Lapointe: Cabrera’s Wintry Blast Ranks Among Detroit's Best Opening Day Memories

April 01, 2021, 10:27 PM by  Joe Lapointe

Cabrera kocks in two runs in the first inning.

Dashing through the snow squall early Thursday afternoon at Comerica Park was Miguel Cabrera, the large, veteran Tigers’ slugger not known for foot speed.

Sailing through the frigid wind was the ball pitched by Cleveland ace Shane Bieber, the defending Cy Young award winner.

After brushing back Cabrera up-and-in at 92 miles per hour, Bieber cranked it up to 93.

His pitch moved up and away, but not enough. Cabrera took him deep to the opposite field with one man on and two out in the bottom of the scoreless first inning on Opening Day in The D.

Trying to track the ball in the first row of the right-field seats behind the Modelo Cerveza sign was Jim Moore of Alma, sitting with his son, Nik.

“You couldn’t see it with the snow coming in your eyes so bad,” Moore said. “My hands were so cold, I didn’t know if I could catch it or not.” So he followed the path of the rightfielder until the ball came into view.

As Moore grabbed the railing and lunged from his chair toward the ball, it hit that very rail above the yellow line at the top of the wall and bounced back on the field.

This two-run homer by Cabrera paced the Tigers to a sometimes profound, occasionally comical, 3-2 victory over Cleveland.

“It was awesome,” Moore said of Cabrera’s blast.

“It was almost kind of laughable,” said Tigers’ manager A.J. Hinch. He referred not to the home run or to the victory, but to the weather conditions, with temperatures in the low 30s and wind chill in the 20s.

'OK, Thank You'

Cabrera slides into second base.

Part of the humor happened because Cabrera’s home run bounced back on the field. The furious flurries made everything so blurry that Cabrera slid into second base, just in case that ball had not left the field.

The umpires waved him home and confirmed the decision after video review.
“I said `OK,’” Cabrera said. “Thank you.”

So Cabrera had Major League Baseball’s first home run of the 2021 season and Detroit – for one day, at least – no longer has four major-league professional sports teams in last place.

In addition, fielding at first base, Cabrera made a diving stop of a hard hopper and forced out a runner at second by throwing from his knees.

He now has 488 home runs and 1,731 runs batted in for his 19-year major-league career. Cabrera’s pursuit of the 500/2,000 milestones will be a sub-theme of this season and the chilled audience gave him much applause.

► Support our reporting by becoming a Deadline Detroit member for as little as $3 per month.

Such was the upbeat mood inside the ball park where a limited crowd of about 8,000 welcomed baseball back for its second season during the Covid-19 pandemic, the first with fans in the stands after a truncated 2020 season with artificial crowd noise in the speaker systems and cardboard cutouts in the seats.

Outside the park on the East Side of downtown, there wasn’t much going on in the tradition of Detroit’s unofficial annual sports holiday.

Dogs, Horses, Cops, Questionnaires

(Photo: Michael Lucido)

Police waved off tailgate picnics in the parking lots and the health department monitored the limited capacity of nearby bars.

Parking lots charged $3 to $20 – a relatively low rate -- and many had empty space. Ticket scalpers were few and far between.

You could walk up to Comerica’s ticket windows less than an hour before the start and find seats available for $45, $40 and $35. Customers couldn't have bags and had to fill out a health questionnaire before entering.

Masks were mandatory and young employees passed out free “Bally” face masks to promote the new branding of the TV sports station formerly known as “Fox Sports Detroit.”

There were plenty of cops in idling squad cars, cops on foot and cops on horseback. Many trained dogs (minded by uniformed handlers) sniffed the paying customers on the sidewalks outside the park.

Inside, Comerica still has the best Ferris wheel and carousel in the American League, but they both were closed for health precautions, as was the major food court behind home plate.

One Year Closer to Death

While driving to Comerica Thursday morning past lawns with fresh snow, I flashed back to my warmest memories of baseball’s Opening Day, mostly in Detroit but in other cities as well.

(How else would I have met Mayor Richard J. Daley in at old Comiskey Park in Chicago in the 1970s and Mayor Rudy Giuliani at the old Yankee Stadium in New York in the 1990s?)

My first opener in Detroit was in 1967 when I was a high-school sophomore, my debut day as a “badge boy” usher in Tiger Stadium. My first aisle in the reserved seats was between sections 22 and 23 in the Upper Deck, just to the right of the backstop screen.

Our uniformed supervisor was the wonderfully named “Gordie Strongman,” a name perfect for Detroit sports in that era. I think I made 10 bucks that day in tips, our only wages.

My professional career in sports was off and running, if only up and down steep steps for the time being.

Flash forward eight years and I’m a rookie in the sports department of the Chicago Sun-Times, working on the copy desk in 1975.

That year – and every year – a grizzled veteran from the city room would wander over to the sports desk in mock seriousness on Opening Day to make a somber pronouncement.

“All this means,” he would intone, “is that we are all one year closer to death.”

Then, he’d spin on his heel and walk away without another word. Alas, this fellow died not long after that.

A Media Conspiracy

A better memory came seven years later, in 1982, when I covered sports for the Detroit Free Press and the Tigers were scheduled to open against Toronto at Tiger Stadium.

This being Pure Michigan, they postponed that opener due to half a foot of early-spring snow. I’d been assigned to help that day with our game coverage. So, now, how would we fill the pages of the sports section?

The snowman Lapointe helped build in 1982 (Photo: Mary Schroeder, Detroit Free Press)

I hatched a plot in the back of the office with a few colleagues. Let’s go over to Tiger Stadium, we decided, walk on the field, build a snowman and take a picture of it. At least that will fill part of a page.

We proposed the plan to our sports editor, Joe Distelheim. He made a joke about how four union employees might react if their editor ordered them to build a snowman.

Then he pleasantly acquiesced and sent us over to the ball yard. My co-conspirators were Bill McGraw, Toni Cybulski and Mary Schroeder. We set up outside first base, in foul territory.

Despite all the snow, the project started poorly. The snow wasn’t “good-packing.” We managed a skinny, sad-looking snowperson, standing forlorn near the coach’s box, frail as a scarecrow but with less personality.

This would not make much of a photo, even with a talented shooter like Schroeder handling the camera.

Suddenly, over walked Anne Doyle, a sports reporter then for Channel 2. She and her crew were wandering around looking for “visuals” for the night’s newscast. Doyle suggested a mission-saving idea to rescue our snow person.

Here Comes the Sun

Somehow, Doyle came up with a Tigers cap, a Tigers jacket, a bat and a glove. She put them on the snow person, artfully arranged. Suddenly, the creature took on a distinct form and personality. It seemed robust, alert. It’s alive!  Schroeder shot several black-and-white photos that I will forever treasure.

That night, Doyle had her videotape highlight for the newscast and we published Mary’s best photo in the next morning’s paper. A few days later, that snowman picture appeared during “Weekend Update” on “Saturday Night Live.”

And a week later, it even ran in The Sporting News. You could look it up. It’s funny what you remember most over many years of great moments, more than half a century of Opening Days.

Thursday’s snow wasn’t enough to postpone a game. Nor was there enough of it to construct a snowman to race Miguel Cabrera. But he made a memorable moment nonetheless with his blast through the flakes.

In the grandstands, it felt raw and uncomfortable, but also optimistic and happy. Between the bursts of snow came many teasing glimmers of sunshine suggesting warmer, brighter, better days ahead.

► Support our reporting by becoming a Deadline Detroit member for as little as $3 per month.

Leave a Comment:

Photo Of The Day