I met Dave Bergman at a Tiger Stadium fantasy camp in the late 1990s. We were watching a college football game in the clubhouse. He shared an anecdote about telling his old friend from college, Doug Collins, to dial it down a notch when coaching or he would quickly wear out his welcome. I thanked him for the memory of a walk-off home run. He said yes, everyone reminds him of the game in 1984 against Toronto. He was so humble I do not think he even remembered the one I was recalling.
I spent the summers of 1988 to 1990 living in metro Detroit. I would occasionally attend a game alone, but there were plenty of fans at the old ballpark for friends. One night I saw the moment when Steve "Psycho" Lyons dropped his trousers at first base to shake out the dirt, now permanently enshrined on blooper reels. But another game against the White Sox was more memorable.
I could not remember the exact date of Bergman's walk-off home run, but a bit of research found that it was August 18, 1988. Jeff Robinson started for the Tigers but surrendered four early runs. Alan Trammell homered in the fourth inning, and Darrell Evans followed with a solo shot in the sixth. Paul Gibson, Eric King, Willie Hernandez, and Mike Henneman pitched three scoreless innings to keep the score four to two.
By the ninth inning I had moved down to my favorite seat. It was in the front row of the upper deck, behind home plate, just off the screen down the third base line. You could not get closer to the action or have a better view.
Bobby Thigpen was on the mound trying to close the game for Chicago, but Tom Brookens led off with a single to left. Lou Whitaker followed with a walk. Sparky Anderson had Luis Salazar pinch-hit to sacrifice the runners into scoring position, playing for a tie and extra innings. But Thigpen uncorked a wild pitch and Brookens scored, and then Trammell reached on an error by second baseman Fred Manrique. Whitaker scored to tie the game.
A young girl sitting to my left was dismayed that the game would go into extra innings. I told her not to worry, Dave Bergman would hit a home run to win the game. And batting in the cleanup spot, he did. The Tigers won via walk-off, six to four.
Bergman took fantasy camp seriously. I learned more about hitting from him then all the coaches of my youth combined. He made sure we understood that his purpose was for us to be better coaches, not better baseball players. I started coaching my oldest a year or two later, and am still at it with my youngest son.
Who has not seen a youngster swing totally flat-footed, with nothing but arms? Bergman had a fun way of helping kids understand what it means to transfer weight from your back foot to your front. It goes like this:
"Do you know those inflatable clowns with the heavy weight in the bottom? You hit them, and they pop back up, like giant Weeble? Well, how do you hit one?"
Kids know how to hit the clown. They wind up, lift up their front leg, take a step, and smack it hard. If it bounces off the ground, they know they did it right. That is how Bergman wants them to hit. He coaches them to attack the ball, to go and get it out in front of the plate. He wants them to pull it for a home run, like he did that night he hit a walk-off against the White Sox.
Bergman's passing caused me to look up that game. Now I know that it was August 18, 1988. Two years to the day later, my wife and I married. Exactly thirteen years later, our youngest son was born.
Every season I share this hitting instruction with a new team of kids, and always fondly give Bergman credit for it. When I am coaching this spring I will again use it in practice, but this time with a touch of melancholy. Thanks for making me a better coach, Mr. Bergman.