My dad, Jim Walsh, died suddenly on September 26, 1997. Three days prior I spent my last night with him at a Tiger game.
A couple days after his October 1st funeral, I wrote the following, wanting to record as much significant memories for what was, at the time, not too significant a day. But I can still feel his final embrace and the laughter and mutual support we offered each other that evening.
Tuesday September 23, 1997
Dad called me from his car phone with his standard, “Hi Kev!” amidst the static of the usual faint connection which always made him sound like Neil Armstrong. We were finally going to use the rain-check for the cancelled April Tigers game. All summer we kept reminding each other that we ought to pick out a game and just go.
Summer passed and football season began. Dad said, “They’re home the last week of the season, and that Tuesday looks like the only game I’ll be able to make.” I agreed that the twenty-third looked good for me, too, a Red Sox game. The two of us hadn’t gone to a game together for possibly ten years or more. I had gone with him indirectly three weeks earlier when the Phillies were in town. My sister Katie and her husband Anthony and I met Dad by the third-base line hot dog stand at a pre-assigned location; he was sitting with his pal Bill Simmons and we were roaming the ball park, taking advantage of the low-attendance to try out different vantage points. But this Red Sox game would be the first one for just the two of us in a long, long while.
Patrice told me that Dad had called earlier, that he had a head cold and might cancel, since the night was supposed to be chilly. So when the phone rang I figured that we would have to eat the rain checks and try again in the spring. Instead, Dad said, “What the heck, let’s give it a try. If I start to feel lousy we’ll leave early, if that’s okay with you?” I was thrilled to be going and figured that if the Tigers were playing terrible or had a big lead we’d leave early anyway. Dad said he’d be by at 6:15 to pick me up.
I decided to eat some of Dad’s leftovers from Margarita’s Mexican restaurant that he left at the house the other night. (We planned on eating hot dogs at the game of course, but it would be late.) Afterwards, two-year-old Aidan and I went outside to play.
“Daddy play baseball with apples?” he asked, reading the question like a statement until the final syllable is raised four octaves to indicate that it was indeed a question.
“Sure,” I replied. Two days earlier, Aidan’s cousin Kris took him in the backyard with one of our old baseball bats and started obliterating the fallen apples. We headed to the backyard, figuring I had some time to kill before Dad showed up.
It was a beautiful, cool fall evening as Aidan hunted around in the grass beneath our ignored apple trees. The ground was lumpy with rotten and fresh apples, each with pock marks found only in the insecticide-free variety. He would reach down for an apple, almost take a bite out of it, think better and walk it over to me. “Here Daddy.”
With each apple I hit, the air became more aromatic, like a cider mill’s. Chunks of apple were all over the grass as Patrice shouted to us from the back door that Dad had just called and was on his way over. It was already 6:25, , not too unusual that he was running late and also not unusual that he would call and let us know that he was running late. So Aidan and I continued our baseball game until he got bored and decided that it was time to go running down the sidewalk, yelling, “Go to park?” again sending the word “park” higher.
I needed to create a diversion so I suggested that we climb the birch trees instead. If we were further down the street I would have to carry a crying boy back to the house when Dad pulled up, a boy certain that he was going to the park a second earlier–not a cool gift for Patrice with a five week old in her lap.
I lifted him so that his feet could walk up the first birch tree. He laughed and laughed all three trips up the trunk until he spotted the second tree. By the third tree he was laughing so hard I had to hold him carefully to avoid him laughing himself off balance, so I put him astride the tree trunk like a cowboy on a horse.
Dad pulled in to see his grandson smiling down at him from the tree beside the driveway. He just stopped the car and gazed through the closed window of his Buick. It took Aidan a few minutes to realize who was inside the car, then he laughed and said, “Poppa!” Dad pulled the car further up the driveway and got out with his trademark, “Hello there, Aidan!” Once in a while, Aidan will run to someone and give them a hug. He did give one to Dad that day.
The next trick was diverting Aidan inside the house while Dad and I drove off –accomplished easily with Patrice popping in a videotape in the basement still holding Abigail.
The Buick Therapy Session
Dad and I drove from our Royal Oak house to the Lodge Freeway down Greenfield Road. It was a way neither of us had taken before to the stadium but made sense coming from my side of town. The drive was very smooth and Dad said that we should take this route from now on, instead of 1-75.
I had had one of the more stressful days in my career, taking part in a meeting of administrators who were trying to discover why our school’s computer status was far below what was promised to us two years earlier. A document that I had written to appease some frustrated staff members in our building which detailed the past two years’ promises vs. the actual results made its way to our principal who called the meeting with the administrators from the board office. Needless to say, I had to do most of the talking and the tone that I had hoped for, a tone of non -defensive, problem-seeking reasoning quickly slid into an ugly, defensive, mudslinging ninety-minute ulcer-fest. I felt awful as I often do in situations like that where conflict is directly in front of me.
Dad listened to my account as accutely as he always does, letting me talk myself into calmness. Then he ran down a tough day he had had with some customers and another salesperson at work. We were always comparing notes from our jobs in teaching and in sales, noting the similarities of dealing with unhappy “customers.”
Dad had recently been put in the awkward situation of having another salesman come to him for price quotes for a customer, instead of going through the standard formula recommended by their boss. He hated having to tell the guy he couldn’t help him, but he was also upset by being put in the awkward situation of enabling someone who wasn’t doing their job right.
By the time we finished our mobile therapy session, we were pulling into the stadium parking, both feeling much better and looking forward to the game.
What Happened, They’re All Being Nice?
It was strange getting off the expressway to find the St. Boniface parish gone. The familiar red-bricked church was always our landmark whose parking business we supported. It was an extra block from the stadium but a charitable cause. We instead pulled into a lot closer to the stadium, expecting the usual gruff person with the apron taking the six dollars for parking who would usually tell you to be happy with whatever spot you got.
Dad rolled down the window, “We might be leaving early. Can we get a spot near an exit?”
“They’re all easy out ,” replied the aproned man. “Okay.”
But as we pulled forward, the man yelled ahead to the guy with the flag in the lot, “Bill, give them one of the front spots!”
Bill waved us forward and gave us a prime spot that would have had us on the expressway immediately after a Game 7 win at the World Series, let alone in the middle of a low-attendance, end-of-season night for a non-contending team. As we got out of the car, thrilled, Dad gave Bill a couple of bucks extra and thanked him.
“Enjoy the game,” Bill replied, smiling.
The friendliness of the two parking attendants gave us plenty to talk about all the way to the ticket booth. We noted that usually when coming down to a game, you need to put your social force fields up, like when visiting New York. We were even more stunned when a smiling face waited behind the ticket booth’s plexiglass.
“Hi, guys! What can I do for you?”
We gave him the three rain-checked tickets we had since April. Throughout the week we had tried to get a third person to come with us. Rick Olshove told us the previous Sunday in my parent’s family room as we watched a frustrating Lions’ loss to New Orleans, “Jim, the game’s just too slow for me to stand.” Pat Walsh couldn’t join us because he’d be working late and Paul, our neighbor was going to make it up until the night before when a friend reminded him of a party he was going to.
So, we figured the third ticket could be given to someone if not turned in and credited toward a better seat. He asked us where we wanted to sit. I told Dad about the seats along the first base line , upper deck, that I’ve always wanted to sit in and finally did during the Phillies’ game with Katie and Anthony. It’s an odd part that hangs out, over the visiting team’ s bullpen. It’ s like being in a special balcony over the field. Dad said sure so I described the section to the nice ticket man.
Not only was he still smiling as he punched up the tickets , but he handed Dad back seventeen dollars cash! A cash refund was an option we didn’t even think about. Dad laughed , “Thanks, I think I’ll reinvest this right back into your organization with some hot dogs and beer.” The man laughed then wished us a nice game.
Robbing the Michigan and Trumbull Memory Bank
We were on the opposite side of the stadium from our seats, but Tiger Stadium’s lower deck has a terrific open walkway that allows you to see the field all the way around the park. As we walked up the ramp of the 80 year-old I was thinking of games before with my father.
One of my first games after we moved back to the Detroit area after three years in Cincinnati occurred when Norm Cash hit a huge home run off the top facing of right field. Dad and I were returning from the restroom, I think. He raised his arms in a cheer so quickly that he hooked his glasses on the way up and sent them flying up then hitting the ground, fortunately unbroken.
During one crowded game in a crowded restroom we walked in to find one man relieving himself in the sink. I was only eleven and was completely shocked. Dad would always laugh about that guy years later whenever we walked into the stadium’s old restrooms together.
” Remember that one guy…” would be all he’d have to say to get us both laughing . We usually chose a different sink, after examining it carefully.
In 1975 while sitting in the upper deck, third base line, Dad and I, along with neighbors Mrs. Martz , Ron, and Rick saw a streaker run from the Tiger dugout all the way to center field where Ron LeFlore stared in disbelief. The guy tried climbing the fence to avoid the security cops, but fell from five feet up on his rear end on the gravel of the warning track.
That same year we attended Al Kaline Day on my birthday. I clearly remember a wheelbarrow full of silver dollars being pushed down the third baseline and a cool yellow poster that showed Kaline as a member of baseball’ s 3,000 hit club. That poster hung on my wall for five years.
In 1977 Dad was the first one to tell me about Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, two young players from the farm system that are supposed to be terrific. He was right–we were able to enjoy them for the next twenty years.
1984 was a magical season that I’ll always cherish as a memory of my father. The Tigers won the World Series , finishing the regular season with a 104-58 record. They led the standings from wire to wire and only lost one playoff game. My first memory of that year didn’t involve Dad or Tiger stadium. My college roommate Kevin Traynor and I took the South Shore commuter train from South Bend to Chicago in early April of our freshman year to see the Tigers play the Sox at Comiskey Park. Jack Morris went on to pitch the first no-hitter of the season. I couldn’t wait to get back to school and call Dad. He was thrilled and had watched the game on NBC’s game of the week. He knew I was there and was so happy for me I almost started crying.
In May of that same year we went down and saw Dave Rozema pitch a great game in the snow. All summer, Katie, Dad and I would go down to the stadium and sit in what would become “our” seats at the top of the upper-deck bleachers, just left of the scoreboard. Dad liked the spot because it was the only $3 seat with a back rest, the wall behind us.
In September, Kevin Traynor and Mark Hernandez skipped the Colorado-Notre Dame game to see the Yankees lose to the Tigers. Kevin called the Tigers a machine as they prepared for the post season a few weeks away.
Dad had sent in ticket applications for the post-season game and got six tickets in the bleachers for game four. As luck would have it, Dad had a horrible cold that day and gave his ticket to my pal Greg Weaver, who was in that weekend for fall break from Georgetown. Alan Trammell knocked in Lou Whitaker twice on consecutive home runs. When we got home, Dad was so thrilled that it was the same as if he had been there anyway.
The strike of 1994 soured us on baseball for the next two and a half years. The Phillies game, just three weeks earlier, had been my first game since that year. We didn’t attend a game in 1995 by protest and in 1996, toward the end of the season, for less political reasons than apathy about the Tigers specifically and baseball in general.
Hanging Over First Base
We finally reached the seats and turned the comer to see the view down the baseline. Dad exclaimed, “These are great! I’ve never sat here before!” We nestled ourselves in one row up from the guard fence , so it wouldn’t block our view. There was just one other guy in the section, four rows behind us, so we didn’t sit exactly where our tickets told us to, but that didn’t matter.
The game moved along quickly until the sixth inning when the Tigers finished scoring their six runs. They would go on to win the game, 6-0, going one game over .500 for the first time that season. They would then lose the last five games but they had gotten over the hump, however briefly, from the previous year’s record-breaking losing season.
Probably the best aspect of a baseball game, from a fan’s point of view, is that you can really visit with someone for a nice long time while the game is happening. Football, hockey, and basketball move too quickly to talk effectively and the stress level associated with watching your team lose can soon spread to a fine pessimism in your whole attitude. I clearly remember an awful beating the Lions took from Green Bay one year that put us in a lousy mood for the rest of the Sunday. If the Tigers lose, you can absorb it a little more sanely, since the pace is generally slower anyway. A home run can potentially due more damage than even a great kick-return, so the suspense is a little more keen.
This game was not suspenseful, but was eventful. We saw Bobby Higginson hit his 100th RBI and some great defensive plays. It’s also fun to see the Red Sox, more than the Rangers or any other “new” team, since these two teams have been playing each other for nearly a hundred years.
I don’ t remember much more information about the game but I do remember a fine , relaxed two hour continuation of our conversation. Topics ranged from the Wallside Windows billboard by the dugout, which looked like it was going to be Dad’ s newest glass account, to our friends’ experiences at Notre Dame, my birthday the following Tuesday when Mom and Dad would watch Abigail and Aidan as Patrice and I went to our first movie since July. It was a perfect, clear, crisp evening and Dad’s head cold wasn’t bothering him at all. We munched our way through the brown bags of peanuts Dad purchased outside of the stadium from this old man who, for as long as I could remember, sold two bags for a buck.
The Tiger stadium friendliness continued with the hot-dog salesman who wished us a great game and even vendors who didn’t sell us anything, but smiled at us and said, “How you doing ?”
There was no beer vendor, so Dad went to get some on his way back from the restroom. He was gone for a while so I started looking for him over my left shoulder as the game continued. I finally saw him holding a tray with the hot dogs and beer about two sections down. The breeze was blowing his blonde -gray hair around the front of his head. He was walking with the same bounce-step that I inherited. It’s strange to see someone from a distance that you mainly know up close. At first I didn’t recognize him, quickly just seeing a body to blend in with all the others. He wasn’t in the section opening I expected him to be in so my eyes and mind had to do a double-take to categorize this walker as someone I knew.
Like that image of Dad through the window of his car looking at Aidan in the tree , this picture of him will stay with me forever.
Soon after the arrival of the beer, two guys sat down in front of us. Of all the thousands of empty seats in the park, it was somewhat annoying that they would sit directly in our line of vision. The guy in front of Dad looked just like the golfer, Tom Kite. The guy in front of me soon left his seat to move to lean over the railing with his video camera so he could videotape the bullpen and the action. I noticed it was the same camera I had so we began a conversation.
Soon we were laughing and sharing stories of the old ballpark. Dad pointed out where the old bullpen used to be, the same tunnel in centerfield that the Lions used to emerge from. I laughed that it was funny that the little football-shaped possession lights were still on baseline scoreboards, even though the Lions had left the stadium twenty years earlier. The two guys talked about the teams from the seventies and eighties and the lone man sitting behind us chipped in some more trivia about the park from the forties and fifties. While we all talked, the guy with the camera would tape bits and pieces of action of the game, and I’m sure some of our conversation.
In between these conversations, we actually had a foul ball head our way off the bat of Bubba Trammell–falling just below us into the lower deck.
“Busy Week Ahead…”
At the start of the eighth inning it was getting pretty cold and close to 9:30. Dad told me he had a ton of driving to do early the next morning (to Toledo, to Elkhart, to Grand Rapids) and I had school the next day. So we said goodbye to the guys in front of us. The guy with the camera stopped us for a minute and handed each of us a card with a pin from the 1994 World Cup on it.
The business card was unusual, having no phone number or name, just “Small Town, U.S.A.® Channel 18 is on the scene!” On the back of the card was written “September 23, 1997 Red Sox vs. Tigers.” That seemed odd but nice. So we headed out.
Before we left the park, Dad stopped me at the top of the lower deck, between third base and home, pointing to some seats beside one of the support poles. “That’s where my Dad and I would always sit. Whenever a ball was hit to center field, I always thought it was a home run but Dad always knew it wasn’t.” In all the years of games, this was the first time he had shared that location with me.
Our parking spot was perfect and allowed us to get right out of the lot and onto the freeway. We listened to the remainder of the game on the radio and were happy to discover that we picked the right time to leave, since the Tigers went on to win with no exciting events.
On the way Dad said, “I think I’ll write a letter to Mike llitch complimenting him on what he’s done with the team. They’ve really won me back. I think this winter I’ll be feeling excited about spring training like I used to feel.”
We got home just before ten o’clock. Patrice and Mom were in the living room with Aidan and Abigail. All four of them had just returned twenty minutes earlier from a La Leche League meeting with Kathie Troshynski and her daughter Karen whose baby was on the way. Dad sat down on the couch beside Mom for a while, looking very tired, but happy with his surroundings.
Soon Mom and Dad left in their separate cars. They hugged us both on their way out the door.
I didn’t know that these three and a half hours were the last I would spend with my Dad, but I couldn’t have written a better script for my last night with Dad. It was still a week before my thirty-third birthday but on the third night of visitation at the funeral home when people were noting how sad it was that my birthday was spent in such sad circumstances I was able to smile telling them that we had already celebrated my birthday a week earlier.
I don’t know who or what Channel 18 is, or who Bill and the other parking attendant are.
I also can’t remember such pleasant treatment at Michigan and Trumbell. It’s like a group of angels took over the place, combining in an effort to say, “Enjoy your last game, Jim. It’s been great having you here.”