Priest reflects on eve of 200th World Series game
Fr. Don Worthy, lifelong Tigers fan, has missed just two Fall Classics since 1968
From his seat at a small square table tucked into the front corner of Nemo's Bar, Father Don Worthy can glance out a window toward the corner of Michigan Ave. and Trumbull St. He squints as he peers through the glass, and his voice cracks a touch as he discusses the vacant lot one block west.
There is an overgrown field surrounded by wire fencing, loosely protecting sacred ground. Tiger Stadium is just a memory -- one made more vivid by the remaining infield and the splintered boards assembled as benches -- and Worthy's words are laced with emotion as he talks about the missing ballpark.
"For years after they tore it down," Worthy said, "I sat right in this chair. I was here every Tuesday to mourn the loss of the stadium. I had to deal with my grief."
This story is not about loss, though.
This is an amazing story of 200 World Series games attended. It began with the 1968 Series between Detroit and St. Louis, and there have been countless twists and turns since that first taste of baseball's biggest stage. The 79-year-old priest reaches into his memory bank and recalls events like a grandfather weaving tall tales.
"I've got a story about every World Series," Worthy said with a hearty laugh.
On Saturday, Worthy will take his seat behind home plate at Comerica Park in Detroit for Game 3 of this fall's Word Series between the Tigers and Giants. He will gaze at the diamond, his hometown crowd roaring, Detroit's downtown serving as a backdrop behind center field, and he will have come full circle for his 200th game.
"It's something I never planned," Worthy said. "I've just been very blessed."
Worthy, wearing a blue beret and a gray turtleneck with Notre Dame's logo stitched on the collar, pauses and lets out another loud chuckle. His blue eyes sparkle as he shakes his head.
"It's a blessing and a curse to love the Tigers," he adds.
A lifelong Tigers fan -- he was hooked as a boy, thanks to Sundays spent at his grandfather's side in Imlay City, Mich., listening to Ty Tyson call games on the radio -- Worthy had secured four tickets to the World Series, Unfortunately, he was sitting behind his desk at St. Rita Parish in Detroit, and the tickets in question were for the Cardinals' home games.
A blessing, and a curse.
He was grateful that the Tigers' traveling secretary had thought of him, but there was simply no way he and his assistant priest, Fr. Vincent Welch, could get to St. Louis. For once, it was the priests who were in need of a miracle.
"I didn't have two nickels to rub together," Worthy said. "Then the phone rings. It's a friend of mine, a car salesman. He says to me, 'You don't know anybody who has tickets to the Series, do you?'"
Worthy explained his predicament.
"He says, 'I'll call you right back,'" Worthy recalled.
The car salesman called a dentist, who had served as a B-24 pilot in World War II. This friend-of-a-friend happened to have a four-seat Piper Comanche there in Michigan. So they piled into the back seat, flew over Notre Dame -- a point Worthy makes a point to mention multiple times -- and landed in Alton, Ill., where a limousine awaited their arrival.
Worthy's friend took care of the hotel accommodations. Worthy provided the tickets.
"The next day, Bob Gibson beats our brains out," Worthy said with a laugh.
Detroit won in seven games. Mickey Lolich earned the Series' Most Valuable Player honor behind three complete games -- one of the greatest, and more underrated World Series performances in history, the way Worthy sees it -- and the priests flew home with an incredible taste lingering.
"We're back on the plane," Worthy said, "And I said to Father Vince, 'Nothing to this World Series stuff. We ought to do this every year.' I had no idea. That started the journey."
Tickets were not always so easy to come across. Fr. Worthy missed the 2002 Series between the Angels and Giants -- one of just two Fall Classics he has not attended since this trek began -- due to an inability to obtain entrance.
Have you heard the one about the priest who walked into an old apartment building in Baltimore to buy a World Series ticket from former Red Sox infielder Frank Malzone? There is no punch line. That was just how Worthy had to get tickets in 1969.
"We found out a secret address where they would sell them to us," Worthy said. "We had to walk upstairs and knock on the door. Nobody was supposed to know about it."
In other years, gaining access to great seats at the World Series was a bit easier.
For Game 7 of the 1991 clash between the Twins and Braves at the Metrodome, Worthy was sitting among some of baseball's biggest names. Tony La Russa was in his section. Frank Robinson. In the seat next to Worthy was Jerry Walker, former general manager of the Tigers.
"The big timers," Worthy said, "they'd go to the first two games. After that, there are club tickets available. Well, we got some of those."
Worthy and Mike McNamara -- the priest's World Series companion since 1986 -- had no idea what was in store from their perfect vantage point. Minnesota's Jack Morris and Atlanta's John Smoltz locked horns in a classic duel for the ages, with Morris emerging victorious behind 10 stellar innings.
"Tom Kelly would've had to come out with the Minnesota State Police to get him off the mound," Worthy said. "There was no getting Jack Morris off that mound."
The 51-year-old McNamara, who headed into this postseason with 163 World Series games under his belt, calls that the best game they have witnessed to date.
"You're never going to see that again," McNamara said. "It was tremendous. It was just a great atmosphere. Of all the games, that's clearly the best game I ever saw, and the most exciting game, obviously. Game 7 on top of it, going extra innings."
The details recalled by Worthy as he bounces from one story to the next are incredible. He recalls the inning, the score and often the count. When great moments have occurred, Worthy's eyes and ears have noticed every nuance and, like a photographer's lens, captured and committed each event to memory.
Consider his take on Kirk Gibson's famous home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.
"I'll never forget it," Worthy said. "Out the clubhouse door he comes, the right-hand side of the dugout, he's lumbering around, he has to put the bat down to climb up to get on the field and he lumbers out toward first base. He walks up and he hits the home run and everybody goes crazy."
To the men from Michigan, such a blast by the former Tiger was practically expected.
A decade earlier, with Welch at his side, Worthy witnessed one of the best singular World Series performances in history. The priest is quick to note Roberto Clemente's showing in 1971 as the greatest overall Series display, describing it as "Secretariat at the Belmont." But Reggie Jackson -- as he often did throughout his career -- stole the show on Oct. 18, 1977.
Adding to the moment was the fact that Worthy was seated near Peter O'Malley -- president of the Dodgers at the time -- for that Game 6 between the Yankees and Los Angeles. Jackson swatted three home runs to lead New York to the crown, and Worthy soaked in every detail.
"I don't care how much your father told you to hate the Yankees when you were 3 years old," Worthy said. "There's something about the World Series in New York that's just special. I'm sitting right across from Peter O' Malley and, of course, Reggie hates the National League.
"First home run, right down the right-field line -- first pitch. Second home run, right over the 344[-foot] marker -- first pitch. Then comes Charlie Hough. Well, he can't do anything with Charlie Hough. They didn't realize it, but Jackson was one of the best knuckleball hitters there ever was.
"He put it right on the black -- dead center field. I can see Peter O'Malley just shrinking with every home run. There was nobody in my view that had the dramatic appeal as Reggie Jackson."
For his 198th World Series game, Worthy watched San Francisco's Pablo Sandoval launch three home runs against the priest's beloved Tigers at AT&T Park. It was not the way Worthy or McNamara wanted this Series to start, but the trip to the Bay Area was hardly a waste.
"What an unbelievable ballpark," McNamara said. "Nothing like it in any sport."
They have certainly seen their share of ballparks.
In all, Worthy has attended 42 World Series with 26 teams appearing at least once. Along the way, he has missed 38 games -- not counting the two Fall Classics he was forced to miss. Besides the mishap in 2002, Worthy could not attend the Series in 1974. He was in traction at the time.
"There was no going to that one," he said with a laugh.
There are so many other stories Worthy can tell.
There was the time he struck an unlikely friendship with Tommy Lasorda in an Italian restaurant in Philadelphia in 1983. He borrowed a car from some nuns in 1984 and had it impounded in a shady neighborhood on the edge of San Diego. In 1989, Worthy watched the right-field stands in Candlestick Park undulate like an accordion during the San Francisco earthquake. He tears up when he talks about the 2001 Series, which he feels helped the healing process in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Through his work as a hospital chaplain, Worthy helped create a charitable dinner -- with the assistance of former Tigers manager Sparky Anderson -- that has raised more than $2 million for children in Detroit over the past 25 years. Anderson became a close friend, as did Lolich, one of Worthy's heroes when this whole journey began.
In 1987, Worthy's friend and fellow priest, Fr. Welch, passed away during the World Series.
"I stood by the casket," Worthy said, "and I said, 'You've got some nerve dying and leaving me during the World Series.' He was the greatest baseball fan I ever knew."
These days, McNamara -- a family friend of Worthy's since his youth -- has picked up the reins, and handles most of the travel arrangements. There are flights and hotels now, as opposed to long road trips and stays in abandoned convents or vacant parishes.
"I really love being a priest," said Worthy, who now lives in Colchester, Ontario, Canada. "None of the stories I tell you would've happened if I hadn't been one. That opens so many doors for you. Everything I've ever done in life I owe to the priesthood.
"It's my 50th year as a priest and the 25th anniversary of my dinner. To have my 200th game here in Detroit, I mean, you've been around the league. You've been around the league. Unlike Peggy Lee, I wouldn't say, 'Is that all there is?'"