Festival tragedy sparked memories of near similar fate

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Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

The ill-fated Astroworld Festival, an event that drew more than 50,000 fans to Houston for a much-hyped appearance by rap star Travis Scott, ended almost before it began when a crowd surge resulted in the deaths of eight concert-goers and the hospitalization of 13 others.

In a sense, the tragedy had been building for months, according to law enforcement officials in Houston, who feared that the combination of a mega-star local rapper, a pent-up crowd, and planned pyrotechnics had combustible potential.

And indeed it did, proving horribly reminiscent of a stampede at a 1979 concert by The Who in Cincinnati that claimed the lives of 11 people.

The chaos that ensued that day served as a grim reminder of a near-death experience a college friend and I had while attending a 1972 American League playoff game between the Tigers and Oakland A’s at venerable Tiger Stadium.

To set the stage, the Tigers and A’s had engaged in a heated playoff battle, spiced by a bat-throwing incident in game two when Detroit pitcher Larin Lagrow hit Oakland star shortstop Campy Campaneris on the ankle with an errant pitch.

Campaneris, who had tormented the Tigers with three hits and two steals leading up to the seventh inning plate appearance, took umbrage at being beaned, flinging his bat at Lagrow in a wayward attempt to settle the score.

His errant toss, which sparked a benches-clearing brawl, had long-term playoff consequences for the speedy shortstop, who was booted from the game and then unceremoniously bounced from the rest of the series for his unsportsmanlike conduct. It also drew the ire of Tiger manager Billy Martin, a notorious hot-head himself, who called Campaneris “as gutless as any player who ever put on a uniform.”

So, with that as a backdrop, the Tigers entered game four down 2-1 in the best-of-five series. The game was a see-saw affair that was tied 1-1 after nine innings, thanks to a solo home run by Tiger second baseman Dick McAuliffe and similar shot by Oakland’s Mike Epstein off Detroit ace Mickey Lolich.

In the 10th inning, as my friend and I watched from our front row, lower deck perch in left field, the A’s struck for two runs to take what looked like an insurmountable 3-1 lead as the Tigers struggled offensively against a collection of Oakland pitchers.

Yet, for whatever reason, the two-run deficit only seemed to fuel the Tiger Stadium frenzy that had been boiling all game long. The noise reached ear-splitting proportions when the Tigers opened the bottom of the 10th with singles by McAuliffe and star outfielder Al Kaline, followed by a walk to pinch-hitter extraordinaire Gates Brown.

Suddenly, the Tigers had given their comeback-thirsty fans reason for hope, as a packed stadium literally shook in anticipation of late-game heroics.

An Oakland error helped push across Detroit’s first run in the inning, narrowing the score to 3-2 as the bases remained loaded with Tiger slugger Norm Cash due up. Cash, a former All-Star first baseman known for his home run hitting talents, worked Oakland pitcher Dave Hamilton for a walk, forcing in the tying run and sending we Tiger fans into a state of delirium.

By that time, a cascade of fans from the left field upper deck seats had made their way down to our lower deck section, filling the aisles in standing-room-only fashion as excitement continued to build.

A few minutes later, Jim Northrup, the Tiger hitting hero in the deciding game of the 1968 World Series victory over the St. Louis Cardinals, came through again, driving in the winning run with a single, setting off an explosion of fans storming the field.

Right over our backs.

Almost as soon as the winning run crossed the plate, my friend and I were pinned against a chain-link fence separating our seats from the playing field. What should have been a time of joyous celebration, suddenly became a life-and-death struggle as we tried to ward off a seemingly endless surge of fans climbing over a mangled-fence onto the field.

Our only hope was to duck under our seats, using them as a shield against a mob of drunken celebrants that cared little for their Tiger brethren. Somehow, we survived, thanks to a pair of seats that served as shelter from the worst that our beloved national pastime had to offer.

That experience should have ended my life-long love of the Tigers, but inexplicably it did not, which says plenty about the grip that baseball has on my sports-watching soul.

Now, as investigators piece together the details that led to the tragedy in Houston last week, I can only hope that future concert-goers there will take a wiser course of action.



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