By Jon Gremmels
Herald Sports Editor
CLINTON – His visit brought back such memories – for fans, as well as for Ron LeFlore – when he returned to Clinton recently.
LeFlore was back last month for “Throwback Night” as the Clinton LumberKings recognized the 1973 Clinton Pilots. That team marked a turning point in his life, his first stop in a professional baseball career that led to the major leagues.
“It’s Ron LeFlore!” one man said as he greeted the former major-leaguer on the concourse at Ashford University Field. “I sold popcorn when you were here.”
A woman said she still had a baseball LeFlore autographed 40 years ago. Another said she had a stuffed tiger signed by all the players of the 1973 Clinton Pilots team, which was affiliated with the Detroit Tigers.
“They were the kids when I was here; who would have dreamt it?” LeFlore said. “These are things I didn’t remember. It’s such a treasure to see how people have grown and respect how you came through.”
The way LeFlore arrived in Clinton for the first time was a story in itself, a story that even was made into a movie.
LeFlore was discovered while serving time in a Michigan prison. The friend of another inmate was a friend of Tigers manager Billy Martin, and got Martin to arrange a tryout for LeFlore.
“They said if I could get a furlough they’d give me a tryout,” LeFlore said.
He almost didn’t make it. He received a 24-hour furlough to attend a tryout, but as his father was driving him to it, the car broke down.
“We had to hitch a ride,” LeFlore said, explaining that there was only a short window to get to the tryout, and if he didn’t return to prison on time he’d be in quite a bit of trouble.
The Tigers were impressed enough with the raw talent of the man who never played organized baseball until he was in prison. They signed him and sent him to Clinton to join the Pilots when he was paroled from prison.
That was the summer of 1973.
He played in 32 games that summer, batting .277 with a home run and eight runs batted in. His total of two stolen bases was a mere fraction of what he would get in the major leagues.
But Clinton was an important stop for LeFlore, and so was the manager of Pilots: Jim Leyland. The same Jim Leyland who now leads the Tigers. It wasn’t uncommon for the two of them to be out working at 7 in the morning.
“He was the primary source of my learning how to play baseball,” LeFlore said. “If not for Jim I wouldn’t have (made it). Seven players off that team made it (to the major leagues).”
Two of his Pilots teammates who didn’t make it to the big leagues but have done pretty well for themselves were at Ashford University Field to greet LeFlore upon his return 40 years after they played together. Joe McIlvaine is a former major league general manager who now works in the front office for the Seattle Mariners, while Ray Gimenez went into the ministry and works in Clinton.
“I was really shocked to see them,” LeFlore said. The three former teammates were recognized for the 40-year anniversary before the game, with LeFlore throwing out the first pitch before the game in a special ceremony.
Though updated and sporting a new name, the stadium held the same old-time charm he remembered.
“They’ve upgraded it, but it still has that mystique,” LeFlore said. “It really does make it more special to come back and reminisce.”
Like the stadium, time has changed LeFlore, too. From the player who batted .288 over nine major league seasons and stole 455 bases — twice leading the American League in that category — LeFlore has slowed down. He now walks with a limp after having to have his right leg amputated below the knee.
But appearances like the one in Clinton still bring a sparkle to his eyes. It’s been a long journey from the first time he came to Clinton, but one can only imagine what things would have been like if it hadn’t been for baseball, including the time spent here.
“If it wouldn’t have been for baseball I know I wouldn’t be here to talk to you,” he said.