The Detroit Tigers added to their collection of firsts as Comerica Park’s debut season continued in the summer of 2000.
This is the fourth part of an ongoing series about the memorable moments and games from the Tigers’ first season at Comerica Park. Part one is about the home opener. Part two covers the Tigers’ first CoPa home run and series win. Part three is about the first series sweep in their new home, which came against an unlikely opponent.
June 9: The First Interleague Game
The Tigers split their first interleague games of the 2000 season. After taking two of three against the Cubs in Chicago and then dropping two of three to the Pirates in Pittsburgh, they returned home to host a National League team, the St. Louis Cardinals, at Comerica Park for the first time. Three-quarters of the St. Louis infield, second baseman Fernando Vina, shortstop Edgar Renteria, and third baseman Placido Polanco, would eventually play for Detroit.
The Cards, who led the NL Central by 1.5 games, were the second highest scoring team in the NL and led the league in home runs. The last place Tigers, who had scored the fewest runs in the majors, had their work cut out for them. Starting pitcher Jeff Weaver didn’t seem to mind. Never lacking a competitive spirit, the Tigers’ young righty stated,
“When you do get a team like this that is so potent offensively and you get a chance to throw against them, the results of the game show you where you stand as an opposing pitcher. So I’m looking forward to it.”
Weaver was ready for the challenge. In a 1-2-3 first inning, he retired Vina, Renteria, and a very tough hitter in Jim Edmonds on 11 pitches.
The visiting Cardinals’ biggest attraction, Mark McGwire, led off the second. Earlier in the season, he passed Hall of Famers Jimmie Foxx and Mickey Mantle on the all-time home run list. With 543 dingers to his name, the eighth place McGwire was the most prolific home run hitter to visit Comerica Park in 2000. The sellout crowd of 39,081 cheered “Big Mac”, probably expecting that he’d be putting on quite a slugging show during the weekend series. Fans had showed up early to get a glimpse of the superstar in batting practice. McGwire didn’t disappoint. At one point, he launched a bomb that cleared the Al Kaline statue in the left-center field concourse, approximately 470 feet from home plate.
Perhaps some of those onlookers were in attendance at Tiger Stadium back on August 25, 1988, when McGwire hit his first big league homer off Walt Terrell. McGwire hit more home runs at Tiger Stadium (23) than in any other opponents’ ballpark. In 1997, he became one of only four players to clear the left field roof. Naturally, McGwire felt a connection to the old place. With a twinge of nostalgia, he commented,
“Sad to see it go. Very sad to see it go. This (Comerica Park) is a beautiful ballpark, but…it’s a giant ballpark. I think they should bring in the fences a little.”
McGwire was a hitter that Weaver was especially looking forward to facing. The second-year pitcher saw it as a good learning opportunity. He’d given up a walk and a double to “Big Mac” in a 1999 game before finally striking him out.
Weaver passed his first test in this encounter by getting McGwire out on a called third strike, which drew an even bigger cheer from the crowd. McGwire didn’t actually swing at any of the five pitches he saw. After hitting the next batter, Weaver added two more strikeouts to wrap up the inning.
In the bottom of the second, singles by Dean Palmer, Brad Ausmus, and Deivi Cruz created a 1-0 Tigers lead. It was a two-out, two-strike pitch from Cardinals righty Garrett Stephenson that Cruz had sent into right field. Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa called it a “mistake” pitch. Sitting in the dugout after the inning, Stephenson beat himself up over it afterward. He lamented,
“I came in and said ‘That was the dumbest pitch you could have ever thrown anybody in a million years.’ I’m going to try to sneak an 88 mile an hour fastball past a big league hitter?”
Weaver needed just eight pitches to get through a 1-2-3 inning in the third. With two outs in the bottom of the third, Juan Gonzalez singled. Bobby Higginson doubled off the right field wall to drive in a run. Aggressiveness paid off for the Tigers, as Gonzalez was able to score when catcher Eli Marrero couldn’t handle second baseman Vina’s throw. In appreciation, LaRussa observed that it was “a hell of a send” by Tigers third base coach Doug Mansolino.
Weaver needed just nine pitches to get through a 1-2-3 inning in the fourth. Robert Fick led off the bottom of the fourth with a triple to the gap in right-center. Unfamiliarity paid off for the Tigers. Right fielder Larry Sutton, realizing that he wouldn’t outrun the ball in the vast Comerica Park outfield that he’d never played in before, dove in vain trying to make the catch. Fick scored on a groundout by Ausmus, and the Tigers led 3-0.
The Cardinals made Weaver work a little harder in the fifth. After Sutton singled with one out, J.D. Drew put up a fight against Weaver, but Weaver won the nine-pitch battle by striking him out swinging on a 73-mph breaking ball. Two pitches later, after inducing a flyout, he was out of the inning. He cruised through the sixth on just seven pitches, retiring Polanco, Vina, and Renteria all on infield groundouts.
Palmer led off the bottom of the sixth with his team-leading 12th home run of the season, upping the Tigers’ lead to 4-0. The Cardinals finally put a leadoff hitter aboard in the seventh, when Edmonds singled. Unfazed, Weaver struck out McGwire on a checked swing. However, Thomas Howard, an outfielder serving as the St. Louis DH, hit a two-run homer, spoiling the shutout bid. After a scoreless eighth, Weaver’s work was done. Reflecting on his evening, he said,
“Everyone came out here tonight to see Mark hit one, and it’s great to go out there and do your job against him. When you can get a guy like that out three or four times, it’s great for the confidence.”
In eight innings, Weaver gave up only the two runs on four hits. He stuck out five and didn’t walk anyone. Tigers manager Phil Garner was impressed and excited. He gushed,
“Weaver took it as a challenge tonight and picked it up a level. I think what you saw tonight is why he’s going to keep getting better and better. And the people who can’t keep up with him are going to get left by the wayside.”
McGwire, who would face Weaver only once more in his career, acknowledged his opponent’s tenacity. He said,
“Weaver pitched me tough all night. He had it all working for him tonight.”
With the Tigers up 4-2, closer Todd Jones got the call for the ninth. The inning began dubiously when Edmonds reached on an error by third baseman Shane Halter, who had taken over for Palmer for defensive purposes that inning.
That brought up McGwire, who was still looking for his first hit. Representing the potential tying run, the slugger was probably looking for something more than just a mere hit. Jones got the upper hand with two quick strikes. Then McGwire put a scare into everyone when he hammered a two-strike pitch toward left field that just kept carrying. Nobody had a better view of the flight of the ball than Ausmus did from behind the plate. The Tiger catcher joked,
“I tried to call time out, but they wouldn’t give it to me.”
Luckily, the blast ended up being just a 450-foot foul ball, but Jones had feared the worst. As he described it,
“Every home run hit off me has a very distinct sound. This one had that sound. It went ‘zzzzt’. Then it went foul. I knew I’d gotten away with one.”
Jones compared the sound to that of a golf ball being hit by a driver. After an eight-pitch at-bat, he got the McGwire on a called third strike. Feeling a sense of relief, Jones said,
“That wasn’t part of the game plan, to hang a curve ball and let him hit it 500 miles like that…I was fortunate enough to get him with a high fastball inside for strike three. I’m just happy he didn’t pull the trigger.”
With a verbal tip of the cap to Jones, McGwire observed,
“That’s the best part of the game, when you’re facing their stopper. He went right at me. He struck me out, but you look forward to those situations. Sometimes it turns out good, and sometimes it doesn’t.”
LaRussa was impressed with how both Weaver and Jones had handled McGwire. He gave the two Tigers’ pitchers credit for being “mean and nasty”.
Jones got Howard to hit into a game-ending double play and picked up his league-leading 18th save. The Tigers were 4-2 victors in the first interleague game at Comerica Park. They followed that with a 10-1 pasting of the Cardinals the next day before St. Louis avoided a sweep with a 7-3 win.
When interleague play returned to Comerica in June, the Tigers took two of three from both the Astros and Reds. Fittingly, the Cardinals would later become the Tigers’ first National League postseason opponent at Comerica Park when the first two games of the 2006 World Series were played there.