I think it was Wednesday when I threw the idea out to my wife. Hey, we should go to the Tigers game this Friday. Verlander's making his first start since the no-hitter and I still have my gift cards so the tickets won't really cost anything. We could even invite (our friends and most frequent weekend cohorts) Greg and Patricia. They had asked that we let them know if we went to a game this year.
I confess that I threw this idea out there like an idea I could either take or leave (which I could), but it made so much sense I figured the only obstacle was the weather. Sure enough, my wife tried to fend the idea off with more practical uses of our weekend's beginning, but it wasn't long before its brilliance and appeal had bored into her brain. Next thing you know, we're texting our friends to see if they were game.
As soon as they texted back that they were in, I fretted over the wisdom of this decision. This is no slight to our friends. You see, when I was growing up and our family was going to a Tiger game, everybody was on the same page that it was an EVENT. An event which we would only get to enjoy a limited number of times per season. An event important enough that we would not be leaving early except on rare occasions when something outside of the world of baseball meant we had to be home by a certain time or get a certain amount of sleep that night. To be clear, I don't mean like little Matthew has to go to school tomorrow. I mean like we're going on vacation tomorrow and we're leaving at 5:00 in the morning so if the game goes into extra innings we might have to leave early.
This approach to being able to go to a Tiger baseball game was why I was so shocked when I went to a game with somebody else's family at some point in my youth and saw these generous hosts start gathering their things to go home when the game was headed for extra innings. I was too grateful for being invited and too polite (in this instance) to protest, but I realized this day many years ago some people weren't in for the duration. Work? School? Those are the Tigers out there on that field! This approach was foreign indeed to a young boy whose family had each staked out an entire section at Tiger Stadium one game in the hopes of getting a foul ball. I mean like Section 135 was mine. My brother had 136, etc. We could do this because it was about 45 degrees, raining, the Tigers were trailing 9-0 and there were about 75 people left in the ballpark.
Anyway, this viewpoint when going to Tiger games has always stuck with me and when our friends accepted our invitation I wasn't sure whether they would subscribe to the same school of thought. And this game could be important. It was possible - not likely but possible - this game would have both miserable weather and Verlander's second consecutive no-hitter. I was nervous about being in attendance with people who wouldn't be able to set aside the former to appreciate the latter. As usual, these concerns were unfounded.
You see, our friend Patricia had never been to a baseball game of any kind and was what I would consider properly excited. They were not only game for making the trip to Detroit, they didn't care about the weather. If it was rained out, we could go to Slow's or something. Perfect. We were going and everybody was excited about it.
Friday evening, we all arrived at my house from our various places of employment and headed north up I-75. In the back seat, my wife gave our friend a baseball primer. And I mean Baseball 101. Not just that batters get four balls and three strikes, but explaining what it meant for a pitch to be a ball or a strike. When a ball was foul. What it meant when you say somebody got a hit. This lasted about fifteen to twenty minutes. You really have to keep it simple or baseball quickly turns into something like an economics lecture. Anyway, baseball could only hold the conversation so long before talk turned to food and drinks available in the ballpark. Who would get a hot dog and who would get a brat? What would you put on it? Ketchup? I'm going to have to let you out at the next exit.
Thanks to my being a savvy fan who knows not to follow the herd to the Grand River exit, we made it to the game in time for the first pitch. We were a little nervous about where our seats might be. We thought we'd either have to pay more than we wanted for decent seats or sit out in the boon docks. Luckily, we were able to sit in the exact section we wanted - 116, Row 17. No evening sun in our eyes. Close to the action. Reasonable price. With the weather looking positively agreeable, I had a good feeling about this game and this evening.
As we made our way through the concourse, we went through the usual decisions. Get to our seats and wait for the vendors or get the food and head to our seats. What kind of beer did we want? One hot dog or two? I try to act nonchalant about all this, but even as somebody whose first game was almost thirty years ago I get anxious about not being in my seat when the game has started. After we purchased our food and adult beverages (as Rod Allen would call them) we made our way to our section and I was reminded of my clearest memory from my first trip to Tiger Stadium. It was walking over that catwalk and emerging from the tunnel to see those vivid, beautiful colors. Green grass. Blue skies. Stark white uniforms. Oh my God. When I handed the usher our tickets, I realized it was unfortunate that Comerica's open layout didn't keep that beautiful field a secret like Tiger Stadium had.
You could see the field as soon as you came in, and it's still beautiful. It's just that it's like the birthday present where your uncle says he'll take you shopping at Toys 'R Us instead of seeing that huge wrapped gift that might just be the toy that is exactly what you wanted/needed that will change your life forever. I later explained my first impression of Tiger Stadium to our friend and asked if Comerica Park left any similar impressions. She said that she was struck by the intimacy the game is given by the fact that you are pretty much at field level. This was surprising to me considering I think the most common complaint about Comerica is the loss of intimacy in relation to Tiger Stadium. When you have no frame of reference besides Notre Dame football and big-time college basketball, I suppose baseball feels pretty intimate. Still, I'll be curious to hear her thoughts if and when we go to a game at Fifth Third Field in Toledo.
Once we had situated ourselves in our seats, it was the middle of the first inning. We were happy to see Verlander had not given up any hits, and had barely acquainted ourselves with where all the information we needed was on the various scoreboards when Austin Jackson hit a leadoff home run. As we stood and cheered, we made the obvious jokes to Patricia that a) despite the fact that the first at bat she had ever seen in person was a home run, they were not easy and b) she was welcome to attend Tiger games in person as often as she liked. The rest of the inning was uneventful and our attentions turned to events off the field.
We discovered that Patricia's sister, when she learned we were going to the game, had given her something of a checklist of things to be excited about and one of these was ordering food from one of the vendors from our seats. Hunger had dictated getting our hot dogs and brats at one of the stands on the concourse, but one dog is seldom enough for a meal so they ordered up a second round when the vendor came around. It would have been better if we had been in seats where you have to ask strangers to pass along your money along to the vendor so he can return your hot dogs, but an item was marked off the checklist nonetheless.
After a couple more innings, Verlander and the Tigers seemed to have the game well in hand so we decided to tour the stadium a bit. There were multiple purposes for the trip. Continuing what would be a game-long banquet was one. My wife continuing her search for an Alex Avila t-shirt was a second, and unbeknownst to our friend, getting her a "First Tiger Game" certificate was a third. Had you ever heard of this? When I found out we were going to the game and that our friends were joining us, I tweeted about it and the Tigers tweeted me back to let me know certificates are available for people attending their first Tiger game. You just had to go to Guest Services and ask for one.
Patricia grew increasingly puzzled as we passed vendor after vendor that offered all the goodies we were looking for only to go into an office that wasn't selling anything at all. Once we were in, her husband explained that we needed a certificate for her. We would just have to wait a moment because the family before us was getting a certificate as well. For their two-month old baby. The Tiger employees assumed this whole ordeal was a little embarrassing for her, so they threw in a Victor Martinez poster. With that little surprise out of the way, we turned our attention back to the important matters of beer, desserts and my wife's Avila t-shirt. These multiple searches caused us to circumvent the entire park, only to find that the biggest of the Tiger retail shops was basically across the concourse from our seats. Doh.
Since we were in possession of eats and drinks, somebody would have to wait outside the "D" Store. Greg and I volunteered. As my wife continued her quest, we stood outside the shop and heard Melky Cabrera cost Verlander both his no-hitter and shutout with a triple. When I couldn't participate in the standing ovations he was given at that point and when he later came off the field, my inner rabid baseball fan surfaced just a little bit. Okay, where IS she? Greg agreed to go in and drag them out, only to find that they were already making their way out. Defeated in her quest for an Avila t-shirt, she was forced to settle for an Olde English D window sticker.
With everybody having found their various goods, it was time to head back to our seats for the game's stretch run. With Verlander's no-hitter no longer in play, our attention would have to turn to just getting the win. We were two rows and maybe fifteen feet away from our seats when the buzz of the crowd let us know the foul ball that had just been struck was heading our way. With our hands full, we were susceptible to being concussed so I did my best to locate the ball. Let me tell you. It's an uncomfortable feeling when the fans who are closer and closer to you are starting to stand up and you can't find the ball. When I finally did locate it in the evening sky, I was distressed to discover it was going to come very close to hitting our vacated seats. Son of a....!
It ended up landing among the young family in the row in front of our seats. The dad fumbled the catch, but they were still able to grab the ball. The whole experience was terrifying for their sobbing four-year old son, but invigorating for the member of our party who had never been so close to this kind of baseball action. Personally, I lamented my continued lifelong inability to get my hands on either a foul ball or home run. It was starting to get ridiculous. When we were in Seattle, a woman in the row before us had ducked and covered her head with her arms only to have the ball land between her knees and stay there as if it had been looking for that spot all its life.
The rest of the game was pretty standard fare. The Tigers didn't put up any more runs after scoring one in three of the first four innings, but Verlander seemed to have a handle on things. We debated a little bit about whether he'd come back out to get the complete game when his pitch count stood at 105. For the ninth, though, they turned to Valverde as expected and my wife and I alerted our friends as to the gyrations and celebrations we would hopefully be treated to soon. Valverde did not disappoint on either the save or the dance and we were left waiting for the fireworks. With the game and the fireworks in the bag, we all agreed we could not have asked for a better game to introduce somebody to live baseball. This sentiment was affirmed when the rain that had been expected all day started to fall almost immediately after we got back to our car.
As a baseball fan, what we know as perfect games are incredibly rare. As a baseball ticket holder, I am witness to them all the time.