Rich Robinson, who has organized the now-biannual Howell Baseball Alumni game since 2007, always begins the contest by quoting the late Detroit Tigers great Gates Brown.
“Every year at Detroit Tigers fantasy camp, he would be the first to address the campers,” Robinson said. “And he would say, ‘Fellas, this is about having fun, and so the only advice I’m going to give you is start slow, and taper down from there.”
The line always got a laugh, but it’s part of the philosophy of the contest, which will have its ninth playing on Saturday at Howell High School’s baseball field.
A.J. Militello of the Howell softball team, which reached the Division 1 championship game in June, will throw out the first pitch for a game that generally is played in the spirit of a fantasy camp.
“Most times, I put it right in there,” said Patrick O’Brien, a 2013 grad playing in his second alumni game. “But guys I played with, you get a little ramped up and try to get them out. They do the same to me.”
The competitive juices begin to flow, too, especially in the late innings.
“You don’t want to lose the game,” Rick Humphries said. “The last game was very close, and if the teams are evened up just right, it could be a close game, and you want to be on that winning side.”
The game’s most valuable player has his name attached to the Bert Tooley Trophy, named after the 1904 Howell grad who played a season and a half with the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1911-12.
The trophy is of a left-handed player (Tooley was right-handed), but Robinson brushes off the inaccuracy as part of the charm of the event.
And, except for not wanting to lose the game, or equally important, bragging rights, it is a lighthearted affair.
“There’s a lot of fun in the dugout, a lot of kidding around,” Humphries said. “There’s a lot of needling between both dugouts. It turns out to be a nice party for both teams.”
Robinson, as it turned out, won the Tooley Award after getting three hits in the 2017 game, but pledges to play only one inning this year and then retire for the day.
Alumni games are nothing new. The Yankees have an Old-Timer’s Day every season, and at one point there were several high schools around the state having alumni football games, complete with pads and hitting.
“I still get a kick out of watching old guys play baseball,” said Robinson, who at 58 is firmly in that demographic. “But, truly, one of the gratifying things, was how much I get a kick out of meeting new players, the ones who are coming up. It’s always a great pleasure to meet the younger players and hopefully they appreciate meeting us and hearing what it was like when we played.”
Nostalgia and reunions work for O’Brien, who played at Albion College and graduated last year.
“There’s guys I haven’t played with since high school,” he said. “It’s just another chance to get on the field and play with those guys again.”
Another streak Robinson hopes to maintain is this: In the eight previous games, there has been only one serious injury he can recall.
“We might need to invest in a defibrillator,” he joked, “and a couple of tanks of oxygen wouldn’t hurt, either.”