The Greatest Mick

Watching the opening game of the 2010 World Series on Wednesday night stirred some memories.

The ever-surprising San Franciso Giants, led by outfielder Cody Ross and two other Tigers castoffs, took a seemingly easy lead in this year’s Classic by humbling the previously invincible Cliff Lee and the suddenly inept Texas Rangers by an 11-7 outcome.

The winning verdict went to a Giants starting pitcher who appears to be the first teenage girl to ever start a World Series game. And while the aura of invincibility now settles around the page-boy coif of Tim Lincecum — with the possibility and promise of two more can’t-miss appearances by him in a seven-game contest — I would warn the Giants and their followers about another World Series that began with an impressive opening home “statement” by National League champs who triumphed behind another apparently-unbeatable mound ace.

The 1968 Series was one of the greatest Fall showdowns of all time, featuring a dramatic comeback by a colorful team inspired by the heroic performance of probably the greatest World Series pitcher of all-time. But that magical winning team was, of course, our own Detroit Tigers and that fall’s mighty hero was Bengals hurler Mickey Lolich. And if you weigh your Series results and personal heroics by the standards of the national media, or follow baseball as it has been presented by East Coast-obsessed documentarian Ken Burns, you might have a hard time remembering the triumph that was the Tigers’ and the Mick’s that phenomenal year.

After all, the Miracle Mets of New York won the world title the following season, and that in itself was enough to blind trendy observers to the wonder of ’68. In the same limelight of national attention, there is a current best-selling biography getting raves called “The Last Boy,” subtitled “Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood.” I can’t speak for America’s childhood, having wrestled with my own since before Mantle joined the New York Yankees, but if you’re looking for a “real” Mick to revere as an all-time baseball icon and hero, you need go no further than our own Mickey Lolich.

The hot-stuff Tigers roared into St. Louis to start that year’s Series behind cover-boy wildman Denny McLain, that year’s 30-game winner as the Tigers stomped and snarled their way through the American League schedule. The Cardinals countered with maybe the most dependable pitcher of the era, a hurling assassin named Bob Gibson who made the Tigers look like frauds in the Series opener, setting a strikeout record in the process. It wasn’t just that the Tigers lost the first game, it was how they lost it, looking inept and frustrated. And suddenly things looked bleak for our boys, as Gibson — like Lincecum last night — looked to place his unbeatable stamp, with one down and possibly two to go, on the Series.

But along came Lolich. In Game 2 he poured water all over the Cardinals’ hot start, delivering a solid walkover victory in calm and calming style, even hitting an unlikely home run in the process. Hope flourished anew in our town; would-be jumpers trekked back to the American side of the Ambassador Bridge.

Things went bad, however … and then much, much worse. The Tigers lost games 3 and 4 at home, in impressive Cardinals style. Worse, the fourth game on Sunday at Briggs Stadium, played in an appropriate and depressing daylong rain, was easily won again by the unstoppable Gibson.

A personal confession here: I worked at the Free Press back then, and Series tickets that had been like jewels only days before were being returned to the newspaper by staffers who didn’t have the heart to watch the Tigers sink into final oblivion in Game 5 the following Monday. I was among them. It was my day off, and offered a returned ticket by phone that Monday morning, I replied in a similar vein — after waiting ‘all my life’ (big deal; a lousy 21 years) I just could not stomach seeing our guys go down to an embarrassing and galling final defeat at home.

Up stepped Lolich. Again. Yes, I watched that Game 5 at home, with my Mom. And it was the greatest baseball game I ever saw, thanks again to the Mick. And to Willie Horton and Bill Freehan, with an historic play at the plate. And a crucial single by the incomparable Al Kaline (I got your Mantle ‘right here,” as we used to say on the east side), the greatest single moment of Al’s fabulous career. Lolich again pitched, and hit, the Tigers towards redemption, and our guys headed back to St. Louis down 3 games to 2, but at least local honor had been preserved. We might go down now, but at least the Cardinals had been in a fight; we would not be humiliated in the 1968 World Series.

In fact, as it turned out somebody did get humiliated that year, and it was the Cards. (And what the hell, we owed them some humiliation after what they did to us in the 1934 Series; you could look it up. You should look it up.) Behind Jim Northrup’s grand slam in Game 6, and The Mick’s absolutely mesmerizing and indomitable performance in Game 7 — besting the terrific Gibson 4-1 in a mano a’ mano faceoff on only TWO days rest — the world title was ours.

Now THAT was a Mick for the ages. I don’t know if this year’s Rangers have it in them, or have a potential Lolich waiting in the wings, but we all learned something about done deals and cooked geese that October. And here’s a quick kicker: As a Free Press reporter I was given the cool assignment of meeting the Tigers charter the evening they returned, victorious and bombed out of their minds, from St. Louis. That whole event makes for another story, but I did get a chance to interview Lolich shortly after he deplaned at Willow Run Airport.

I approached him on the Tigers bus, and told him he had delivered the most courageous sports performance I had ever witnessed (in my SO-lengthly and vastly experienced 21 years). He shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and profusely THANKED me for the compliment. Something along the line of “Really? … gosh thanks, that’s so nice of you to say … I really appreciate you saying so.” He wasn’t shining me on; he meant it. The warmth and sincerity of it … at a moment when he was on top of the world … was something I’ve remembered to this day.

Ah, 1968. That Mick. Our Mick. What a time; what a champ.