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Gage: Bergman was gem beyond diamond

Tom Gage
The Detroit News

Detroit — His teammates dabbed their eyes. Many others did as well.

Voices faltered. But sadness had met its match.

For someone as special as former Tiger Dave Bergman, and as caring as Bergman, his memorial service at Grace Community Church on Friday would not have sufficiently reflected his life's work if it hadn't also been one of hope and a sense of purpose.

He wasn't just a ballplayer, although he was a good one. He never was just a ballplayer.

Bergman was a loving husband, father, grandfather, brother and friend. But there was so much more to him.

In the end, cancer won the battle. Bergman died on Feb. 2 — and the pain his family is feeling is acute.

But what a Dad he was.

One who loved his children so much that, of course, he would go to any expense to save the family hamster.

Not to mention the family turtle that needed a tumor removed.

And what a soul mate he was for his wife, Cathy, who bravely fought back tears as she stood at the podium and spoke, while heartbroken, of their years together.

Family first

They met in college at Illinois State and were married for nearly 39 years — "for better or worse" as vows state.

There was a lot of good. There was even more "better." Their lives were so blessed at times, in fact, that on the ladder of good-better-best, the highest rung was often reached.

Dave and Cathy Bergman were devoted to each other — and to family life as well.

"I've lived elsewhere for 10 years, but have called him twice a day ever since I left," said Bria, the older of their two daughters, and the middle child of their three.

"That's 7,300 calls."

He was always there for her.

Bergman was always there for everyone — his partners at Sigma Investment Counselors, his co-workers for the Joe Niekro Foundation (for aneurysm awareness).

The many people he could help.

The many he did help.

As a public figure, a Detroit Tiger of nine years, Bergman was well known. Who doesn't remember his 13-pitch home run in 1984? Or the hidden ball trick?

And his name? He wasn't Dave to his teammates.

"He was Bergie," Alan Trammell said. "He will always be Bergie."

Trammell struggled with, but overcame his emotion to give a stirring talk of his last meeting with his dear friend.

It was three weeks ago — not long before Bergman died.

They'd had many other visits together since the diagnosis of bile duct cancer, the same disease that claimed Ernie Harwell, staggered not only the Bergman family, but all who Dave's life enriched — meaning those who were the better for knowing him.

"But I never once heard him complain," said Troy, his son.

It was not Bergman's way to complain. As a player, he was never anything but positive — although as one of the speakers said on Friday, he could be blunt.

Indeed, he could be.

That's because he was no nonsense. Any challenge he encountered, he met head on —including his illness.

He was a central figure on the 1984 World Series-winning Tigers, but forever humble.

Intelligent, but never self-impressed.

Multi-dimensional, but productive on all of his chosen paths.

Speaking of being multi-dimensional, he was a man to whom snook fishing in the Everglades was hugely important — a passion of his. And if it was with Troy at his side, so much the better.

But he was also totally comfortable at his daughters' dance recitals — and admired the athleticism of professional dancing so much that he often had a Broadway musical blaring on his car's audio system.

It was evident, though, to Trammell when he last visited his friend, that the final battle was being lost.

"He was bed-ridden," said Trammell. "His voice was weak. But while I jabbered away, as I often do, he listened."

Few can be certain when a friend or loved one is being seen for the last time. It was sensed at this meeting, however, that such was the case.

As Trammell spoke at the memorial service, Kirk Gibson wiped away tears. "Bergie" was more than their former teammate. He was their friend of more than 30 years.

Unbreakable bonds

"At one point," Trammell said of their last time together, "Bergie suddenly said 'Larry Herndon . . . I loved that guy.' "

Herndon was the still water beneath many of the Tigers' tempestuous seas in the early 1980s — an undercurrent of loyalty and strength.

Bergman had played with Herndon in 1981 on the San Francisco Giants, but wasn't yet again his teammate when Herndon stood in the middle of the Tigers' famed Minnesota Twins brawl of 1982, throwing haymakers like an unarmed gladiator while defending his teammates.

Bergman was re-introduced to Herndon's qualities, however, when he was traded to the Tigers in 1984.

There was a basketball game on television during Trammell's last visit with Bergman. It served as the backdrop to their attempted conversation.

But as Trammell said, Bergman's voice was faint.

"His handshake wasn't, though," said Trammell. "When it came time for me to leave, Bergie shook my hand, and it was strong."

Looking upward as he concluded his comments on Friday, Trammell simply said "miss you, Bergie."

There was much mentioned of Bergman's faith on Friday. As one of the pastors at Grace Community Church said, "it is a time of grieving, but of hope as well."

For those who take Jesus Christ into their lives, Bergman believed in eternal life, said the Rev. J. Kevin Butcher who knew him as a friend with whom he exchanged many theological viewpoints.

But there were also many glimpses at the service into Bergman's home life.

"He passed his lack of being handy around the house on to me," said Troy, "but he would try. Like the time he built a bookcase for my daughter, but built it upside down and backwards."

The crowd chuckled.

It was everyday evidence of the human being Bergman was — a man who succeeded at many of the important things in life.

Such as being a good family man.

A good friend.

Someone devoted to helping others.

But who couldn't build a bookcase.

The church was filled with those who appreciated his life, and with those who admired the individual who lived it.

It was but a small sample, however, of those who already miss him.