Last Flight of the Firebird

The popularity of the movie "Top Gun" filled store racks with flight jackets. When we purchased one for our younger son, Alex, he wore it all the time. The American flag and other insignias stood out brightly against the dark brown leather jacket. To me he became every young boy with a sparkle in his eye filled with wonder and possibilities as he collected baseball cards in search of the "special ones" to put in plastic cases.

He reminded me of my baseball card collecting days. Who could forget that pack of cards complete with a slab of bubble gum that had the palatable consistency of roofing material before it was softened into a manageable chew? That unleashed flavor lasted for a good minute before needing a boost with another slab of gum. Each card in the pack never seemed to lose that wonderful original bubble gum aroma. Some of the cards had specially painted backgrounds of stadiums, which made the majors appear like heaven on earth, and, with only eight teams in the American League and eight teams in the National League, a major league career seemed remote. Scouts were a little pickier then. The expression was, "He either H.A.S. (hit, arm, speed) or he H.A.S.n't." Most try-outs reversed this order and began and ended with the stopwatch.

A few years later when Alex's team adopted the Phoenix Firebird name and logo, it seemed to symbolize for me that passion for baseball when the mind, body and spirit are focused on one thing. That passion, this Firebird, never lands so firmly or lingers so long as it does in the life of a boy.

The earliest memory of this was the Christmas my mother made my brother and me baseball uniforms complete with the Detroit Tiger English D logos, which had been made by a fanatic fan who lived nearby. Our first baseball mitts accompanied the uniforms and became permanent fixtures on the handlebars of our bikes - ready to go at all times.

Listening to the Lone Ranger, The Fat Man, and the Green Hornet on the cathedral radio gave way to black and white television with Hopalong Cassidy, The Cisco Kid, and coverage of the Tiger games with limited camera angles. New heroes started to emerge: Hoot Evers, Johnny Groth, George Kell, Jerry Priddy, and Hal Newhouser. Even with the second deck camera angle that seemed to broadcast the game like baseball Pong, we could still see that Jerry Priddy held the bat high above his held in an unorthodox manner. Although this coverage of baseball could not replace those radio announcers - those magicians of the airways that stirred our imagination - times were changing.

Using Mom's flour for foul lines, countless imaginary games were played in our back yard imitating those announcers on the radio. The garage wall across the alley became our green monster and took a toll on many a young outfielder imitating "The Catch" ala Willy Mays. Toledo Mud Hen, Bobby Mavis, lived about a block from our house. Occasionally he would give us one of his cracked bats. A screw or two wrapped carefully with friction tape to avoid covering the autograph rendered the bat almost as good as new. A couple of broken windows and a ball hit the length of the adjoining alley prompted a prudent move to the nearby park. Here we met neighboring teams for pick- up games and got a taste of our first competition. We quickly realized that other kids had been playing catch and were visited by the Firebird.

My brother, John, and I went on to play Knothole Ball. We especially have fond memories of playing on General Churchill's generously sponsored and well-coached teams. One of the players, Terry Harmon, went on to play in the majors with the Phillies.

I played a little in high school and even less in college. When I came home from the army and tried out for Federation baseball, my arm was gone, and I felt that last Flight of the Firebird.

Memories of Swayne Field

About a mile from our house stood Swayne Field, home of the Toledo Mud Hens. With the exception of a giant tan Toledo Edison smoke stack beyond the left field fence and the bright advertising signs that surrounded the outfield, everything else seemed to be painted green. The seats, those wooden beauties with the rococo iron trim, had been painted so many times they took on a life of their own so that after a rain they would feel slightly tacky. From these seats fans saw Casey Stengel manage his first team, and it was rumored that Connie Mack and the great Eddie Collins watched young hopefuls from the shadows of the grandstands. It was here that Sam Jethroe, the same player that tried out with Jackie Robinson for "The Great Experiment," roamed center field and thrilled fans with his spectacular catches. He was the only player to have hit the ball over the concrete left field fence into the coal piles of the Red Man Tobacco factory, some 472 feet from home plate!

It was here that John and I watched countless games from the knothole section. Before some of the games, they allowed knothole players on the field to shag fly balls. The assistant coaches took great delight in "fungoing" rocket shots to the heavens. Any kid lucky enough - or unlucky enough - to judge one felt it land in the pocket of his mitt like a canon ball- a litigious nightmare by today's standards.

I can still smell the aroma of the Red Man Tobacco plant, of cigar smoke, and roasted peanuts. In the later innings, when the seating had been determined, and the score for that matter, they let us roam though the stadium. We usually wound up behind home

plate with the die-hard hecklers, and along with the cigar smoke, there was a new smell of foaming beer; the regulars became braver and funnier as the night wore on.

We saw everything on the field from the ridiculous to the sublime. We remember Alex Delagarsa wearing sunglasses in a night game - almost to his peril. We saw Jack Daniels drop one too many fly balls and listened to the obvious jokes that ensued. We remember the magnificent pitching duels of Gene Connelly and Herb Score and Luke Easter in the twilight not just hitting a homerun over the fence but over the gas station across Detroit Avenue.

At the Corner

About fifty miles down the road, on August 4, 1956, Dad took my brothers, John and Tim, and me to see the Detroit Tigers vs. the New York Yankees at Briggs Stadium. Although we had seen an occasional game here since 1950, this was only the second time we were going to see the Yankees. Al Kaline and Harvey Kuen had captured our imaginations. Being an outfielder, I had the autographed Kaline mitt and John, an infielder, the Kuen model. We were not yet spoiled by color TV with the multiple camera angles. Sitting halfway up in the lower deck between home and first deep in the shadows, we could only see a sliver of the sky, but it only seemed to add to the wonder and sense of unreality as the emerald green grass with the complement of the red clay infield glowed in the afternoon sun. Who could forget those whitest of white uniforms of the good guys with the large black English D? The good guys won that day. Mantle hit two solo homeruns and scored two others. Kaline would account for the entire Tigers' score with two homeruns with three men on base. The next day Toledo Blade ran a headline: Kaline Five, Mantle Four.

Several things stand out in this dream-like memory: the huge forearms of Mickey Mantle and his vicious yet controlled cuts at the plate. He was truly not cheated. On one such swing, he connected on the lower half of the ball following through with an almost perfect trophy-like position, head turned high in line with the flight before his professionalism took over and he broke into a run. All heads turned upward in prolonged stunned silence. The multi-colored crowd shimmered like stained glass in this Cathedral at the Comer as the ball finally settled in the right field overhang - a whisper in a reverent hush. Mantle would hit longer home runs, but none any higher. Strangely, the silence seemed like the loudest applause of all for this living legend. It continued as Mantle slowed to a businesslike lumber around the bases. His knees were hurting a little now. He would not show up Virgil Trucks. There would be no finger pointing or gestures of any kind. He knew the strikeouts were coming. We knew this moment was his.

There was one other moment suspended in time and reality for me at the Comer. On August 23, 1990, my wife, Jane, and I took Alex to see the Tigers play Oakland. We sat in the appropriately named bleachers. The beach balls were out but even their bright colors seemed faded under the scorching sun. I had just purchased a Tigers' hat to protect my fair complexioned son, when Cecil Fielder stepped up to the plate in the fourth inning with Alan Trammel on first. After working the count to three-one, he hit the next pitch in a high trajectory. "Too high," I thought to myself as we rose to our feet with the rest of the 45,000 plus crowd. "Nuts! He popped up," I shouted. However, this pop-up had an after burner and kept climbing before losing its upper thrust to arch down toward the roof. It bounced twice and plopped over. He became the only Tiger to accomplish this feat, and we were there. Later, Dave Stewart would say, "That's the longest home run ever hit off me. I'd have a chance to send my family to Paris on that one."

Neil Skeldon Stadium

One other memory stands out. I took Alex to see the Tigers play the Mud Hens at Ned Skeldon Stadium. He took a brand new major league baseball with the hope of getting as many autographs as possible. We sat behind the right field fence. It was about halfway though the game and Alex's ball was filled with quite a few signatures. Standing next to the fence with his friends, he began tossing the ball into the air and catching it. One such toss inadvertently went over the fence and onto the warning track. Dismayed, he began calling out with the rest of his friends for Mickey Tettleton to get the ball. Mickey turned, smiled, and held one finger as if to say, "One minute or after this batter." After the next out he trotted back and picked up the ball. Pressing his luck, Alex handed him the pen for his signature. "I'll be back at the end of the inning, son." True to his word, he returned and, when he reached out for the pen and ball, his huge forearms reminded me of that other Mickey and that day in 1956 when time stood still. On this night Mantle would have been proud of this gentleman role model with his namesake. This vignette is not a hall of fame moment; it will not show up in any record book, but for me it is one of the most important.

The Legacy

The Last flight of the Firebird is what I hand down to my sons. In some ways, it is a never-ending flight. It comes and goes with the flow and tapestry of the game. As a father, I believe I never stood taller than when I stooped to catch the pitches of my sons. It gave me an excuse to buy a new mitt, to smell the new leather, and to feel the sting of the ball. Transported in time and space, I became a kid again, and we were all better for it. We shared and continue to share a long tradition handed down from one generation to another.

  • countless games of catch
  • baseball card collecting
  • the smell of mowed grass
  • the crack of the bat
  • a new baseball
  • the whiz of the first good curve ball
  • seeing your first south paw
  • the sweat over a dusty face and the breeze that cakes it into a paste 
  • the cool drink from the stone fountain in right field
  • the case of root beer for your brother's home run in peewees 
  • Alex's one hitter on the day of the eclipse
  • Matt's perfect throw to cut down the runner at third
  • the first uniform, even though it is only a cap and tee shirt
  • the catch that saves the day
  • the double that wins the game
  • the first night game
  • your first trophy
  • remembering your heroes who you were convinced would play for nothing and by today's they probably think they did

    Let us not lament too long about a pitcher's developing fastball unable to jam the quickness of the aluminum bat. Let us not dwell on these first hints of the Last Flight of the Firebird: dropping a pop-up, being to slow to beat the throw, that untimely strike-out, a good arm gone bad. Let us instead beckon the Firebird to linger a little longer. Let us simply remember the joy of playing the game, the summer breeze across a moist brow, and that cool drink from the stone fountain in right field.