There was no better ballpark for a child to become introduced to baseball than the old Lucas County Recreation Center in Maumee, Ohio, a suburb just south of Toledo. That's where the Mud Hens played until they moved to a new downtown ballpark in 2002. The old stadium was a former horse-racing track, with one long grandstand that was parallel to the third-base line, augmented by a set of bleachers, put in for baseball, that hugged the first-base line.
This odd setup caused the players' clubhouse to be separated from the stadium. To get to the locker room, players from both teams had to walk through a public corridor. That meant they had to walk by us, so this became a gold mine for autographs. The first time we went to the park, we noticed other children gathering behind the first-base bleachers, so we asked Dad if we too could go to the area between the stadium and the clubhouse when the game ended. Dad thought it was a great idea.
First came one player, then another, then it was a parade, a steady stream of ballplayers, their spikes clicking on the concrete as they came toward us. With our Bic ballpoint pens poised and ready, we raced around like ants, asking the players to sign our programs, our mitts, even the free bats we received on Bat Day.
This was so exciting to me, to meet the players, even for just a few seconds. We not only got to see the Mud Hens up close, but also stars on other teams. I knew all of their names from the radio broadcasts; some of them, like Ralph Garr, Bobby Grich, and Al Bumbry, went on to become well-known major-leaguers. But we focused our efforts mostly on the Hens. It is for this reason that, almost every game we went to, it seemed, I ended up with big Tom Timmermann's autograph -- on my glove, on a baseball, on the game program. I figured I had more Tom Timmermanns than anyone on the planet. When the last player had finally shaken loose to open the clubhouse door, we then came together -- Kate, Jim, the Hansen triplets, and I -- and compared notes, like children after a night of trick-or-treating.
In 1969, Dad also started taking us to a major-league game or two every year in Detroit, which was just an hour's drive away. The year before, 1968, had been a big year for the Tigers. They won the American League pennant, then the World Series in seven games over the St. Louis Cardinals. We didn't go to any games that year, but I listened to many on the radio, and all of us kids knew the words to "Go Get 'Em, Tigers" so well that we can sing them to this day.