By: Eric Thomas
Men and women stand shoulder to shoulder on the sidewalk waiting for the light; they’re facing north toward the ballpark. Some took the long walk from the casino parking structures; others spent the last few hours drinking beer from cans in fenced parking lots behind the Fox Theater. They all walk with heads down, the only sound around them the normal cityscape: aging brakes whine, a horn in the distance, the steam escaping manhole covers and the siren in the distance. No claps or happy chatter or whoots; no optimistic tones as the walk sign lights and the procession moves across the street.
Inside the park, the faces are the same. They move through the concourses and aisles knowing what is at stake. The buzz and chatter is an octave lower, the motions are a step slower. A man turns to his friend on the concourse, “Man, some of these dudes are drunk,” nodding for emphasis, holding his own aluminum Coors bottle as he says it.
“I understand man,” says his friend. “This team is tough to watch right now.”
They don’t sell tickets to a funeral because no one would buy them.
Some vendors have started selling hot apple cider—they ladle it into cups from large black pots. There’s no one waiting in line because the sun still warms one half of the seats, the only chill in the air is from the people around the park as they move toward their seats. The woman behind the cider pots stares at the passing people with a blank look on her face.
The Anthem is sung. Fans take their coats off and sit on them. It’s good weather for baseball. They’ve all been handed white towels with advertising printed on them; they spin them dutifully above their heads. It looks good on television.
Coco Crisp hits a triple. A few batters later he scores from third. Doug Fister’s having trouble finding the strike zone, and the inning goes a little longer than fans had hoped.
The Tigers top of the order goes down 1-2-3. A few fans leave their seats to go smoke. There are a few groans around—hands cradle faces. They trade knowing looks, the shared experience of bearing witness to the end of a season that opened with such promise.
There are signs printed in all capital letters around the park in prominent places, thanking three million fans for their support in 2013.
Oakland pitcher Dan Straily hasn’t given up a hit through the first four innings.
Conversations overheard include “Not again,” “World Series,” and “This was supposed to be the year.” Jed Lowrie hits a fly ball to right field; it goes over Torii Hunters glove and into the seats.
The crowd stares at the concrete between their feet. The seed of hope that was planted at some point in the past—maybe this spring, maybe two years ago when Prince was signed—is now embalmed in public. They walked into the stadium with the knowledge that this could be the end. It looks like it will be. Deep breaths are the first step toward acceptance.
Prince Fielder hits a single at the top of the fifth inning. The crowd stands and cheers, some tension relieved. If it ends today, at least it won’t be embarrassing like the last game of the regular season.
Peralta to the plate; some murmured whispers in the crowd. The disgraced former shortstop spent fifty games under an ignominious cloud, his mea culpa delivered in a press release, he answered questions from reporters choking back his pride…wouldn’t be amazing if he—swing. It looks like a line drive at first as the crowd comes to their feet, but Cespedes is looking up.
Peralta rounds the bases to the sound of resurrected fans, hearts in throats and smiles on faces in almost every green seat—but none wider than the man who touches third and trots to home plate. His name is chanted in left field, then from a few other places, those who don’t shake their heads in disbelief.
Max Scherzer trots from the bullpen, the crowd roars when they hear his name. He gives up a run in the fifth inning. Victor Martinez hits a home run in the top of the fifth but the scoreboard goes blank. It’s under review; possible fan interference. A hush over the crowd. This would be a lousy way to lose. Umpire emerges and twirls his finger in the air. Peralta to the plate. Can he do it again? He does. He leaves this game under a cloud of redemption.
Austin Jackson to the plate, frustrated fans boo at the announcement of his name. Leyland should have replaced him. He’s struck out in ten of the last fourteen times he’s had a chance. He swings, bat shatters, ball lifts and drops into right field. Tigers take the lead.
Scherzer back to the mound; he loads the bases. Audible prayers are heard in the seats. Every fan will remember forever what happens next.
An hour later, under the bird’s nest of stairwells in the belly of Comerica Park, music throbs in the Tigers clubhouse. Joaquin Benoit is talking to reporters. “That’s one of the things that we love about going to Oakland,” he says. “The fans are into it from the first inning no matter what happens in the game and that’s what we want…I mean, it’s really good when the fans are cheering for you.”
In the view from the stands, it’s hard to figure out what the hell he’s talking about.