Blogs > From The Bleacher Seats

A roundup of news on sporting events, people and places in Southeast Michigan by columnist Jim Evans.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Checking in at Michigan and Trumbull

It's a ball diamond now.
Well-kept, thanks to the efforts of the all-volunteer Navin Field Grounds Crew, but still just a ball diamond.
Tiger Stadium used to sit the intersection of Michigan and Trumbull. It always seemed so massive, didn’t it?
Especially when you were a kid. Stadium walls rising from the sidewalk higher than a swatted fungo. Light towers perched above the upper deck. You swear you could see them shining during a night game from Bellville and Belle Isle.
Tiger Stadium was almost intimidating from the outside.
But once inside, nothing was more enthralling. Walking through the concourse and making your way to the seats. Almost magically, urban became rural; the typical city palette of hard scrabble grays turned incredibly green.
Green is the way the field remains, even though the stadium is no longer there.
It was Father’s Day when my wife and I and our youngest daughter, Breanna, made our way to Corktown. We were going to grab something to eat at the Mercury Burger Bar that’s just a handful of blocks west of Trumbull on Michigan.
As we drove by the site where Tiger Stadium formerly resided, a vintage baseball game was being played. People in garb more befitting the 1860s than 21st century were batting the ball and running the bases.
We immediately stopped, yanked some folding chairs from the trunk, and made our way to the game. We joined the hundred or so other people who were watching the game.
Hot dogs were offered by the Navin Field Grounds Crew. So, too, was Faygo soda pop.
A man came by selling peanuts and I couldn’t resist. Old habits are hard to break, and I used to grab a brown bag full of salted peanuts from a vendor on Trumbull before every Tiger game I attended.
None of the vintage players wore gloves. None had an agent, either. There were a few bleachers. Not a single suite to be found.
Some kids were playing catch behind the backstop. A mom was feeding her infant along the first base line. Some very pleasant people from the Navin Field Grounds Crew were spooning baked beans and potato salad onto plates to accompany the Ballpark Franks. Donations were appreciated but not required.
While I am sure that food is not always served, there seems to be a lot of baseball on the menu at Michigan and Trumbull these days. Youth games are played on a regular basis. Vintage baseball seems to have found a home for obvious reasons.
While it is no longer the site of Tiger Stadium, it remains a baseball diamond and somehow that seems exactly right.
Isn’t it the essence of the game? Strip away all the garnishments and baseball is all about grass and dirt and if you're lucky, some actual bases and a fence for a backstop.
That's the way we all got started playing. Running to the playground. Sprinting to the park. Jumping over the fence into your neighbor’s yard. Grabbing a baseball and a bat and depending upon your age, that bat was either fashioned from wood or metal.
I’m an old guy. Our bats were always wood. They'd crack and we'd tape them up. The crack would get worse and we'd drive a nail or two to keep them intact.
Tiger Stadium is gone, but the baseball field remains. Say thanks to the Navin Field Grounds Crew. Not just for the hot dog. Not just for the Faygo.
But for preserving the baseball field. For keeping the memories of Tiger Stadium alive. For providing for future memories, too.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Referees wear the Scarlet R

Most high school sports game officials know exactly how Hester Prynne felt.
For those who didn’t take – or pass – American Literature, Hester Prynne was the protagonist in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter.”
An adulteress in Puritanical New England, Prynne was forced to wear an ‘A’ on her forehead and was hence scorned.
Scorned is something that high school referees know plenty about. It’s their shared plight in life.
Somebody with 20/100 vision perched on the top row of the bleachers during a basketball game somehow has a better vantage point than the ref who is three feet away from the play. The dad screams in outrage at the ref’s call.
A football coach patrols the sidelines adjacent to his team’s bench. One of his players is called for an illegal block 35 yards away on the poorly lit field. The coach’s stomping sets off a choreography of outrage. The fans and players get in on the act. It is mob mentality in school colors.
A soccer mom spots an alleged infraction from the passenger seat of her Dodge Caravan. She howls in anguish. A hockey dad drinking coffee, eating popcorn and texting screams that the puck went over the goal line.
And so it goes. Refs get abused. It is a nightly occurrence. Even when they get it completely right, they are absolutely wrong in the eyes of many.
So why not step to the plate – or behind it -- yourself? How about wearing the Scarlet R? Without game officials, games could not be played. The Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) is accepting registrations by mail and online for game officials for the 2014-15 school year.
Online registration can be accessed by clicking “Officials” at www.mhsaa.com. Forms also are available online that can be printed and submitted by traditional mail or hand delivery to the MHSAA office. More information about officials’ registration may be obtained by contacting the MHSAA at 1661 Ramblewood Drive, East Lansing, MI, 48823, by phone at 517-332-5046 or by e-mail at register@mhsaa.com.
There is an test for first-time officials and officials who were not registered during the past school year. The test consists of 45 questions derived from the MHSAA Officials Guidebook, which also is available on the Officials page of the MHSAA website. Additional 50-question exams must be taken by those registering for football or basketball for the first time or those who were not registered for those sports during the previous school year. Manuals for both sports also are available on the Officials page.
I have seen countless high school games over the years. I have heard a lot of whistles in my time. Sure I have witnessed some calls that I didn’t think were correct. But do you know what; I have seen a lot more blown plays than blown calls.
I have seen kids toss up jumpers that hit so much metal you’d swear they were members of the ironworkers union. I have seen so many kids fumble footballs and miss passes you’d swear part of the pre-game ritual included smearing Crisco on their mitts. I’ve seen baseball and softball players swing at pitches that weren’t even in the same time zone, let along the strike zone.
And sorry coaches, but I have also seen game strategies that resemble something written up by General George Armstrong Custer. What was the score of that game at the Little Big Horn anyway?
So maybe a questionable call does decide a game or two every decade or so. But do you know what; those games were usually decided a long time beforehand. By a kid who couldn’t hit a free throw even if the Spalding was attached to a drone. By a kid who ran the anchor leg of the 4-by-200 relay wearing more jewelry than Mr. T in his heyday.
You’ve probably done your share of yelling at the refs. Why not wear that Scarlet R yourself?

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Saying goodbye to Bob Welch

The Bob Welch most folks recollect threw fastballs in the high 90s.
Welch would rear back and the ball would come out of his hand already spitting sparks. Halfway to the plate you’d testify in court that it had a comet’s tail.
Just ask Reggie Jackson.
It was an iconic moment in game two of the 1978 World Series. It was Jackson’s Yankees taking on the Dodgers. Welch was a 21-year-old rookie out of Eastern Michigan University called into the game to protect a one-run lead with one out in the ninth inning. He got Thurman Munson to fly out before facing Jackson, one of the game’s most feared power hitters.
The at-bat lasted more than five minutes. Welch threw nine pitches and all of them were pure, unapologetic heat. There was no indecision in his approach. On a 3-2 count, Welch scorched the inside corner. Reggie swung and missed and the Dodgers won.


Welch, who won 211 games in 17 major league seasons from 1978 to 1990, died Monday in Seal Beach, California, of a heart attack. He was just 57.
Welch, who grew up in Ferndale and attended Hazel Park High School, was named to All-Star teams in both the American and National leagues, and won the American League Cy Young Award in 1990.
That’s strictly the national recollection.
But folks who knew Bob Welch from back home in Oakland County, have other memories.
Carol Sheldon was a longtime teacher and coach in Hazel Park. Sheldon, who is playing in a softball tournament down in Tennessee this week, posted this on Facebook:
What I remember about Bob was that he was always happy to come home to Tiger Stadium. He was always so good to the fans in Detroit and had time to sign a few autographs. But what I most remember was the day (near Christmas) he walked into my volleyball practice at HP and ask if he could do some throwing at the other end of the gym. Of course I said yes! After he was finished he walked up to a couple my Varsity VB players and asked them if they would teach him how to serve! He told the girls that he had moved to California and he thought he better learn how to play VB. Needless to say my girls were very excited to teach him. I know he took the time to talk to students at HP about his life. You will be missed Bob, especially in HP.
It was in June of 1974 when Bob Welch graduated from Hazel Park High. Greg Esler is a ’73 Hazel Park High grad.
“Bob and I were friends. We played little league baseball and high school basketball together,” said Esler. “He was, without question, the most gifted athlete I’ve ever seen. I have never seen anyone who could throw a baseball like him. As a freshman, he threw a football 65 yards at Webb Junior High.”
Esler has known plenty of quality athletes. He’s a Hall of Fame high school basketball coach who has been at De La Salle in Warren since the late 1990s. Prior to that, he won a state championship in 1994 coaching at St. Clair Shores Lake Shore.
Esler has won numerous league, district and regional championships as well. He has more than a handful of NCAA Division 1 athletes.
“Bob was genuinely one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. He was so grounded. I mean we came from a community where our houses were what, 1,000 square feet with one bathroom? Bob went from that background to making millions and meeting people like Frank Sinatra and Fleetwood Mac, but when he came he was always just one of the guys from Hazel Park High.”
Bob Welch never turned his back on his childhood. Not when he came back to play at Tiger Stadium years ago. Not just four years ago when he returned to play in a golf outing for Greg and Rhonda Esler’s deceased son, Doug, who died in an ATV accident when he was just 15.
“Bob just showed up. It was very, very nice of him,” said Greg Esler. “I lived right across the street from Green Acres Park. Bob lived nearby. Bobby’s parents were just like mine. Our dads worked very hard and our moms stayed home to watch the kids. We didn’t have much, but we didn’t realize it. We played sports all of the time and when it rained, we read Hardy Boy books. That is how we grew up.”
Bob Welch had his best season in 1990 when he went 27-6 for Oakland. That was his Cy Young season. It was the most wins for a pitcher since the Phillies’ Steve Carlton won 27 in 1972. The last time anyone won more was when Denny McLain won 31 in 1968 for the Tigers. Welch ended his career with a record of 211-146 and an ERA of 3.47. He struck out 1,969 batters and walked 1,034 in 3,092 innings. He had 28 shutouts and 61 career complete games.
Not all of his successes came on the mound. In his 1981 book, “Five O’Clock Comes Early,” written with New York Times sportswriter George Vecsey, Bob Welch described his struggles with alcohol. It was one of the first times a pro athlete openly discussed a drinking problem.
Bob Welch had the courage to face his problem, just like he faced Reggie Jackson and countless other hitters during his career. He won that battle, just like the one in the second game of the World Series in 1978.
RIP Bob Welch. Your home town is proud of you.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Saying thanks on Memorial Day

Looking back, I was a chicken.
There was Walter Cronkite presenting the nightly scoreboard on the CBS Evening News. He would give the tally of how many North Vietnamese had died, and how many Americans.
Right away I knew I never wanted to become part of the tally. By then, the war in Vietnam had become extremely unpopular. It was really our first televised war, and I saw all I wanted on the RCA with the 12-inch screen in our living room.
You didn’t need high definition to define fear and that is what I felt.
Some of my oldest brother, Tom’s, friends had been drafted. Some had gone from suburbs to Ssoutheast Asia in an awful hurry. At least one had decided to head to Canada. There were FBI agents at his parents’ house on a mighty regular basis.
By the time I turned 18, there was no longer a draft. It was a lottery and I swear on the resume of Bob Barker it was one with potentially deadly results.
That initial lottery drawing – the first since 1942 – was held on December 1, 1969, in Washington D.C. There were 366 blue plastic capsules containing birth dates placed in a large glass container and drawn by hand to assign order-of-call numbers to all men within the 18-26 age range.
The capsules were drawn from a container, opened, and the dates inside posted in order.
My personal lottery came a few years later. I was born in 1954. A group of us gathered together at Albion College to see where the numbers would fall. My birthday was September 17, and the assigned number was 320.
I was ecstatic and now all these years later, I am a little bit ashamed of myself.
I have a great life and how many others never got that chance? War has taken some of this country’s best and brightest.
They say freedom isn’t free, and that could not be more spot on. As a country, we have paid dearly, and continue to play dearly, for our freedom.
I remember being 18 and not knowing exactly what the future held. Was I going to Vietnam? Was I going to be one of Walter Cronkite’s tally?
I had played Taps at a handful of funerals for servicemen who had died in Vietnam when I was in high school, so I certainly was aware of the potential consequences.
I’d done the same in front of the veteran’s memorial in my hometown following the Memorial Day parade.
Memorial Day was Monday, and it wasn't t too much to ask to spend an hour or two watching a local parade. I stood up and saluted the flag. I said thanks to a veteran, a guy with long gray hair and a beard to match. I said a prayer for those who are no longer with us.
They served so I did not have to. They answered the call so I could stay home and play football and basketball and baseball.
My dad was in the Navy in World War II. My wife’s dad was a Marine in WWII.
That was the extent of our family’s military involvement. I never served. My brothers never served. None of my kids are currently in the military, either.
I went to a parade on Monday. I went to the veterans memorial. I stood there while Taps was  played. I listened to the speeches and watched the plane fly by and felt a little undeserving.
I have had a great life. I have a great wife and four great kids. Some others never got the chance.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Racing to battle mental illness

Hector Goodwin was a World War II veteran.
He was in the Merchant Marines, and those brave men and women took tremendous risks to keep this country’s vital shipping lines open.
They were subject to attack from submarines, dive bombers and surface boats.
In fact, Goodwin’s ship was ripped apart in one such attack. He was rescued by the British, but some wounds never seem to heal.
Goodwin suffered from what is now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In November of 1968, Hector Goodwin killed himself.
Peggy Goodwin, who is a city commissioner in Royal Oak, was just six years old when her father died. Her sister, Christina, was nine.
"People always say that kids are flexible and they bounce back, and that is true in a sense," said Goodwin. "But I believe that some of the feelings don't really manifest themselves until you get older. You hold things in and eventually you have to talk to someone; I know that was the case with me.”
Hector Goodwin was a very intelligent man. He was also very protective of his daughters and his wife, Elizabeth. The family lived in Huntington Woods.
"Ours was like a Brady Bunch street with all the kids having moms and dads," said Goodwin. "We obviously were a little different.
"Suicide was a very taboo subject. You couldn't talk about it. It was hard to reach out to anyone," said Goodwin. "By the time my dad was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, it had manifested itself into alcoholism and other mental illnesses. I know he did seek help eventually.”
Getting help is what the Mind Over Matter (MOM) Race is all about. When it debuted nine years ago as a nonprofit organization dedicated to suicide prevention and mental health, 300 people showed up for the 5K run. This past year, more than 1,100 people participated. To date, more than $120,000 has been raised for research and prevention, and countless lives have been touched.
On Saturday, May 3, the 2014 MOM Race was held at Starr Jaycee Park in Royal Oak, which is located on the south side of 13 Mile Road just east of Crooks.
The four children of Gail Boledovich are the ones behind the MOM Race. Their mom, who had battled mental illness, was lost to suicide on May 1, 2005, just days before her 49th birthday.
The race title sponsor was once again the Forget-Me-Not Thrift Store in Lincoln Park. Business owner Kim Gross lost her daughter-in-law, Karen Gross, to suicide in January 2009. Kim Gross donates all her store’s proceeds to mental health awareness and suicide prevention programs, including MOM.
Julie (Boledovich) Farhat is the race founder and executive director. Farhat is involved with Royal Oak SAFE, a collaborative task force founded by Goodwin that works to promote mental health and wellness. 
For more information on the MOM Race, visit www.MOMrace.org

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Nick Ureel was real-life tough

You want tough?
You’re probably thinking a guy who can easily bench 550 pounds and has skin the texture of beef jerky.
You want grit?
All right, so now you’re probably thinking about a guy whose face stubble could sand graffiti off buildings and whose voice makes James Earl Jones sound like one of the Vienna Choir Boys.
Your want real-life tough?
Undoubtedly that was Nick Ureel, a senior at Chippewa Valley High School, who passed away a couple of weeks ago after a courageous battle with cancer.
"If we don't learn a million life lessons from a young man like Nick Ureel, shame on us," said Scott Merchant, the football coach at Chippewa Valley. "Nick was always positive. He was never bitter or said `Why me?' He always had a smile on his face. He lived his life to the fullest. Nick had resiliency and he had spirit.
“I had football class and there were 70 guys in it and we all just sat and talked about Nick and the good memories we had. At the end of class, I challenged them to go home and actually tell those that you love that you loved them. As coaches, we always tell our guys to play like it's your last play, and that should be a lesson in life, too. Live like it's your last day because you never know."
Nick Ureel's last play for the Big Reds came as a sophomore. When he did not show up bright and early on the first day of football camp as a junior, the coaches at Chippewa Valley knew something wasn’t right.
“I mean, Nick came to absolutely everything related to football," said Merchant. "You never had to worry about him being at workouts or anything else. When he did not show up on opening day, we called his home to make sure things were all right. Nick and his mom came to practice Wednesday of that week. Nick’s back was really hurting and he didn't know if he'd be able to play."
A week or so later, the unbearable diagnosis was made. Nick Ureel had testicular cancer.
Despite the ensuing array of treatment plans that included surgeries and incessant chemotherapy, Nick was always on the sidelines for his beloved Chippewa Valley Big Reds. Even though he couldn’t play, he was happy to be with his friends and classmates. Much more specifically, Nick was very happy to be with his fellow offensive linemen.
"After we'd score, or after a series would be over, the offensive linemen would come off the field and sit on their bench, and Nick was always right there with them," said Merchant. “He was there to encourage them, or to cheer along with them.”
Nick did not just sit. Do you want to know tough? Do you want to know grit? Chippewa Valley opened its 2013 season against Dearborn at Wayne State University. Nick was coming off surgery and had told the coaches he wasn’t sure if he would be at the game. But a day or two before kickoff, he showed up at practice. Inspiration is much more than just a word in the Merriam Webster dictionary.
"We wanted Nick to lead us out onto the field carrying an American flag," said Merchant. "But I was worried about him. Before we went out, I told Nick aside that it was all right to just take it easy, that he could walk if he wanted to. I didn't want him overdoing it."
So what does Nick Ureel do? He told his coach that “we don’t walk onto a football field.” He took off running, waving the flag and smiling like he was auditioning for a Crest tooth paste commercial. All of his fired up teammates followed. Chippewa Valley beat Dearborn that day, 27-20, in a double overtime thriller. The victory was clinched when Alex Marko intercepted a pass. Alex told Nick that interception was for him.
The Big Reds raced off the field and huddled up in exultation and right in the middle of the joyful melee was Nick Ureel.
“Nick was at every game. He was a huge inspiration to everybody in the program. Despite everything he went through with the treatments, he always had a smile on his face. He was always so positive. He was just a special kid and a special young man. I learned a lot from him. I think a lot of us did. Not just about football but about life.”
Nick Ureel was tough. He was real-life tough.

 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Carpe diem ...please!

Carpe diem.
Seize the day.
That’s because you never know how many more pages on the calendar that are waiting for your signature.
That hit home with much more force recently.
My mom’s 86 years old. At least that is what her birth certificate says. Her lifestyle disputes that claim. She is fiercely independent. She lives alone. She loves to garden. She drives her own car. Not just to the nearby store or the neighborhood Applebee’s, but across the state to see my brother’s family in Muskegon. Nearly as far to visit her grandson’s wife and kids in Grand Rapids. To Ohio to check in with Kelly, her granddaughter; Kelly’s husband, Ron; and their two boys.
You get the idea. Mom is 86 going on 55.
Only she fell and broke her hip a couple of weeks ago. She is going through rehab now. All of a sudden, I have an 86-year-old mom. I never expected that to happen.
I’m the youngest of three sons.  Young is very relative these days, but you know what I mean.
My oldest brother, Tom, has had problems with his balance the last couple of years. His mental cognition is off, too. Sometimes words don’t come to him as quickly as they used to.
They used to come very quickly. He’s an attorney with a hair trigger vocabulary. These days, words sometimes fall out of his mouth in a jumble. His comprehension isn’t the same, either.
The doctors have diagnosed Mitochondrial encephalomyopathy, lactic acidosis, and stroke-like episodes (MELAS).
That medical mouthful sounds horribly familiar; it is what my other brother, Bill, eventually died of.
I don’t expect mournful violins. I don’t want meals to be put on the front porch. I don’t want to haul in fistfuls of sympathy cards from the mailbox.
I just want you to seize the day. That’s all.