just fallen in love with baseball.

I’d fallen hard and I’d fallen fast, the result of a friend’s birthday party that April, which had included a trip to see The Bad News Bears at a local theater, as well the handing out of new Topps wax packs as party favors. While I’d had a vague awareness in the game before then — thanks to my dad, who’d grown up in Brooklyn with the Dodgers and was now rooting for the Mets from afar — I was suddenly seized by the all-consuming desire to not only play baseball, but to learn everything about its history. From the age of five, I’d been completely obsessed with the American Revolution and the Civil War, and had devoured enough books on the topics since then that I could easily rattle off the names of all the important generals and battles. But now, that same obsessiveness was being rapidly re-directed towards the legends and contests of the diamond.

So when my dad announced that he’d bought tickets for what would be my first-ever major league game — a Sunday afternoon Yankees-Tigers game at Tiger Stadium on May 30 — I felt the same giddy excitement I’d experienced when my maternal grandfather had taken me to see Civil War battlefields in the South. I barely knew the difference between Al Kaline and George Kell at this point, but I still understood that professional baseball had been played at “The Corner” since before the turn of the century, and that the edifice known as Tiger Stadium had stood there in one form or another since before World War I. A place of immense historical importance, in other words.

Tiger Stadium did not disappoint, not by a long shot. Being there was like being in an old battleship, a haunted house and a theater-in-the-round all rolled into one. The double-decker, completely enclosed structure cut off all aspects of the outside world, save for the sky itself; and the smells, sounds and vibrations (and even the dark green paint) of the old ballpark seemed to hail from other eras entirely. I felt like a welcome-but-temporary guest at a banquet that had been going on for decades.

If my appreciation of our surroundings was acute, my understanding of what was actually happening on the field in front of us was considerably more vague. We were sitting just a few rows behind home plate, slightly off to the first base side — seats which cost my dad a princely five bucks a pop — which made it easy to see the argument happening at home plate during the exchange of the lineup cards, though I had no idea why the man in the Yankees uniform was screaming at the umpire. “That’s Billy Martin, the Yankee manager,” my dad informed me, as the fans around us began to hoot and holler. “He’s still pissed about a call the umpires made yesterday.”

The argument (and the jeers of the fans) quickly escalated in intensity and volume, until the ump finally had enough and tossed Martin out of the game. In retrospect, I’m guessing that Billy was probably just brutally hungover from a Saturday night out on the tiles in his old Detroit stomping grounds, and didn’t want to wait another two hours before he could get his trembling hands on some “hair of the dog.” But in that moment, I was awestruck by the abrupt intensity of the exchange, which surpassed anything I’d seen in The Bad News Bears. Before I could even see a major league pitch in person, I’d already witnessed a Billy Martin ejection.

The Yankees were the hottest team in the American League at the time, not just in the standings — they were 24-15, and they’d occupied first place in the AL East since their third game of the season — but also as a story: After over a decade of malaise and decay, Martin and owner George Steinbrenner were hell-bent on restoring the legendary franchise to its “rightful” grandeur, and they weren’t shy about saying so. But the Tigers, as my friends at Burns Park School were fond of saying, sucked; they were coming off the worst season in franchise history at that point — a dismal 57-102 campaign — and seemed to offer little hope of improvement. Ex-con outfielder Ron LeFlore had given Tigers fans something to cheer about that spring with a 30-game hitting streak, the most in the AL since Dom DiMaggio’s 34 in 1949, but even that had come to an end a few nights before my first visit to The Corner. A rookie pitcher named Mark Fidrych had made a few headlines on May 15, when he threw a complete game 2-1 victory over the Cleveland Indians in his first career start, but he wouldn’t win his second game until May 31; “Birdmania” wouldn’t fully kick in for another month.

The game we saw that day was largely devoid of importance, at least in the grand scheme of history. Yankees lefty Rudy “The Dude” May, pitching on only two days’ rest, threw his lone complete game shutout of the season, four-hitting the Tigers while walking only two. Detroit starter Bill Laxton also pitched well, allowing only one hit (a single to Willie Randolph, who was promptly caught stealing by John Wockenfuss) to the Yankees through five before melting down in the sixth. After Fred “Chicken” Stanley walked to start the frame, Mickey Rivers (who I was surprised to see in a Yankee uniform, having only known him via my new Topps cards as a California Angel) laid down a bunt single, and Roy White followed with a home run, the first I’d seen in a major league ballpark. Thurman Munson immediately followed with another, and Laxton was done for the day. So were the Tigers, as the score stood 4-0 the rest of the way.

Still, it was an incredible thrill for me to see guys like Rivers, White and Munson — players I only knew from baseball cards — in action that day, along with LeFlore, Willie Horton and Rusty Staub, who I’d already read about at length in the sports pages of the Ann Arbor News. (Now they were real to me!) And it was just as thrilling to run around through the gangways of the old ballpark, to gaze in wonder at the souvenir stands selling plastic batting helmets of every MLB team, to hear the ghostly echoes of the ballpark organ, to order a “red hot” with mustard slathered on it by a tongue depressor, and to run my fingers along the many layers of industrial paint that covered our seats. We spent maybe three hours at Tiger Stadium that day — the game itself lasted less than two — but I emerged from the ballpark transformed, an ardent baseball fan for life.

Two summers ago, while on my book tour promoting Stars and Strikes, I paid another visit to The Corner. I hadn’t been back since 2004, when I took some photos of Tiger Stadium’s sadly moldering edifice on a business trip through town, and — having moved away in late 1978 — I hadn’t seen a game there in thirty-six years. All that was left by that point was a field, a diamond and the old centerfield flagpole, all lovingly maintained by the volunteers of the Navin Field Grounds Crew, but I could still feel the magical vibrations of the place. I took my wife out with me to the mound, where I paid tribute to the late, great “Bird” by dropping to one knee and manicuring the dirt. Then I took her over to the area behind home plate, to show her where the seats for my first Tigers game — my first major league baseball experience — would have been, more or less. And then I said a silent prayer of thanks to the baseball gods.

Dan Epstein is the author of Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76 (which will be released in paperback this February) and Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ‘70s. Follow him on Twitter at @BigHairPlasGras.

This guest-post has been part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer are not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.

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2 thoughts on “(Blogathon ’16) Dan Epstein: The First Time

  1. Pingback: Every Piece from the 2016 Blogathon | The Baseball Continuum

  2. Pingback: Wisdom and Links: Every Piece from the 2016 Blogathon - Hall of Very Good

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