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Metro area retired priest a World Series faithful

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Colchester, Ontario — Oh, wouldn’t this have been a perfect World Series for two priests living on dimes rather than dollars.

There would be a breezy five-hour drive to Wrigley Field to help the long-exiled Cubs faithful revel in their rapture. And, across Lake Erie from the shoreline cottage where the Rev. Don Worthy sits on a golden autumn day, sunshine in his blue eyes, there, darn near in sight, is Cleveland, where the Indians have raised a rare American League pennant.

“If the Tigers were in it, this would be just a bit more exciting, but short of that, this is the answer to a World Series fiend’s prayers,” said Worthy, sizing up 2016’s showdown, which features two longtime absentees from the championship round, the Cubs and Indians, beginning tonight at Progressive Field in Cleveland. “It’s got everything going for it.”

Consider your average, dogged baseball devotee, age 83. There might have been a World Series game or two in his or her archives. Maybe a half-dozen, even a dozen or more, depending upon affiliation.

Worthy, a retired hospital chaplain and 54-year Catholic priest who has lived nearly all his life in the Detroit-Ontario radius, will tonight be at Progressive Field, seated in the autumn chill, for his 220th World Series game.

Two-hundred-twenty World Series games.

“It’s the baseball heritage of these towns and teams,” Worthy was saying as Lake Erie’s waves washed against rocks fronting his cottage. “You become part of this amazing baseball thing. You get to know the fans, and hear of their parents and grandparents and their devotion to a team. You become part of a much larger and richer story.”

The story, rather incredible, has an innocent beginning, when the Tigers were playing the Cardinals in 1968, and two young Detroit priests, Worthy and his baseball-adoring pal, Vince Welch, were each assigned at St. Rita’s parish, near the old State Fairgrounds.

They had been given tickets to the Series by late Tigers traveling secretary Vince Desmond, which was appreciated in that they could see three games at Tiger Stadium. But this was to become an epic seven-game Series with four acts in St. Louis. Two men whose vocation seemed to be equal parts ministry and baseball caught a break from a local car dealer, Dick Cote of Royal Oak, who learned the clerics had tickets.

Cote would be happy to offer a private flight to St. Louis in exchange for those two unsecured seats and for what became an eternal Tigers triumph: a come-from-behind World Series championship that still, for those who experienced it, has Motown fans afloat.

After that seventh game, when Jim Northrup’s triple and Mickey Lolich’s medal-willing pitching valor helped the Tigers to a World Series parade, the two priests were soaring in Cote’s Piper Commanche, over South Bend, Indiana, and the University of Notre Dame below.

Worthy turned to his pal Welch and said: “You know, there’s nothing to this. We ought to go every year.”

Worthy pauses, nods, and recalls: “We got addicted quick. We were baseball lifers.”

It was the ultimate no-frills tradition, at least in the early years. They traveled to all but West Coast games, and, apart from ’68, always by car, flight fare being way past their means. They motored to towns where the religious network might put them up in a rectory’s spare room, or in a dormitory, or in an empty convent. Or, perhaps, in a parishioner’s home where the thought of two priests driving a car to the Series made it all the more pleasing for a family to offer a night’s shelter and maybe breakfast the next morning.

Oh, the makeshift way in which Worthy and Welch would do it.

There was 1980, Royals and Phillies. Two gents otherwise seen in collars donned fall garb (each had a season ticket to Tiger Stadium, as Worthy has held since 1969) and piled into an old Pontiac. Detroit to Kansas City. Kansas City to Philadelphia. Philadelphia back to Kansas City. And then home to Detroit.

Tickets were fairly cheap (about $15 when they began their pilgrimages, with modest increases until recent years). As for getaway time, it could be grabbed in October because two roadsters spent their summers handling parish tasks while covering for other priests who took typical summer breaks.

They missed only one year in the early going: 1974, when the Dodgers and Athletics played and Worthy was in traction with a bad back. Welch died in 1987 and was succeeded by Mike McNamara, a family friend and Rochester Hills resident, who is president of Dearborn-based Hollingsworth Logistics.

McNamara has since joined Worthy the past 30 years. Tonight will be World Series Game No. 163 for McNamara, who handles travel arrangements, beginning after the All-Star Game in July, when home-field advantage for either league is decided. McNamara begins reserving hotel rooms by way of computerized contingencies that cover all teams, towns and venue possibilities.

“It’s like anything else in life, I suppose,” McNamara says of his Series partnership with Worthy. “You start going and it’s difficult to stop. Especially when you see Father’s passion for baseball, his pure enjoyment of the game.”

Forced to sit out 2002

There has been only one World Series missed in the ensuing years: 2002, when the Angels and Giants met. Old, dependable ticket suppliers simply couldn’t deliver. Worthy and McNamara found themselves high and dry, a situation since remedied by the Tigers front office (Worthy has had Tigers season tickets since 1969, seats that McNamara now oversees), which makes sure two historic customers get their shot to buy World Series seats.

“The Tigers have been so good,” says Worthy, who was born in Detroit, grew up in Imlay City, and saw his first Tigers game on July 2, 1940.

“But it’s not as romantic as people would think,” he says of these annual October treks. “In ’79 it snowed in Pittsburgh. In ’83 at Philly it rained for three days, torrentially.

“In ’97, it sleeted in Cleveland. It was the most god-awful, miserable night of my life.

“There have been nights when it’s been 1 a.m. and we’re wandering around the Bronx or Queens trying to get back. It’s cold, really cold, and you’ve been bundled in winter clothes for most of the day and all of the night.

“You gotta want to do it.”

Even, perhaps, when you shouldn’t. The Tigers and Padres played in 1984 and Worthy and Welch scraped together enough shekels to buy flights to San Diego. But now they were at the mercy of whatever baseball benefactor came their way.

They borrowed a car from sympathetic San Diego nuns and drove to Jack Murphy Stadium for Game 1, which the Tigers won. All was well. Until they went to retrieve the nuns’ lone mode of transportation, save their legs.

The car was gone. Towed. To a classic tow lot, surrounded by razor wire and guarded by Dobermans. Bailing out the car cost nearly 100 percent more than two priests had in their pockets, until a sweet couple who had taken them to a place as inviting as San Quentin popped for the fee (soon repaid) and allowed Worthy-Welch to reclaim their wheels and make the nuns mobile again.

Dinner with famed Dodger

They made friends galore along the way. Some of them celebrities, such as Tommy Lasorda, the old Dodgers manager and steady Catholic who was having dinner at an Italian restaurant in Philly during the 1980 Series. Worthy and Welch had already made it through a bargain-priced salad and plate of pasta when they saw Lasorda, which prompted Welch, who never met a celeb he didn’t feel was an equal, to introduce the two from Detroit.

“You’re priests?” Lasorda asked “You had dinner? Well, then you’ll have dinner again.”

They ate and reveled in baseball talk until the restaurant finally threw them out at 2 a.m.

During spring training, 1988, Worthy, who has a way of befriending anyone within earshot, got acquainted at Marchant Stadium with new two box-seat friends. They were the mom and dad of one-time Tigers protégé Torey Lovullo. Sam, Torey’s father, was longtime producer of the corn pone show “Hee Haw” and invited Worthy to call him if he ever was in Los Angeles.

Seven months later, Worthy was in Tinsel Town. For the Dodgers-A’s World Series. Lovullo offered Worthy and McNamara, who had been knighted as Welch’s successor, overnight quarters, as well as tickets — behind the visitor’s dugout. They were dead across the field from the Dodgers lair where, in the ninth inning of Game 1, the Dodgers were down, 3-2, with two out. Lasorda was about to order Kirk Gibson, all but paralyzed with knee and hamstring ills, into the game as a pinch-hitter with a man on base.

“Across the field, I could see the whole thing,” Worthy remembers. “I can still see Gibson limping into the dugout, using the bat to brace himself. He could hardly walk.”

And then, a home run as fabled as any in baseball history.

Fundraiser honors friend

Worthy’s life remains, even at 83, heavily split between ministry and the game he loves. Although retired from his 34 years of chaplain’s service, primarily at Mt. Carmel Hospital, he has been a part-time associate since the 1970s at St. Philomena Parish on Detroit’s east side, and still helps there regularly.

He satisfies his baseball soul apart from the World Series in various ways. He gets most big-league games via cable at his cottage, which he bought for a song in 1982 when the dollar was strong, “and it was such a good deal I couldn’t pass on it, even if I lost it,” he says.

And despite the fact he does not have a cellphone, nor use the internet, he somehow manages to head one of the more amazing charity events in Detroit: The Fr. Vincent Welch Memorial Dinner, named for his late great friend, and now in its 30th year. The dinner is an annual night of baseball goodwill, the Tuesday after each summer’s All-Star Game, at the Polish American Cultural Center in Troy.

It has featured a glorious list of marquee guests: Lolich, Charlie Gehringer, Willie Horton, Sparky Anderson, Ernie Harwell, Mark Fidrych, Lance Parrish, Dan Petry, Jim Leyland, Darrell Evans, Jim Price, Todd Jones, etc., and even non-Tigers such as Brooks Robinson. All have received the Hank Aguirre Memorial Award.

The dinner began humbly, simply as a way for Worthy to cope with his grief following Welch’s death, at 56. It has grown astonishingly, in part because Worthy spends much of his year corralling featured guests and chasing down unique sports memorabilia that is offered during the dinner at a silent auction, treasures on a par with the virtual baseball museum he has built within his Canada home.

Proceeds from tickets and the silent auction, as well as from sponsorships, fund scholarships at Loyola Academy in Detroit, and at University of Detroit-Mercy. Money raised for those scholarships in 29 years: $3 million.

“Who would have thought?” Worthy says, thinking back to 1987 and to the dinner’s birth. “It parallels, I suppose, the World Series trips: Who knew back in ’68 when there was a first trip that there’d be a second?

“But the dinner has really become a $3 million tribute to God’s greatness. It’s the seasons-of-life thing. The only thing that matters now is the people who succeed me in life — that they have a better world. Look what baseball has done for me. In a technological world, I’m completely lost.

“But this gives me some relevance.”

Twitter: @Lynn_Henning