Tom Gage: Baseball’s Hall of Fame storyteller

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Grosse Pointe Park — Deep down, sure, he knew his calling always was as a writer.

But for some odd reason, when friends asked about his aspirations decades ago, Tom Gage came up with something wildly different.

“One time, I remember telling somebody I wanted to be a tax lawyer, and I don’t know why I said that,” Gage said over lunch at one of his favorite local diners. “I thought, ‘Oh man, that just sounds like guaranteed success.’

“When I finally started being honest with myself and realizing I’d better do what I enjoy doing, that’s when I really realized I wanted to be a writer. I’ve always enjoyed writing. I’ve always enjoyed sports.

“I’ve had friends tell me, ‘You’re doing what you were always meant to do.’ ”

Gage, who spent 39 years on the sports staff at The Detroit News and 35 as the Detroit Tigers beat writer before retiring from the paper this spring, will receive the biggest honor in his profession this weekend — all because, after graduating from Washington and Lee University, he decided to do what he always was meant to do.

On Saturday in Cooperstown, New York, Gage will receive the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, giving him a permanent spot in the writers’ wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“It’s probably like winning a major,” said Gage, 67, a golf fan who’d spent the previous day watching the British Open finish. “Probably what Zach Johnson is going through; it hasn’t sunk in yet.

“But you realize, the biggest thing is, people are happy for you. It doesn’t mean it changes your life; well, it does a little bit because you get a lot of acclaim and stuff like that. I’m just happy that people are happy for me, that it brings some joy to the people that I know, people that are dear to me.”

Nearly 100 acquaintances will be making the trek to Cooperstown to celebrate Gage, including Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski.

Hundreds more, including several ex-players, have called or texted Gage to congratulate him since his election was announced in December at baseball’s winter meetings; Gage won a close vote, edging out the late Furman Bisher of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy.

It’s been an overwhelming seven months, to be sure. And he’s expecting the emotions to be on full display, on Saturday, in a ceremony that will include another Michigan native, Dick Enberg, the winner of the Ford C. Frick Award for a career of broadcasting excellence.

“I just want to do it justice. It’s a huge award,” said Gage, who won’t be wearing his signature ballcap — a staple since he started going gray early, in his 30s. “I want my speech to be a great moment for the people that are gonna be there on my behalf. Obviously, I don’t want to flop. I want to justify the outcome of the election.”

Tom Gage

Gage said his speech took him one night to write — and “three weeks to tweak.”

He’s not a public-speaking expert, and certainly has never spoken in front of the crowd of thousands expected Saturday, the precursor to Sunday’s induction ceremony of Lansing native John Smoltz, Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez.

So he’s been consulting with a delivery coach for several weeks, and has practiced his speech 10 times or so — including at his weekly Monday night gathering of friends, including former Tigers PR man Dan Ewald and longtime team traveling secretary Bill Brown.

One person who hasn’t heard the speech, though, is his wife, Lisa. “Because at the end, it’s so much about her,” said Gage, who has one son, J.T. “If I can’t have the full impact of its freshness, she can.”

Gage began his Detroit News career in 1976, coming from the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. He served as the Tigers beat writer from 1979 until December 2014.

He covered more than 5,000 major-league games in 54 ballparks. He likes Petco Park in San Diego best, though admits the weather probably swayed him.

His speech is sure to recount some of his favorite moments, perhaps even the most memorable game he ever covered — one that was never played. On Oct. 17, 1989, before Game 3 of the World Series between the A’s and Giants, a massive earthquake shook San Francisco, making news reporters out of baseball writers.

“I got onto the phone and reported like old-time journalism, dictating,” Gage said.

Wait, you had a phone?

“The only phone working in the press box was at my spot,” he said, laughing. “I stayed on it as long as I could to dictate. I remember the headline said something like, ‘Here comes another one (after shock), I gotta go,’ because that’s what I said.’

“You don’t know how you’re going to respond in times of personal pressure. The whole thing was shaking. We all thought the auxiliary press box could be coming down. We didn’t know what to do. I’m just glad my instincts were to report it. The whole evening, there were so many scenes of serenity, scenes of danger.

“It was the most amazing evening of my career.”

Gage ended up staying in San Francisco for a week. He made it back to San Francisco for the eventual Game 3, postponed 11 days.

Gage has broken his share of news over the years, but he calls himself more of a “storyteller instead of a story breaker.”

He covered bundles of losses — hello, 1989, 1996 and 2003. And he’s covered a fair share of wins — including World Series teams in 1984, 2006 and 2012.

Gage said the best teams to write about were the teams that win some and lose some to get in contention, the ups and downs keeping the copy fresh.

One of the toughest teams to write about? The 1984 world champs, if you can believe it.

“When that team was 35-5 in 1984, all of a sudden it changed because they got edgy, they didn’t want to blow it,” Gage said. “All of a sudden, the media was viewed as something that could undermine that. Even Sparky (Anderson) got a little bit edgy because he didn’t want to be the manager that squandered that kind of start.”

Gage has been to Cooperstown three times — once to explore the quaint town in upstate New York; once to cover Anderson’s induction ceremony in 2000; and once in 2002 to cover the ceremony for Joe Falls, his former Detroit News colleague who was the last Detroit writer to win the Spink Award.

Now it’s Gage’s turn to be in the spotlight, something that’s never been his specialty. He’s always been more comfortable telling the stories of others, something he hopes to keep doing although his stint at Fox Sports Detroit ended July 1, after the national brass laid off all its regional writers nationwide.

“I’ve gotta tell you a funny story,” Gage said. “My niece’s daughter last night, 6 years old, she said, ‘Mom, I know where I want to live.’

“My niece, Wendy, said, ‘Where’s that, Jenny?’

‘ “I want to live in Cooperstown, New York.’ Wendy goes, ‘Why’s that?’

‘ ‘‘Well, because Uncle Tom is going into the Hall of Fame, and when everybody leaves, he’s going to be lonely there.’ ”

Don’t worry, Jenny. Uncle Tom will return home to Grosse Pointe after the weekend hoopla.

But he’ll keep a place in the Hall of Fame forever.

Big games, in Gage’s words

Here are the leads that Tom Gage wrote for The Detroit News after two memorable Tigers games — the win over Oakland that sent the Tigers to the World Series in 2006 and Justin Verlander’s first no-hitter.

OCTOBER 14, 2006

Detroit — With one swing, they all knew.

The moment Magglio Ordonez hit the ball, the Tigers knew. Rising up as one at Comerica Park, the fans did, too. Everyone did.

This team — this incredible Tigers team of 2006 — is headed for the World Series.

There it went, into the night, Ordonez’s game-winning home run, with two on and two out off Huston Street in the bottom of the ninth, to give the Tigers a 6-3 victory on Saturday over the Oakland A's and a four-game sweep of their American League Championship Series.

There it went, his second home run of the game, soaring over the left-field fence, forever etching itself into Detroit sports lore. Craig Monroe, at second base, raised both arms. Placido Polanco, who’d been on first, was celebrating by the time he reached third.

“I was just hoping for a base hit and look what we got,” Polanco said.

Look, indeed.

JUNE 12, 2007

Detroit — Incredible. Justin-credible.

Amid the birds, the bugs and the Brewers, Justin Verlander filled in one of the great voids in Tigers’ history on Tuesday night.

A no-hitter at home.

A no-hitter in a 4-0 Tigers’ victory that the fans could sense in the fourth or fifth — or whenever they realized something special was in the works.

A no-hitter over the Milwaukee Brewers with the tension building inning by inning, out by out, with no disappointment lurking at the end.

By the time J.J. Hardy’s fly ball to right landed in Magglio Ordonez’s glove for the final out, Verlander already had been grabbed by catcher Pudge Rodriguez near the mound.

The celebration already was underway.

Not since 1952 had a Tigers pitcher thrown a no-hitter at home.

Fifty-five years later, there’s been one. This amazingly talented right-hander has pitched his way into the record book.

“One of the most special moments of my life,” said Verlander, 24, pausing just long enough to reconsider its magnitude. “The most special moment of my life to this point.”