Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Paint Me an Ann Arbor Winter's Night

Feeling particularly nostalgic for winter nights in the college town as seasonal change is upon us once again.

I woke last night to the sound of thunder
How far off I sat and wondered
Started humming a song from 1962
Ain't it funny how the night moves
When you just don't seem to have as much to lose
- Bob Seger

The last leaves clutching to autumn dangle from the oak trees lining the diag. The campus paths that bustled with energy and vigor just weeks ago have grown somber and lifeless; only a few bundled up students scuttle down the lamp-lit paths, on their way home from class or on their way to stow themselves away in some library cubicle.

Turning the corner onto State Street, a chilled gust of wind reminds me once more of seasonal change. The buildings on State tower over the street, emanating a sense of history and tradition. I can almost picture John F. Kennedy delivering that speech on the steps of the student union. Or some lofty-minded student groups protesting on the lawn in the sixties, triggering the wheels of revolution. The pillars of the fraternity mansions speak of their own history, where well dressed young men once signed up to serve their country one night in the forties.

Yet nothing seems to be happening in Ann Arbor now. Students tucked away in the warmth of their houses sit aimlessly staring at the television. Or drinking cases of beer, drowning out the lack thereof of our generation.

Those thoughts of State Street's past are flushed away as I walk up the steps of my front porch and open that front door. Inside, my friends and roommates, dressed in our school colors, take swigs of whiskey concoctions while dancing around to the tunes playing from the speakers, drowning out some unnamed sporting event on the television. Feeling behind in the pregame festivities, I disregard the stack of unwashed dishes piled up in the sink and the beer spills covering the countertop, dispose of my backpack, and embark upon the evening unfolding in the living room. The night seems alive again.

With our whiskey overcoats draped over us, we walk amongst the throngs of students down Hoover, taking sips of whiskey from our flasks along the way. Though we walk among strangers down in the chilly night, there is a proud sense of community among us. The lights of Crisler Arena guide us to our destination - that evening's sporting event.

The winter nights go on that way. And though it seems like nothing happens on those November and December nights, and though maybe no one but us will look back on those days like one looks back upon the students registering for military service in the forties or the student protesters planting the seeds of change in the sixties, we create our own piece of State Street history on those cold, dark Ann Arbor nights.

Sunday, October 21, 2012


Two of my best friends' dads - Bryan and Jimmy's dads -  have the Detroit Free Press cover from when the Detroit Tigers won the '84 World Series framed and hanging in their basements. I grew up with both Bryan and Jimmy, so I often frequented those basements in which the 1984 newspaper slogan seemed to stand out as the centerpiece. A sentimental guy since birth, whenever I ventured into either one of those basements I always would pause for a moment and stare at that captured moment, an iconic moment in Detroit history rivaled only by maybe that unforgettable Stevie Yzerman '97 night that captivated Michigan's hearts.  And even while I was young I thought about where Jim or Bryan's or even my own dad was for that epic scene.

I imagine they were much in the same place my group of friends are now: in their early to mid twenties, young and alive with enthusiasm, the world still coming into place, that nervousness a younger man feels about how the future might unfold, and of course emotionally attached to their sports teams. I obviously wasn't alive in 1984. But in my own mind I can picture my father and Jim's father watching those playoffs unfold: watching the Justin Verlander of their era, Jack Morris, pitch yet another gem; watching Kirk Gibson and Chet Lemon from some bar in the metro Detroit area; clanging their Labatt Blue's against one another; talking about their past while thinking about their futures.

We're not so different, I bet. 1984 Bryan's dad and 1984 Jimmy's dad and 1984 my own dad would probably get along quite well with 2012 Zac, Adam, Jimmy, Bryan, and Steve. We're at the same stage they probably were in life: getting a little bit older but still learning how to navigate the waterways of life; at a point where your best friends mean pretty much everything; still young, but on the verge of what will become our married lives.

It's not hard to explain why I always stared in awe at those framed Detroit Free Press covers feautring Kirk Gibson's famous trot around the bases. From the moment I was old enough to understand baseball through high school, the Tigers were not a good baseball team. In fact, they were historically bad for most of my lifetime. In 2003, the Detroit Tigers won 43 games. 43 games. That's 119 losses. I still have memories as a boy, listening to Detroit sports radio with my dad, and the radio guys talking about whether the mandatory rule that each team gets to send a player to the all-star game should be eradicated - because the Tigers didn't have anyone worthy of the All-Star game.

Then something weird started to happen, though. The Tigers started getting not bad. I remember that special fall in 2006 - it was the first time I left home as I was living in Mary Markley Dormitory Hall in Ann Arbor. I remember watching those games with my roommate that year, Andy - a guy I would say cares more about the Tigers than anyone I've ever met. I remember those magical October nights shelled up in that dorm that was so small but I now think about it like it was Hogwarts, watching as Magglio Ordonez sent shock waves through small towns all around Michigan. I remember those nights, but I won't lie, I wouldn't consider myself a true fan then.

Things start to change when you graduate college. Tuesday night beers turn into lemonades, friends move away, and you're left with an abundance of time of which you've got to figure out how to spend it. The summer after graduation, when I lived in Petoskey, is when I started to fall in love. I watched Rod and Mario narrate those games almost every night - it was probably the best time of my life, watching those Tigers and looking out into the Northern Michigan woods in the backyard and waiting for the girl that I was in love with to come home from work. But it wasn't until probably last July when it became a full-on relationship for me and the Tigers. I was going through a particularly rough time then, and watching the Tigers each night became my rock. I've said it once before, but it's times like those when sports become a hell of a lot more than a game.

I don't think I'll ever forget this summer, and the only reason for that is the baseball team that plays in Detroit. My routine on those June and July days was to get home from a long day at court, change out of my suit, go for a walk in Hines Park, and then settle in for the Tigers. And somehow routine becomes more than just routine. It becomes habit. It becomes a relationship. It becomes a bad day when the Tigers are down 3 games to the White Sox. It becomes a good week when they're starting to catch those White Sox. And it becomes a night you'll never forget that Monday night when they clinch against the Royals, and you just had to crack a beer even though it was 11:30 already.

Hopefully I'll get the chance to venture into Jimmy or Bryan's basement this week and pause for a moment to look at that '84 Detroit Free Press cover. I'll think about our dad's. I'll think about where they were in their lives on that October 1984 day. I'll think about what that day means to them in terms of their lives.

But most importantly, I'll think about how special it would be if in some far off day my son could look at my Detroit Free Press "2012 Tigers World Series Champs" cover that's hanging in my basement someday. Hopefully he'll think about where his dad was in October of 2012. Maybe I'll explain it him: 2012 wasn't really that great a year, but the Detroit Tigers changed that, the Detroit Tigers made it a year I'll never forget. Maybe I'll explain to him how special a time it was to be watching with all my best friends, as my dad and Jim's dad do in my subliminal memory. And I'll tell him that that's why sports can be a hell of a lot more than a game.