A. C. Haeffner
A DAY AT THE STADIUM
<![if !supportEmptyParas]>By A.C. Haeffner
The voice boomed down to us from above in a rich timbre, as though from God.
We looked up from the stands near the first-base dugout at Detroit's Tiger Stadium - looked in the direction of the press box and broadcast booth above and behind home plate, for that is where the voice seemed to emanate. It took a moment, but I spotted a man leaning out of an open window.
"There," I said, pointing him out to my friend Robert.
"Got him," Robert answered.
"Great day for a game!" the man above called out, waving once and smiling.
And then he pulled back into the shadows; disappeared as suddenly as the sun is blotted by a fast-moving thunderhead.
"Who was that?" asked Robert.
He and I had arrived early - long before the game - to enjoy the atmosphere of the near-empty ballpark and to watch the players warm up. We did that often in those days - back in the early 1960s. But this this was an unexpected bonus.
"You don't know?" I said.
"What are you? Stupid?"
"I'm not stupid. I just don't know who it was."
I shook my head in pity. Anybody who was a true Tiger fan would know who that was - or should know.
"That was Ernie," I said, giving him one last chance to atone. I would know he was a pretender - a would-be fan - if he asked "Who?" But if he knew the last name without any further prompting, I could rack up his first response to poor eyesight or perhaps just a bad day.
"Harwell?" he said, his voice rising in excitement. "The Tiger announcer?"
"Ernie Harwell," I said with satisfaction. The radio voice of the Tigers had spoken - well, yelled - to me and my friend.
"Ernie Harwell," Robert said, both halves of the name expressed softly, reverently.
"Ernie Harwell," I said firmly, nodding.
"Wow," Robert added. "And he talked to us."
Tiger Stadium in the early '60s was nirvana for me and for my assorted friends - most often Robert. It was nirvana because we could get into just about any game we wanted for free; all we needed was transportation from our suburban existence some twenty miles away. That was not always an easy feat, since I was not yet old enough to drive, and no youth of my acquaintance owned a car; we were largely dependent on the kindness of parents or older siblings to provide a ride. But on this day - I don't recall how - Robert and I had managed to get downtown and pick up the tickets left for us at a designated gate by my friend Bubba Phillips, third baseman for the Tigers.
Bubba had joined the Tigers from the Indians, traded north by one state to close out his career with the team that had first brought him to the majors in 1955. A stop in Chicago - with 10 at-bats in the White Sox's 1959 World Series loss to the Dodgers - had preceded Cleveland.
Now, ensconced at third base for Detroit - and a family friend thanks to an introduction by mutual acquaintances - Bubba left tickets whenever I asked. On days off, he would come to swim in the lake at our Bloomfield Hills home north of the city - a practice that was against a team rule, as I recall, but blithely disregarded by Bubba. And on days on which he worked, I would swim in a different fashion - in the reflected glory of a friend who played major league baseball.
But no other trips to the stadium were quite as special as the one on this day - and not just because of the Ernie Harwell greeting from above. There was more to come as Robert and I wandered the lower deck during the Tigers' pre-game warm-ups. A couple of Tigers - pitchers, I think - were trotting along the warning track out in right field, but most of their teammates were going about their chores in a more sedentary fashion, loosening up only gradually by fielding an occasional infield grounder or leaning on a bat, awaiting a turn in the batting cage.
We were in the stands on the third-base side, walking in the main aisle closest to the field, a few yards on the outfield end of the Tigers' dugout, when we heard someone call out.
"Hey! You guys!"
We looked around for the source, and found it not far away. Rocky Colavito, the slugging outfielder of the Tigers, had been taking batting practice, and was now on the home-plate end of the dugout, holding something out.
"Hey!" he yelled again, and we could see that he meant us.
A closer look told us what he was holding; what he was offering. In his grasp - one in each hand, barrels pointing toward us - were baseball bats. Robert and I moved at about the same moment, taking different paths toward Rocky, trying to reach him first.
I took the aisle route, turning left ninety degrees where the reserved seat section opened above Rocky, and ran down the steps toward him. Robert chose a closer entrance, leaped a railing, and from there basically walked his way on the backs of the seats - the most direct route, but far more difficult.
Nonetheless, he beat me there, and the bat held in Rocky's right hand was thrust into Robert's midsection. When I arrived a moment later, Rocky handed me the other bat. Robert and I were both speechless - how often does a god grace you with such a gift? - and mumbled our thanks as Rocky, with a slight smile and (I think) a nod, turned and walked away.
We each cradled the bats he had given us, and then slowly, reverently held them up in front of us for inspection. I had supposed that they were both broken, which would explain the discard, but an examination of mine turned up no significant flaws - just some uneven and mud-encrusted grooves in the grain on the fat part of the bat. On the knob was the number "7" - Rocky's number - in magic marker.
"Whoa," I said.
"Yeah," said Robert. "Too bad it's cracked."
"What?" I said. "It isn't cracked."
"Sure it is. Right here," he said, holding his bat out for me to see. Sure enough, there was a sizable break just above the handle.
"Oh," I said. "You're right. Too bad. Mine isn't, though."
"What!" Robert said. "Lemme see."
I showed him my bat, and he searched in vain for a flaw, for a similar detracting fracture.
"That's not fair!" he said. "I got here first. And you get the good bat."
I was smiling broadly.
"Yeah," I said. "Too bad."
Some years later, while working at a daily newspaper in Upstate New York, I wrote a column about that bat - about how I had come to possess it, and how it served me and my friends for years in games of softball played on a flat segment of land on my family's property. I told about how the larger kids who could get the bat around could hit the ball farther with that bat than with any other; how my ownership of it added luster to my image (sorely needed in a teen with acne); and how, eventually, a stranger who joined our game one afternoon (the devil's spawn?) took a mighty swing and broke the bat, leaving it finally in the same condition in which Robert's had first arrived.
I called the column "Rocky and the Magic Bat," for that is how we viewed it - as imbued with the strength of the great Colavito. And I told, near the column's end, how the bat - after proving mortal - was tucked away in a closet in my house and, somewhere along the way, disappeared. Logic says it probably was thrown out when the house was sold and my parents (I was away at college by then) moved.
But I like to think, in the spirit of that long-ago wondrous day at the stadium, that the bat was reclaimed by the baseball gods - lifted from the closet by an unseen spiritual hand, and transformed from its wooden state to something approximating pixie dust as it floated from the dark of storage to the light of the ever-after.
As I write this, well into the early years of the 21st century, Tiger Stadium is no longer housing major league baseball, which has moved on to a modern new facility. Bubba Phillips died nearly a decade ago. Ernie Harwell, 84, has worked all but one year of the past 42 with the Tigers, and just announced plans to retire from the broadcast booth at the end of the coming season. And I've long since lost touch with Robert, and have no idea what he ever did with his bat.
But whatever their fates, they are frozen forever in my memories of that day - still young (in the case of Robert and me) or in their prime (in the case of Rocky, Bubba, Ernie and the stadium) or magical and empowering (in the case of the bat given me by Rocky). They are all woven into the fabric of the man who is typing this story for your perusal; they are all important cogs in the makeup of the man who grew from teen-ager with acne to middle-aged writer.
And for that, they deserve my thanks. So
Thank you, Ernie, for your great voice and soulful play-by-play - and for the greeting.
Thank you, Rocky, for all the homers you hit for the Tigers and for the bat. It was an amazingly kind gift.
Thank you, Tiger Stadium, for many great afternoons. You let me see a lot of games and a lot of great players: Kaline, Mantle, Maris, Berra, Williams, Aparicio and Fox, Brooks and Frank Robinson, Jim Bunning, Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich.
Thank you Bubba, for being there in those formative years - for instilling in me a pride in association, a desire to excel on the playing field, and a deeper love of the game than I imagined possible. Next to my parents, nobody shaped my young years more.
And thank you, you hefty, powerful, bewitched old bat, wherever you are.
Your magic, in memory, lives on.