By: Will Burchfield
If Wayne Gretzky had lived out his true childhood dream, he would have manned shortstop at Tiger Stadium.
Speaking on The Dan Patrick Show on Thursday morning, ‘The Great One’ said his first love was baseball, not hockey. And there was one team he always wanted to play for.
“I would have loved to have been the shortstop for the Detroit Tigers. I grew up such a big Tigers fan,” said Gretzky, who was raised in Brantford, Ontario, about 150 miles east of Detroit.
The two cities were close enough to one another that Gretzky could pick up the Tigers on the radio, Ernie Harwell providing a soundtrack to his youth. Of all the players he cheered for as a kid, one stands out.
“When Mark ‘The Bird’ Fidrych came out, I can remember…I would be so excited about watching The Bird pitch that night,” Gretzky said. “I thought, ‘Okay, this guy is so unique and he’s so good,’ and yet he had charisma and he had a style and a grace and an elegance about him.”
Fidrych broke into the Majors in 1976, when Gretzky was 15 years old, and promptly took the league by storm. He went the distance in seven of his first eight starts, setting up a June showdown with the Yankees on ABC’s Game of the Week. To this day, Gretzky still remembers the pregame feature.
“Howard Cosell was bragging to the Yankees players – Thurman Munson, Reggie Jackson, all the guys who were on that team – and he said, ‘You know, Marc the Bird Fidrych said he’s going to mow you guys down.’ They were cutting him up, which was normal, he was a young kid,” Gretzky recalled.
“(Cosell) went back to Marc Fidrych and said these guys said this about you and (Fidrych) goes, ‘Who are those guys?’ He had no idea who was on the team, he just knew it was the New York Yankees. I always thought that was so fascinating.”
Sure enough, Fidrych went out and held the Yankees to one run over nine dominant innings in a 5-1 Tigers win.
His postgame interview is, in a word, gold.
Given the opportunity to play either professional hockey or professional baseball, a young Gretzky wouldn’t have flinched.
“Oh my gosh,” he said. “I would have taken baseball all day long.”
He was also an avid box lacrosse player.
“I had all these aspirations and my dad kept kind of clipping me over the head, saying, ‘You’re a hockey player, you know,'” Gretzky laughed. “I’m like, ‘Okay.'”
When he was about 14 years old, Gretzky decided it was time to give up his boyhood dream.
“I said, ‘Okay, I love baseball but I’m not going to be a professional baseball player. I better head in the direction of hockey,'” he recalled.
That worked out okay for Gretzky in the end. Over a 21-year NHL career, he played in 18 All-Star Games, claimed nine MVP awards and won four Stanley Cups. His 2,857 career points are far and away the most in NHL history, representing just one of his many records that will almost surely stand forever.
All of which makes us wonder: man, what kind of legacy could he have left in baseball?
And would Alan Trammel still be remembered as the best shortstop in Tigers history?
The Tigers, for their part, certainly seem interested in making Gretzky’s dream come true.
Gretzky also touched on his experience at the last month’s NHL All-Star Game, when he subbed in as coach of the Metropolitan Division All-Stars. (They won, of course.) He also helped coach a celebrity team featuring Justin Bieber, whose encounter with Chris Pronger quickly became in Internet sensation.
After Bieber peeled himself off the boards and got back to the bench, Gretzky shared some hard-earned advice.
“I told him… ‘Never go into the corners. You get hurt there and you can’t score from there, so don’t go there,'” Gretzky said with a laugh.
Part of the Great One’s magic, of course, was his ability to score from anywhere.