Iconic '68 Series play reenacted at Tiger Stadium site
Navin Field Grounds Crew remembers pivotal out at home in Game 5 against Cardinals
On Wednesday afternoon, hours before history was to be made in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series between the Tigers and the Red Sox at Comerica Park, history was being relived at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull Avenues, on the grounds of old Tiger Stadium.
In the fifth inning of Game 5 of the 1968 World Series between Detroit and St. Louis, with the Tigers down 3-1 in the Series and 3-2 in the game, Cardinals speedster Lou Brock was on second base when teammate Julian Javier got a base hit to left. As Brock headed for home, Tigers left fielder Willie Horton fired a chest-high one-hopper to catcher Bill Freehan.
Brock elected not to slide, and collided shoulder-to-shoulder with Freehan, who had spun to make the tag. He was called out by umpire Doug Harvey. It was arguably the most important defensive play in Tigers history, and was definitively the turning point of the Series. The Tigers went on the win the game, 5-3, and the Series in seven games.
In honor of Horton's 71st birthday, which is Friday, the Navin Field Grounds Crew, a volunteer group dedicated to restoring and maintaining the historic baseball field that was home to Tiger Stadium for nearly 90 years, organized the reenactment.
Navin Field was the original name of the ballpark when it was built in 1912. The Tigers played their final game at Tiger Stadium on Sept. 27, 1999. In the summer of 2000, the movie "61*" was filmed at Tiger Stadium, with a coat of gray paint applied to make it resemble Yankee Stadium. The building was demolished in September 2008, but the field remains, as does the famous center-field flagpole.
"I wanted to put together this recreation today to honor what for my money is the greatest play in Detroit sports history," said Dave Mesrey of the Navin Field Grounds Crew. "I wanted to honor Willie Horton and Bill Freehan and all those who were involved in the play that day, and also Jose Feliciano, who sang the national anthem before the game."
Players from the Detroit Men's Senior Baseball League were enlisted to stand in for some of the major players: Nate Moore as Brock, Terry Weathers as Horton and Paul Ferrell as Freehan.
"I thought what they were doing was really cool, so I came from Pontiac with my wife and four kids to be a part of it," Ferrell said. "I am a catcher, so I'm ready for my collision with Lou Brock."
Baseball players from De La Salle High School in Warren, Mich., were also recruited. Hosea Nelson was Cardinals center fielder Curt Flood, who had a perfect view of home plate from the on-deck circle, and angrily smacked his bat against the ground in protest of Harvey's call. Danny Michalak stood in for big Tigers left-hander Mickey Lolich, while Nick Lepore was Javier. Navin Field Grounds Crew member Joe Michnuk was Cardinals third-base coach Joe Schultz, who ran down the line to argue the call.
Before the reenactment, Mesrey played the soulful, stylized rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" performed by Feliciano before the game. At the time, many Americans felt Feliciano's non-traditional interpretation of the national anthem was disrespectful and a nationwide debate over its appropriateness ensued. Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell, who had selected Feliciano to sing that day, nearly lost his job and the controversy followed Feliciano throughout his career. However, in recent years, he has been invited to play his version of the anthem at Comerica Park in Detroit, Marlins Park in Miami and AT&T Park in San Francisco.
After the anthem, it took the reenactors a number of tries to get the play just right. The wind was blowing hard, and it isn't easy for any batter to hit a pitched ball exactly where he wants, even in perfect conditions. But the day was perfect anyway.
"Today was all we could have asked for," Mesrey said. "We are passionate enough to make this an annual affair. As long as we're maintaining the field, we'll likely do this every October."
Even when it isn't hosting special events, the corner of Michigan and Trumbull has become quite a tourist attraction since the Navin Field Grounds Crew began taking care of the field in the summer of 2010.
When Harwell died that May, Grounds Crew founder Tom Derry heard that some fans were going to the site to play catch in Harwell's memory. Derry and his friends were dismayed to see head-high weeds covering the infield and the entire nine-acre lot littered with trash. "It started as me and some buddies getting together to clean up the field," Derry said. "We rented a brush hog 10 weeks in a row to clear the weeds. Now we have 20 or so volunteers who are out here three or four days a week, mowing, weeding, laying sod, maintaining the infield and picking up trash."
The Grounds Crew members have even created a stencil of the Tigers' Olde English "D" for the outfield grass, purchased flags for the famous flagpole and replaced home plate after vandals dug it out.
"We're all just a bunch of amateur groundskeepers with a passion for preservation," Mesrey says. "We do what we do for the love of the game, and so people can come and see where all the greats once played."
Greats like Horton and Brock.