On a dark Monday afternoon in Greektown, three hours before a game between the Blue Jays and the Tigers, my friend David Klooster and I order frosty mugs of FireBrick Lager and a deep-dish pizza that turns out to be the size of a standard pneumatic wheelbarrow tire. For Toronto and Detroit, it’s a make-up game. Same for David and me.
We haven’t seen each other for 10 years. From the top of his beard upward — largely because of his new glasses and shaved head — David looks a little different and a lot like Breaking Bad’s Walter White. The beard’s grayer but about the same: the kind of haphazardly trimmed number favored by alt-country stars and college professors. In all other ways, David seems the same as ever: smart, quick to laugh, a paragon of Midwestern decency, Dutch pragmatics, and thoroughgoing sanity.
For Toronto and Detroit, it’s a make-up game. Same for David and me.
While we eat, we put aside our cell phones, those grand enablers of pestilential forgetfulness (not to mention brain cancer)Which David had. Probably not from cell phones, but who knows? And, yeah: maybe it’s odd that the first reference to this comes in a footnote. But no one with cancer wants that to become his identity., and, for amusement purposes only, try to come up with the starting lineup for the 1968 Detroit TigersC, Bill Freehan. 1B, Norm Cash. 2B, Dick McAuliffe. 3B, Don Wert. SS, Ray Oyler and then, after Oyler went 0- for-August, erstwhile Gold Glove-winning CF Mickey Stanley—who had never played shortstop before, either in the majors or the minors. RF Al Kaline. CF, Stanley and Jim Northrup. LF, Willie “Not the Guy Michael Dukakis Pardoned” Horton. Rotation: Denny McLain (who won the Cy Young), Mickey Lolich (who won three games in the World Series and, really, the Series itself), Earl Wilson (who, bizarrely, also led the majors in HR/AB ratio), and Joe Sparma (who was also Paul Warfield’s QB for the undefeated 1961 Ohio State Buckeyes, who turned down their Rose Bowl berth because [get this!] a faculty council decided football had gotten too big and was jeopardizing the mission of the university)..
Amid our manful struggle to recall the left side of the infield and the back end of the rotation, we pause to wonder why, even given Gates Brown’s defensive shortcomings, the Tigers couldn’t find more than 92 at-bats for a guy who hit .370, 150 points above the league average. Brown was my favorite player on that team. David’s was Al Kaline, the greatest Tiger of his lifetime. Great as Kaline was, though, Brown’s more fun to remember. He was signed to a Detroit contract while doing a stretch in the Ohio state pen for armed robbery; his nickname referred to the prison gates. He was the one of the Tigers’ first black players. He admitted to getting ulcers from the stress of being always expected to come through as a pinch-hitter.
Best of all: late in a game in 1968 that Gates Brown thought was decided, he got a batboy to smuggle two hotdogs and the attendant condiments out of the clubhouse. Brown was at the far end of the bench, about to chow down, when manager Mayo Smith sent him to the plate. Brown shoved his snack down the front of his jersey and grabbed his bat. He wanted to fly out so that the at-bat would look good. But he accidentally hit the ball on the nose and into the gap. He had to run. To second. He had to slide into second. Head first. When he stood up, Gates Brown was covered in ketchup, mustard, crumbled buns and smashed wieners.
“Mayo Smith fined him like a hundred bucks,” I say, “and asked him why he was eating hot dogs on the bench in the first place.”
“‘Because I was hungry,’” Brown said and David quotes.
We laugh. This was a team we’d loved as kids, David as a fan, me as a 7-year-old twerp who hadn’t yet settled on an allegiance and couldn’t have imagined what heartbreak awaited me once I eventually chose Cleveland. We each grew up less than three hours from Tiger Stadium — he in Grand Rapids, me in Bryan, OhioHome of the Etch-a-Sketch and the Dum-Dum Sucker.. Neither of us ever saw the ’68 Tigers play in person, but we watched them on TV and listened to Ernie Harwell and Ray Lane call countless games on WJR.
“Transistor radio, right?” I ask David.
He laughs. “You bet,” he says. “We had required naps every Sunday afternoon. The TV and the radio were forbidden. But during baseball season, my brother and I turned the radio on anyway and hid it on the floor between our beds.”
“Wait,” I say. “You never saw the ’68 Tigers? I thought you went to at least one game every year.”
Ordinarily, once or twice every summer, his uncle fired up the Buick Roadmaster, loaded up David and his cousins, gunned it onto the highway, briefly obeyed the boys’ shouted request to go 100 mph, then slowed down and continued on to Detroit. Midwesterner that he is, David describes this and nearly every other good time he has as “a blast.”
“Not in ’68,” David says, shaking his head, still a little sad to have missed out. “My dad was on sabbatical that year, to Heidelberg, Germany.” The Kloosters left the country halfway through the summer.
That sabbatical had, at least to some degree, been prompted by the fiery, riotous turmoil that smothered America in 1968. Even in Grand Rapids, shots rang out over on Wealthy StreetAccording to Google Maps, even where Wealthy Street isn’t blighted, it’s perpetually overcast.. The day Martin Luther King was assassinated, David and two friends were walking home from school. A carful of kids saw them, pulled over, and — the thought of whiteness now divorced from any kindly associationI’m paraphrasing Moby-Dick, David’s favorite book to teach. When he saw the white mass on his MRI, he flashed on “The Whiteness of the Whale,” Melville’s virtuosic riff on why things not typically white (like gray matter, David thought) are rendered evil and malignant when they become white. “Everything is in that book,” David says. — beat the hell out of them.
In September, a day or so after Denny McLain won his 30th game, Capitol Records released his album, Denny McLain at the OrganIt features covers of “Hurdy-Gurdy Man” and “The Look of Love”; it was McLain’s first major-label release but, astonishingly, not his last.. It was, apparently, unavailable in Heidelberg. Two days after that, the pennant clinched and McLain up 6-1 and about to win his 31st game, he intentionally grooved a pitch to Mickey Mantle, whom McLain had grown up idolizing. It put the gimpy-kneed Mantle third on the all-time home run listMantle would hit only one more: the following day against Boston’s Jim Lonborg.. David missed that, too. In the final World Series before divisional play started, the Tigers beat the Bob Gibson-led St. Louis Cardinals, 4-3. It was the first World Series I remember watching on TV. David listened to bits and pieces of it on Armed Forces Radio.
But for the last few hours of daylight, we have a ballgame to attend.
We finish lunch and emerge into what, abruptly, has become an ideal day for baseball: 79 degrees with a few white clouds scudding across the sky. Grim realities — like, say, the occupancy rate of the once-glorious buildings of downtown DetroitOr David’s prognosis. The tumor was both nasty and, he’d been told, destined to return. But it had been in a fairly easy place for the surgeon to access — “a can of corn,” David described it. The operation — three months before this game, at the Cleveland Clinic — was deemed a success. Two months later, David finished his first round of radiation and chemo. A couple weeks after that, he felt fine. He started walking three miles a day. The day before the game, he took me sailing on Lake Michigan. He looked perfectly healthy. — are at once obscured.
Tonight there will be fireworks, launched from barges on the Detroit River. “The best you’ll ever see,” a stranger tells us. Already, families are lugging blankets, coolers and camp chairs, on their way to stake out their spots. But for the last few hours of daylight, we have a ballgame to attend.
My friendship with David went into cold storage for no reason better than life’s circumstantial vicissitudes. He and I had been hired in 1989 to teach at a university in Cleveland. We became friends at new-faculty orientation. He's one of those people who, even in his 20s, got called “wise.” Ideal person to have a beer withMeaning: appreciates the good stuff but will drink cheap beer without complaint; buys more than his share of rounds; makes good conversation (even pre-buzz) on a broad swath of topics; waits to be solicited for advice but then delivers big time and without judgment; seems never to call it a night too early or too late.. Good with tools. Cheerful about helping friends who are emphatically not good with tools.
David and I went to dozens of Cleveland Indians games together during the years the team went from 105-game losers to two appearances in the World Series. We fell in love with Cleveland, but we both soured on our jobs, and by the turn of the century we were both out of there (I was pushed; David jumped), to jobs we liked a lot better (and still have). For the last several years, David has been the English Department chair at Hope College in Holland, Mich.
There are those graced friendships that, somehow, allow you to pick them back up without missing a beat. I’d guessed, correctly, that this would be one of them.
There are those graced friendships that, somehow, allow you to pick them back up without missing a beat.
I scam us some press credentials, and we loiter on the field during batting practice, performing no discernible working-journalist business. It’s David’s first time standing on a big-league field before a game. He’s grinning about it the way any fan would, although we both bitch about the players’ unnumbered batting-practice shirts. Even with our scorecard, we had a hard time identifying anyone other than Toronto’s Jose Bautista and Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera (probably the two best hitters in the league), the guys who used to be Cleveland IndiansVictor Martínez, Jhonny Peralta and a couple of the Toronto coaches., and Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who seemed old when he was young (in that 1986 baseball card, his first year managing in the majors, he’s 41) and doesn’t look especially different now.
We take our seats, not too far behind home plate. On the field, a battalion of women in pink breast-cancer-awareness T-shirts surround one of their number, who sings the straightforward hell out of the Canadian and American national anthems. The game is not robustly attended. As the women file from the field, we are our grateful beer guy’s first customers of the day. He nods toward the women while he pours. “That cancer ain’t nothin’ to mess with,” he says.
We can’t help but agree.
“We men have our own cancers, too, y’know,” he says.
We knowDavid and I keep our eyes steadfastly on the beer guy and not each other.. I refrain from pointing out that my own father — a 6’4, 400-pound semi-professional clown — had breast cancer.
“That prostate cancer’s nasty business,” he says. “Gotta keep after it, believe me.”
We tell him that we do. I tip him generously.
“What color would prostate cancer be?” David says.
Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar takes the first pitch of the game for a strike. I take a long pull of my Labatt Blue.
“Blue,” I say. “Same as the Vaseline labelIf you do not get this joke, ask any man who is over 40 and has healthcare. Be prepared to wince..”
David shakes his head with affable faux-sadness.
This time, I do resort to my iPhone. “I was right!” I say.
“Aw, c’mon,” David says.
“See for yourself,” I say, one college professor stooping to hand a Wikipedia page to another.
The count’s full now. Escobar takes Max Scherzer’s pitch and starts running to first as the home-plate ump rings him up, provoking a tantrum brief enough to avoid ejection but long enough, David and I agree, to create bad karma.
“Next time up, if I were Scherzer,” I say, with the bravado of some nimrod who is not Scherzer and who never pitched above Little League, “I’d plunk him.”
More sensibly, David, who was often pressed into service to umpire his three sons’ ballgames, says that if he were the umpire, Escobar’s strike zone just became chin-to-shoetops.
(What will actually happen, though: Escobar’s next time up, he fouls a pitch off the inside of his ankle and hops around for a couple minutes in what would appear to be excruciating pain.)
Scherzer, a fastball pitcher facing a team of dead-pull hitters, strikes out the next batter on three pitches and then goes up 0-1 to Bautista. Then, for the first time in the game and to the MLB home-run leader, Scherzer throws a changeup.
Bautista swings while the ball still seems barely beyond Scherzer’s fingertips. Strike 2. The oooh from the crowd couldn’t have been any more shot through with schadenfreude if Bautista had been hit in the nuts.
Scherzer wastes a fastball away. Then, with Bautista sitting on the breaking ball, Scherzer fires a 96 mph fastball with a wicked natural hop in it. Strike 3.
We drink to that.
I put away the phone and, while I keep score, David and I try to name the starting lineups of other great Tigers teamsNine pitchers have won both the Cy Young and MVP in the same season. Eight are household names. The ninth pitched for the 1984 Tigers. David and I got almost everyone else on this team but had to cheat to remember Willie Hernández. “Señor Smoke” (now you remember, right?) is 56 now, living in the Dominican Republic on a 120-head cattle ranch. At last count, he’s had three strokes, plus asthma, diabetes and a pacemaker.. Meanwhile, Zach Stewart — the Blue Jays’ rookie starter, a sinker/slider/changeup guy who’s been shuttled back and forth from the bullpen during his rise through the minors — has a 1-2-3 first. After that, though, his command becomes iffy and he’s in persistent petty troubleThe following day, Stewart was sent back to Triple-A Las Vegas..
Still, the Tigers keep failing to knock him out. In the second, Cabrera singles and Martínez doubles him in, but the Tigers leave two on base. In the third, Cabrera drives in Brennan Boesch from second, but the Tigers strand two more. Et cetera.
Scherzer is considerably more impressive, but he makes a mistake to Adam Lind, who is looking dead-red and smacks a two-run homer.
Then, with the score tied 2-2, a dispute in the bottom of the seventh leads to the game’s indisputable highlight.
With no outs and runner on first, backup outfielder Andy Dirks — starting today only because it’s a makeup game — drops a bunt. Jason Frasor, the new Toronto pitcher, badly misreads it, but Aaron Hill, the second baseman, charges three steps inside the grass and guns it to Lind at first.
It’s not close. For a full four seconds, the players go about their post-out business until, finally, the first-base ump makes his call.
David and I look at each other and, cussing in surprise and disbelief, leap to our feet. Neither of us can ever remember seeing a big-league umpire take that long to make a call. Much less an unobstructed and clearly wrong call. Which — including better cussing — is what Blue Jays manager John Farrell is shouting at the ump as he runs out of the dugout and toward him.
The ump says something, Farrell seems placated, and the ump jogs toward home.
“He’s saying he didn’t see it!” David marvels. David’s vision to his left isn’t strong but we’re looking right.
“No way,” I say. “He was standing right by the bag.”
The home-plate ump regards his colleague the way you would a buddy who was hitting on a decidedly-out lesbian mutual friend. Dude, seriously? How can you not know she’s gay?
I know! the buddy says, both of you awash in the shameful knowledge that he had no clue. Geez. I was just kidding!
About then — 18 seconds after the blown call, 22 seconds after the it should have been made — the first-base ump reverses himself and makes the now-only-technically correct call. Dirks is out.
The stadium erupts. The home-plate ump, who clearly wants no part of this, turns and walks away.
“I’ve never seen anything like that!” David says.
“I don’t think anybody hasThis would include Jim Leyland. “In 48 years of baseball,” he says the next day at his pregame presser, “I have never seen a play where a ground ball is thrown to the first baseman, called one way, and changed.”.,” I say.
When Leyland hops out of the dugout, smoke coming out of his ears, for a change, instead of his mouth and nose, David and I practically hug each other in anticipation of the show we’re hoping to get.
Spittle flying, F-bombs bursting in air, Leyland puts on the best show of its sort that either David or I have ever seen — and, yes, we’ve each seen Earl Weaver get tossed. A few things really set this performance apart. Leyland arrives ump-side and manages to get ejected faster than it took the umpire to make the call in the first place. Throughout, tantrum is emphatic without being wholly childish; he never throws anything or breaks anything. Its especially-creative highpoint comes when he mockingly reenacts the ump’s heinous call in a way that evokes the sped-up film stock with which we’re accustomed to seeing Babe Ruth play catch.
His players — young enough to be his grandchildren — seem richly entertained without being the least bit embarrassed. The following inning, Jose Bautista loses a ball in the lights, and it becomes a Jhonny Peralta triple. The Tigers score twice. They win the game 4-2.
The game ends with an hour of daylight to spare. We join most of the crowd and go down to the riverDavid’s vision was impaired enough that navigating a crowd like that posed a little bit of a problem, though only occasionally. I kept an eye on him. Once, maybe twice, I took his hand..
I’m ashamed to admit that I’m still capable of a tantrum — though none so loveable as Leyland’s, and nothing anyone would pay to see — but David probably never was and certainly isn’t nowA month after this, in Cleveland, in a cement bunker, technicians positioned David on a hard flat table. They bound his feet and had him clutch a rubber ring in his hands and ordered him to remain motionless and calm. They secured his head with a Hannibal Lecter mask and bombarded the back of his brain with a raygun. All while his terrified family watched. All of which he handled with stoic grace and a few jokes. All of which I vowed to remember next time my flight is cancelled and I am filled with rage. Which, in fact, happened the day after this game. Both the canceled flight and the realization that scrambling to find a hotel room near the airport at 3 a.m. is by no means a serious problem.. We say nothing about this stark difference between us, though, as we continue to chuckle over Leyland’s show.
What is there to say about fireworks? Go to any game you like, any match, any race, with any friend you feel like taking, and I’ll guarantee you that, if you pay attention, you’ll see things you never saw before and have stories to tell about the specific things that happened, whether in the game or match or race or, just as likely, swirling around it.
Fireworks — even the best I’ve ever seen, which these probably are — are just fireworks. What is there to say to anyone else about them? What is there to distinguish them from all the other fairly good fireworks displays you’ve ever seen?
Sure, they’re a blast. But that’s all they are.
Who would call up a friend he’s sort of lost touch with and ask him to go see fireworks? What would they possibly talk about when they’re there? Whatever wonders fill the sky, they will, in no time, succumb to newer memories. Nothing’s going to matter but whoever stood beside you.
June 27, 2011Almost exactly a year later, at his home in Holland, Mich., David died. He went peacefully, holding his wife’s hand and surrounded by his three sons. In Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, a book that David loved, she writes that the two best prayers she knows are, “Help me, help me, help me” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Alongside his deathbed, his family said both.