Greg Eno

Bergman’s Iconic At-Bat Filled With Irony

In Baseball on February 3, 2015 at 9:42 pm

Dave Bergman didn’t win the World Series for the Tigers on that Monday night in June of 1984, but there might be as many folks who purport to have been at Tiger Stadium then, as claim to have been there when Larry Herndon squeezed the final out of Game 5 on October 14.

I was at Game 5, by the way, but I would have loved to have been in the stands on June 4, 1984 as well.

Dave Bergman is gone. The defensive specialist for the ’84 World Champs. The man whose acrobatic plays saved Jack Morris’ no-hitter in Chicago in April. The man whose face was in the dictionary under “role player.”

Bergman lost his battle with cancer at age 61. That rotten disease whose won-lost record is maddeningly successful.

Bergman was sick and fighting the cancer in his bile duct when he showed up last summer as the Tigers honored their 1984 heroes at Comerica Park. You could see it in his face and body that Bergie wasn’t right.

But he managed to participate in one last double play, when he was on the receiving end of an Alan Trammell/Lou Whitaker twist as the CoPa crowd roared.

Bergman was brought to Detroit for his defense, but as the Toronto Blue Jays found out, there was about to be great irony on June 4.

The glaring lights of “Monday Night Baseball” shined on Tiger Stadium on that June night  in ’84, and Tigers fans knew that when “MNB” came to town, special things could happen.

It was eight years prior when Mark “The Bird” Fydrich mowed the mighty Yankees down on national television at the Old Ballpark, also on “MNB.”

Now here was Bergman, taking over the spotlight against the Blue Jays.

It was a lovely night in a lovely year for baseball in Detroit.

The Blue Jays weren’t about to anoint the Tigers division champs, despite Detroit’s 35-5 getaway. Toronto played good baseball as well, and the Jays were keeping the Tigers in sight.

When Toronto came to town to start a four-game series, the Tigers were 38-11 but still just 4.5 games ahead of the 34-16 Blue Jays.

Toronto jumped out to a 3-0 lead on that Monday night, but the Tigers tied it  in the seventh, thanks to a three-run bomb from Howard Johnson. Bergman was part of that rally as well, having singled, but the best was yet to come.

The game moved into extra innings. In the bottom of the tenth, Roy Lee Jackson replaced Jimmy Key with a man on second and one out. Jackson induced a comebacker from Rusty Kuntz. Chet Lemon walked, placing runners on first and second with two outs.

Bergman was up next.

Less than three months earlier, Bergman wasn’t even a Tiger. He was finishing up spring training with the Philadelphia Phillies. It was a time when all teams’ rosters appeared to be set for the upcoming 162-game regular season.

But then a Roman candle was fired from Lakeland, FL. The date was March 24, 1984.

Looking for a late-inning reliever and possibly someone who can close ballgames, Tigers GM Bill Lajoie struck a deal with the Phillies, an unexpected trade.

The Tigers dealt young outfielder Glenn Wilson and veteran 1B/C John Wockenfuss to Philadelphia. Detroit would be getting lefty Willie Hernandez, who was the center of the trade. Hernandez was the guy Lajoie really wanted, to give manager Sparky Anderson another reliable arm in the bullpen. The Phillies, to make things square, also relayed a defensive-minded first baseman named Dave Bergman to the Tigers.

The trade was stunning, in its timing and in its scope. Tigers fans didn’t know much about Hernandez and Bergman. There was no Google back then.

A couple weeks later, Bergman demonstrated why he was known for his nifty defense. He made at least two plays that clearly saved Morris’ no-hitter in Chicago.

But Bergman wasn’t necessarily known for his bat. He was a part-time player, nothing else, in his nine previous years as a big leaguer.

You don’t win anything of note in June. Each of the season’s 162 games may, technically, count the same, but June’s games are played with little pressure. They’re played in warmth and laziness, not in the chilly air amid September’s electricity.

But this June Monday night in 1984 was different than a typical June Monday night.

The Blue Jays represented the Tigers’ only apparent serious threat to having their magical season ruined.

The four-game series was the first time the Tigers and Blue Jays played each other in 1984.

Bergman stood in the batter’s box against Jackson in the tenth inning on June 4, the winning run on second base, a meaningless runner on first, and two outs. There was no margin for error. Either Bergman did something to win the game or keep the inning alive, or the game would move into the eleventh.

Jackson went to work.

Bergman fouled off the first five pitches, living on the edge of an 0-2 count for three of them.

As ABC’s Al Michaels, Howard Cosell and Earl Weaver looked on from the broadcast booth, Bergman finally worked the count full in between foul balls. Twelve pitches had been thrown when Bergman settled back into the box, several minutes after the at-bat began.

Jackson reared back and threw pitch no. 13.

Michaels has been behind the microphone for some iconic moments in sports history, not the least of which were the USA hockey team’s “Miracle on Ice” in 1980 and the earthquake during the 1989 World Series.

Cosell called some of the most famous (and infamous) boxing matches in pugilistic history, and his tenure in the “Monday Night Football” booth certainly reverberated.

Bergman provided another such moment.

“Long fly ball! Way back in right!” Michaels yelled as Cosell and Weaver reacted in the background. “She is…..gone!”

Bergman’s three-run homer stunned the Blue Jays and won the game for the Tigers. It was a stinking Monday night game in early June, but the atmosphere belied that.

I was there when Kirk Gibson sealed the 1984 World Series with his three-run blast off Goose Gossage, and I can tell you that the roar of the crowd was greater in that moment than when Herndon caught Tony Gwynn’s fly ball for the series’ final out.

I wasn’t there when Bergman beat Jackson and the Blue Jays, but video evidence and my own recollection say that Tiger Stadium rocked every bit as hard as when Gibby did his thing.

Dave Bergman was the very essence of role player with the Tigers, especially in 1984, a year in which everyone contributed, from Bergman and Kuntz to Trammell, Whitaker et al.

Bergman battled cancer with the same fury and determination as he did Roy Lee Jackson on June 4, 1984.

But cancer doesn’t hang breaking balls. It doesn’t leave a pitch up at the letters for cranking.

In Detroit, we are still blessed to be graced by many members of the 1968 World Series champions, many of whom still live in the metro area.

We’ve lost a few 1984 heroes before their time (Aurelio Lopez, Dwight Lowry and Sparky) but losing Bergman at age 61 is a toughie. Not only did he have his moment on June 4, but he was a good Tiger who knew his place, didn’t bitch and was a terrific teammate.

“He was a leader,” Parrish told the Detroit Free Press. “A very intelligent man who played the game the way it is supposed to be played. He played very hard and I just loved being on the field with him.”

In describing his signature moment in baseball, the home run that beat the Blue Jays, Bergman was characteristically brief and to the point.

“I just happened to hit it right on the button,” he said.

So long, Bergie. You had your moment, and that’s what any athlete ever wants.

Jennings’ Injury a Slug in the Gut, But Van Gundy Has the Power to Overcome

In Basketball on January 27, 2015 at 2:55 am

The non-c0ntact injury is the scariest of them all.

Sure, there have been some humdingers when bodies have collided and joints get twisted in ways that were not meant to be twisted. Think Joe Theismann.

But for whatever reason, the injuries that occur when nary a soul is around the victim, often are among the most devastating.

Dan Marino played 17 years in the rough-and-tumble world of pro football, at quarterback, no less—a position where boys are grown on farms in Iowa and Nebraska specifically to destroy.

Yet I watched in 1993 on television when Marino was felled by…no one.

The game was played in Cleveland. On the sod of Municipal Stadium, Marino did some tap dancing in the pocket, avoiding a pass rush. He did a good job of avoiding potential sackers, but suddenly he collapsed, writhing in pain.

Marino had popped his Achilles tendon. He missed the rest of the season, and nobody had touched him.

Norm Nixon was a whirling dervish of a guard who had starred for the Los Angeles Lakers from 1977-83, and who was playing for the same town Clippers in 1986 when he stepped into a hole in New York’s Central Park during a celebrity softball game.

Nixon missed the entire 1986-87 season, and the only contact he had was his foot in a hole.

Professional basketball players are rough on their knees, ankles and feet. They stop, start and accelerate very abruptly and with violence.

Sometimes a tendon or a ligament gives way, with no contact involved—unless you count sneaker-to-floor.

Brandon Jennings, Pistons point guard whose exemplary play had led his team to a 12-3 run starting just before Christmas, was guarding an in-bounds pass on Saturday night in Milwaukee. No one was near enough to breathe on him, let alone make any physical contact with him.

It was one of those injuries where, when watching on TV, you don’t notice it right away.

But then the camera cut to Jennings, who was inexplicably on the court, in great distress. By the looks of things, something was seriously wrong with his left leg, below the knee.

Everyone wearing Pistons blue, and coach Stan Van Gundy, and the fans watching back home in Detroit, got a sinking feeling.

Non-contact injury. Not good.

You hope for the best and expect the worst when these things happen, and with Jennings, it was the latter.

The worst: a ruptured Achilles.

Prognosis: out for the season and then some.

Jennings may miss a calendar year, if his recovery falls in line with similar injuries to basketball players.

It was a slug in the gut to the Pistons, who’d been prancing through their schedule with unbridled enthusiasm, fun and winning on enemy courts with stunning normalcy.

Jennings was the unquestioned leader of the resurgence, though the Pistons have had many heroes since December 22, when the team shockingly released Josh Smith, which spawned the 12-3 run.

Prior to the injury, Jennings was playing out of his mind, scoring and assisting and defending and growing more comfortable in the idea of the Pistons being “his team.”

The game before the injury, Jennings posted a 20/20 (points/assists), which was the first in the NBA in over five years.

Van Gundy has needed a thesaurus to describe Jennings’ play on a nightly basis over the past month.

The injury is rotten luck for a team that could sure use some good fortune.

So let’s go looking for a silver lining to this latest cloud.

During the 12-3 run, the Pistons have rightly pointed to the host of players who have contributed mightily to the team’s success. It’s not just one guy, they have said over and over.

Despite Jennings’ spectacular play, this is true.

So here’s the Pistons’ chance to prove that they’re not just made of one guy.

Backup D.J. Augustin, who now assumes Jennings’ starting role, is off to a good start in his new job. On Saturday in Toronto, Augustin scored 35 points and dished out eight assists. The Pistons lost, but the pain of the loss was at least partially mitigated by Augustin’s performance.

And here’s where Van Gundy’s dual role of coach and president comes into play.

As a coach, he doesn’t have to petition his GM for a certain player to take Jennings’ place on the roster.

As president, he doesn’t have to convince his coach of anything personnel-wise.

Van Gundy wears both hats, and this is a prime example of why the Pistons thought hiring one man to do both jobs was a good idea.

It’s an unwanted, unplanned example, but here we are.

Van Gundy, like his players, has no choice but to carry on in Jennings’ absence. But with the power invested in him by owner Tom Gores—power that all but a handful of NBA coaches don’t possess—SVG can move on without any hint of disconnect between the court and the front office, which happens more often in the NBA than you think.

It was that disconnect that Van Gundy spoke of back in May, when he was introduced to the media and explained why he took the Detroit job over others that may have been closer to winning.

Those supposedly more attractive jobs were coaching-only gigs, and Van Gundy talked about how sometimes the coach and the front office don’t always see eye-to-eye.

Hence his decision to take the Pistons job, with its direct pipeline from the offices to the court.

Brandon Jennings’ heartbreaking Achilles injury is awful, but at least with one man running the basketball show, and with the players buying into that one man’s message, maybe it will be a little easier to overcome.

 

Lions Have to Beat More than Packers on Sunday

In football on December 22, 2014 at 4:58 pm

The helmet whizzed past Milt Plum’s head, missing his melon by inches. The hurled headgear slammed against the locker room wall.

It was October 7, 1962.

A few weeks later, the country would be captivated and would squirm on their living room sofas, as they followed with racing hearts the tense missile crisis playing out in Cuba.

But in Green Bay, the Lions had a potentially explosive situation going on in their dressing quarters.

The Packers, sad sacks in the latter part of the 1950s, had been rebuilt by coach Vince Lombardi. The former New York Giants assistant had molded prior losers like Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jimmy Taylor et al into a unit that played for the NFL Championship in 1960, where they were edged by the Philadelphia Eagles.

In 1961, the Pack drilled Lombardi’s old team, 37-0, at Yankee Stadium to win the franchise’s first championship in 17 years.

The Lions were re-building something as well, under coach George Wilson.

League champions in 1957, the Lions lost their way in 1958 and struggled for a few years but by 1962, the team was reloaded and ready to end Green Bay’s two-year reign as Western Division champs.

Both teams entered the game with 3-0 records. The winner would capture first place in the division, which was important because neither squad looked like it was going to lose too many games that season. A one-game deficit in October would be difficult for the loser to overcome during the course of the fall.

On that fateful day in Green Bay in 1962, the field conditions were less-than-spectacular, thanks to heavy rains. Mud ruled.

The conditions didn’t lend themselves to much offense, and with the Lions’ stout defense, that was even more accentuated at City Stadium (renamed Lambeau Field in 1965).

The Lions managed to forge a delicate 7-6 lead. They had the football near midfield in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter.

A third down presented itself. A first down might have killed the rest of the clock, but a failed conversion and a subsequent punt would have pinned the Packers deep in their own territory.

The safe bet would have been to run the football then punt.

Alex Karras and Joe Schmidt, two stalwarts of the defense, were slapping each other on the back on the sidelines with congratulations on a victory that seemed certain.

Then they saw Lions quarterback Plum fade back to pass.

“What the hell is he doing?” Karras recalled saying in his book, Even Big Guys Cry.

Plum’s intended receiver fell down. Packers defensive back Herb Adderley intercepted and ran the ball deep into Lions territory.

The Packers ran a couple of token plays into the Lions’ line, then Hornung booted a 26-yard field goal to win it for Green Bay.

It was a cruel, bitter loss—perhaps one of the worst in Lions history, which is saying something.

Afterward, in the locker room, members of the defense screamed, asking who the idiot was who called the pass play.

No one responded, until Plum finally said, “None of your business.”

That set Karras off.

The defensive tackle flung his helmet at Plum’s head, barely missing his target.

On Thanksgiving Day that year, the Lions, bent on revenge, destroyed Starr and the Packers. But it was too late. Green Bay won the division with a 13-1 record. The Lions finished 11-3.

Had the game in Green Bay gone differently, both teams would have finished 12-2 and a playoff for the division would have been needed.

“No one would have heard of Vince Lombardi,” Karras wrote, lamenting the fate of the 1962 season.

Whatever ill will the football gods anointed over the Lions in Green Bay, it began on that muddy field in 1962.

In the 1970s and 1980s, both the Lions and the Packers were usually pretty bad, so wins and losses by the clubs on each other’s fields were mostly inconsequential.

The 1990s ushered in the Brett Favre Era in Green Bay, and the Lions stopped winning in Wisconsin. Period.

You all know the inglorious history of the Lions on the road in Green Bay.

No wins since 1991. Including playoffs, 23 straight losses.

Favre left Green Bay in 2008 but the misery continued for the Lions. Aaron Rodgers simply took the torch and has been burning the Lions with it ever since.

The thing about streaks—winning, losing, hitting, missing—is that they all end. Eventually.

In the 1970s, the Buffalo Bills could never beat the Miami Dolphins. Literally. No matter where the game was played.

The Bills beat the Dolphins in November, 1969, when both were members of the American Football League.

The Bills’ next win over the Dolphins didn’t happen until September, 1980. Twenty straight defeats to the Dolphins occurred in between.

All streaks end, for better or for worse.

The Lions, for all their ignominy of never winning in Green Bay through five-and-a-half presidential terms, have never played a game during The Streak as big in magnitude, in the regular season, in Wisconsin as the one they’re about to play next Sunday.

This one’s for the NFC North marbles.

This isn’t a mid-season game in October with the Lions foundering and the Packers gearing up for another successful season.

This isn’t a meaningless (for the Lions) contest played out on the frozen tundra with the Packers playoff-bound.

This isn’t an early-September game with optimism still high, only to be crushed as the season wears on.

This is for the division title.

Now, the loser still makes the playoffs. This isn’t being played under the no-wild card rules of 1962.

But the loser doesn’t get a home playoff game, which is crucial for both teams. The Lions are 7-1 in Detroit; the Packers are 7-0 at Lambeau Field.

Despite their team’s surprising success this season, few fans feel warm and fuzzy about the Lions on the road in the playoffs, even if the game is played at the winner of the NFC South’s field.

Trouble is, the fans don’t feel warm and fuzzy about the Lions on the road in Green Bay, either.

Yet Lambeau Field is where the Lions have to win, in order to capture their first divisional title since 1993.

The Packers are used to these moments. They are a battle-tested, playoff-veteran team, laden with individual and team success.

And they are playing at home, which is a double whammy against their opponents, though the Packers’ magic at home in the playoffs has taken a few hits in recent years.

But this is all new for the Lions.

The Lions don’t play for the division, head-to-head, on the last week of the season. They just don’t.  In fact, they haven’t done so since 1981, at home. And they lost, to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

On Sunday, in a house of horrors that the forces have refused to smile on them even once in 22 years, the Lions have to find a way to win a stinking football game against odds, history, aura and the whole bit.

Three things have been certain since 1991: death, taxes and the Lions losing in Green Bay.

Maybe high stakes, which have never been higher for the Lions in Green Bay since maybe that game in 1962, will somehow change the course of football history.

Tee it up on Sunday and let’s find out.

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