Monday, October 23, 2006

Detroit Tigers fan gets a second chance

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on October 20th, 2006:

In 1968 the usually moribund Detroit Tigers, in the wake of serious race riots in the city, brought the community together for six months with an exciting pennant victory. The resultant World Series bout with the St. Louis Cardinals posed a serious conundrum for then-14 year old city resident Rick Bednarz.

Back then most baseball games were still, as they are meant to be, played under the natural light of the sun. That gave Rick a choice. He could skip school and take advantage of a rare, possibly once in a lifetime chance, to see two of baseball's original teams face off in the World Series. Or he could be the ever-good student, and settle for watching the highlights on the local evening news in the pre-cable era.

Rick chose to go to school instead of the baseball games, and missed out on the chance to attend the games in the Tigers' epic seven game victory over the Cardinals.

The good times for both the Tigers and the city of Detroit have been few and far between since that 1968 World Series. The bliss created by the baseball success was short-lived, and the white flight that began soon after resulted in a still continuing decrease in Detroit's population. The city also developed a reputation as one of the most dangerous and depressed communities in the country.

The Tigers, meanwhile, only had one season in the last 37 years in which they have won a playoff series. That one World Series win, in 1984, was marred by celebrations that developed quickly into violence and gave the city an even blacker eye in the national consciousness. Over the last 14 years they have been one of the worst teams in baseball, including an amazingly dreadful 43-119 season just three years ago.

Rick Bednarz grew up to become an outstanding teacher, first in the Detroit Public Schools before moving to the Ann Arbor, Michigan, Public Schools. He was my eighth-grade math teacher and although I did worse in his class than I did in any other in my recently concluded 17 years of public education, we bonded over baseball. The national pastime has a way of knocking down barriers between those who love it in a way that few other things can.

Over the last eight years, Rick and I have been to somewhere around 50 Tigers games together (almost all losses!) Without fail, once or twice a year, we have talked about Rick's greatest regret in his life when it comes to sports, missing out on those classic games against the Cardinals in the 1968 World Series. With the benefit of hindsight he realized that the average American with a bachelor's degree goes to school 3,000 times from kindergarten through the senior year of college- but chances to see the Tigers and Cardinals come only once in a lifetime. Thus Rick has rued his decision ever since.

When I chose to stay in Chapel Hill after graduation, I knew one of the biggest things I'd be giving up was a summer of Tigers baseball. But when I went home for a brief trip in June, I did get to go to a few games. The Tigers were off to their best start since I was a toddler, and they happened to be playing the Cardinals, setting off all the necessary retrospectives to the 1968 World Series.

The surging Tigers surprisingly swept that series, and as I said goodbye to Rick before heading back to Chapel Hill, I joked to him that maybe he would get that second chance to see Detroit and St. Louis face off in the World Series yet.

Like the Tigers, the city of Detroit is on the way back. Locating a new baseball and football stadium downtown has helped to spur great economic development in the surrounding areas. Hosting the 2005 major league baseball all star game and the 2006 Super Bowl has brought the city into the national spotlight in a more positive way, even if some media outlets used the occasions as an excuse to take cheap shots at the city.

Recent championship runs by the basketball Pistons and hockey Red Wings have been exciting for the city, but never have I seen something unite the community - black, white, young, old, rich, poor, even Spartan and Wolverine, like this Tigers championship run. Baseball has taken its knocks in recent years and football is clearly the most popular sport in the country. But anything that can bring the citizens of Detroit together under the shine of the national spotlight is a pretty powerful force. In 2006, baseball has done that in a way nothing has- since the Tigers took on the Cardinals in 1968.

There were a lot of bumps in the road along the way, but Rick Bednarz will spend tonight in the seats of Comerica Park for game one of the World Series between the Tigers and Cardinals, given an unexpected chance to rectify a mistake he's regretted for 38 years. Baseball, Detroit and second chances - it doesn't get much better than that.



Anonymous Tigers said...

The good times for both the Tigers and the city of Detroit have been few and far between since that 1968 World Series. Great stuff!

6:34 AM  

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