That was the week that was.
David Frost, don’t come at me with copyright infringement. I didn’t capitalize all the words. Give me some artistic license here.
With apologies to the Brit Frost, who produced two versions of the satirical show called “That Was the Week That Was” (or “TW3”)—one British, one American, in the 1960s—I can’t recall five days in which the Detroit sports landscape was fraught with so much sadness, anger, frustration and, ultimately, happiness, relief and awe.
Monday, October 8. The city is riding high, but there is some disappointment and even anger. The Tigers are up, 2-0, in their ALDS with the Oakland A’s. Only one more win and it’s a return trip to the ALCS, baseball’s version of the Final Four. Yet a peek ahead on the calendar shows that Friday, the 12th, was supposed to be the opening game of another NHL season, which is in limbo thanks to yet more labor unrest. The city is giddy over the Tigers around the Monday morning water cooler and even more relaxed because the Lions didn’t play the day before. But there’s no hockey on the horizon, and that makes some folks cranky.
Tuesday, October 9. The Tigers series has moved to Oakland, which means a welcome back to the late night start, something we are used to with the Red Wings, who seem to play at least one playoff series every spring two or three time zones to the west. It seems like 9:07 p.m. will never come, but there is some sad news to deal with first.
Budd Lynch, the one-armed bandit who was more of a Red Wing, in a way, than Gordie Howe or Stevie Yzerman, has passed. He was 95. It was Budd’s rich baritone voice that combined for many years with Bruce Martyn’s crackling one that made Red Wings hockey on TV and radio something worth tuning into, even when the product on the ice was horse manure—which it was for so many years in the 1970s.
Budd Lynch, the oldest of all surviving Red Wings—and yes, he was a Red Wing even if he never laced up a skate—is gone, and so many people’s memories flash back in a whirring manner. Budd is the Ernie Harwell of the Red Wings—a good man who was good to others. A man who lost his right arm in WWII and who could still play golf, as a lefty only, better than many with two good limbs. Budd Lynch, who started calling Red Wings games on the radio well before a single television camera found its way into an NHL rink.
Budd had tried to retire from the Red Wings twice—once in 1975, but then was lured back as the head of the Public Relations department; and again in 1985, but the Ilitch family persuaded Budd to stay on yet again, this time as PA announcer at Joe Louis Arena. And that’s exactly what Budd was doing, as late as this past spring—calling the goals and penalties and announcing, “Last minute of play in this period” as if God himself was doing so.
We mourned for Budd, but then more bad news came, from the left coast.
Alex Karras, the short and stumpy, cigar-chomping defensive tackle with the thick, wire-rimmed glasses, who had an innate hatred of quarterbacks (even on his own team), was lying deathly ill, according to his wife, fellow actress Susan Clark. Kidney failure, we were told. Alex had days to live, maybe even hours.
While we wrestled with the news of Lynch and Karras, suddenly it was, indeed, 9:07 and time for the first pitch of the Tigers-A’s Game 3.
Anibal Sanchez is dealing from the mound for Detroit, but the Tigers offense goes AWOL, as it is wont to do. Sanchez does his best, but the Tigers don’t score any runs and fall, 2-0. The ALDS inches closer, the Tigers ahead two games to one.
Wednesday, October 10. Groggy from staying up until about 1 a.m. watching the Tigers lose the night before, we get the news in the morning that we feared. Alex Karras, old No. 71, six years in age past his uniform number, has died in California. The Golden Greek. Tippy Toes. Mongo. Webster’s foster dad. The only member of the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1960s not enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Alex is gone, one of the most colorful athletes to ever play in Detroit.
We go to work, come home, have dinner and settle in for Game 4 of the ALDS. Tigers fans are confident the series will end tonight, with Max Scherzer on the mound. And Max does his best, limiting the A’s to one run and three hits through six innings.
The Tigers lead, 3-1, heading into the bottom of the ninth. The crazy Coliseum in Oakland is quiet, like its derogatory nickname, the Mausoleum.
But closer Jose Valverde implodes, the A’s teeing off on him with three straight hits, each hit harder than the previous. It only takes a few horrifying minutes for the A’s to wipe out the 3-1 deficit and win, 4-3, causing Tigers fans’ insides to twist like pipe cleaners. Series tied, 2-2.
The end of the world is nigh in Detroit. In 48 hours, we’ve lost Budd Lynch, Alex Karras and a 2-0 lead in the ALDS.
Oh, and as if we needed more bad news, it’s reported that former Pistons player and coach from the 1960s Donnis Butcher has passed at age 76. Fittingly, today’s Pistons begin their exhibition season—a 101-99 win over Toronto. Also fitting that the only victory of the week is a meaningless one.
Thursday, October 11. We wake up in Detroit, stunned by the week’s turn of events. The Tigers, flying so high a few days ago, are now on the brink of disaster. Even the prospect of Justin Verlander starting fails to totally soothe the denizens, because the offense has wasted two superb starts in Oakland already. The city is ready to erupt with a volcano of venom if the Tigers blow this series.
Yet we are still not done with tragedy. Former Tigers slugger Champ Summers, who played in Detroit from 1979-81, succumbs to cancer at age 66 the day of Game 5.
These things are supposed to happen in threes, but this week it has happened in fours. Lynch, Karras, Butcher and Summers. All gone within 72 hours.
Verlander takes the hill for the 9:37 p.m. start and strikes out the first two A’s hitters. The third gets a single, and that’s the last base hit for Oakland until 12 batters later. The Tigers scratch out a couple of runs and the way Verlander is throwing, the 2-0 lead may as well be 12-0. It’s still only 2-0 going into the seventh, but then the Tigers break it open with four runs for a 6-0 lead. The city exhales for the first time since Monday.
Verlander finishes the 122-pitch, 11-strikeout complete-game shutout with a tic-tac-toe ninth, and the Tigers avert calamity with a 3-2 series win. They are headed back to the ALCS for the second year in a row. It’s the first good news in the world of Detroit sports all week.
Friday, October 12. No game today. No deaths to report. It’s a day of basking in the glow of Verlander’s instant classic pitching performance. All that’s left is to find out the Tigers’ opponent in the ALCS. Baltimore or New York—and the winner will also determine where the next series will start. In Detroit if the Orioles win; in New York if the Yankees triumph.
The Yankees, behind a complete game from their workhorse ace, CC Sabathia, beat the Orioles 3-1 and take the series, 3-2. It sets up another Tigers-Yankees postseason series—the third since 2006. The Tigers are 2-0.
The roller coaster week of emotions flies by. Five days of toil, tears and sweat. We lose four sports heroes—one each from the Tigers, Red Wings, Pistons and Lions—but retain the community of togetherness that is spawned when one of our teams goes on a deep playoff run.
It was something.