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Wednesday, June 15, 2011
A special day at the ballpark

By Dana Wakiji

DETROIT -- It's always special when a Tigers fan gets to celebrate a birthday at the ballpark and meet one of her favorite players.

But Mary Johnson's birthday celebration called for something extra special. After all, Johnson was celebrating her 104th birthday. There to add the icing to her cake was none other than Tigers legend and Hall of Famer Al Kaline, who greeted one of his longest-living fans.

Johnson's birthday was May 10, and she was slated to celebrate at Comerica Park last month, but that game was rained out. So the outing was rescheduled for Sunday, when the Tigers hosted the Seattle Mariners. It marked her first in-person game since 1936.

"Oh, I've never been so happy in all of my days," Johnson said. "Go Tigers!"

The skies were sunny and clear as Johnson arrived in a white limousine van with her friends.

I played baseball when I was a little kid, around 5 or 6 years old. I played with the boys all the time. My mom told me I was a tomboy.

-- 104-year-old Mary Johnson on how baseball played a role in her childhood

Johnson said she couldn't wait to get to the ballpark. She's been a baseball fan since her childhood days in Kentucky.

"I felt pretty good but my blood pressure went up over 200," Johnson said. "It went up because of all the excitement."

The Tigers gave Johnson a suite for her party, complete with all the ballpark food you could want: hot dogs, pizza, popcorn, chips, cookies and, just to be a little healthy, a fruit platter.

Johnson proudly wore her Tigers cap and held her hand over her heart for the national anthem.

"The biggest surprise is seeing the real thing instead of on TV," Johnson said. "Just seeing them guys out there on the field throwing that ball. It's wonderful."

But then an even bigger surprise walked into the suite -- Kaline and Tigers president Dave Dombrowski.

A delighted Johnson shared what Kaline told her: "I'm so glad to have met you, Mary Johnson. Happy birthday."

Johnson said Kaline (a youthful 76), homegrown Detroit star slugger Willie Horton and second baseman Sweet Lou Whitaker are her all-time favorite Tigers.

Kaline posed for pictures with Johnson and signed a few baseballs, as did Dombrowski. Johnson said the signed balls will join another signed by Horton, who visited her in her suburban Detroit nursing home.

"She looks amazing," Kaline said. "She's so sharp."

Johnson's memory is excellent. She clearly recalls her childhood and how baseball played a role.

"I played baseball when I was a little kid, around 5 or 6 years old," Johnson said. "I played with the boys all the time. My mom told me I was a tomboy."

Johnson ended up in Detroit after visiting her brother and deciding to stay in the 1930s. She worked as a housekeeper and occasionally would peek in on a baseball game, especially if St. Louis Cardinal Bob Gibson was on the mound.

"Oh, boy, I loved that guy," Johnson said. "I loved to see him pitch the ball. ... He would wind up like pitchers do and then he raised that leg and let that ball almost hit the ground. Then he pitched that ball. It was something else.

"I was working on the job, and whenever he would play, I would stop and sit down. But I'd get my work done."

Johnson never had children of her own, and her nine siblings have already died. But on Sunday, as always, she was surrounded by loved ones. Her friends are her family now. All of them were on hand to see her birthday wish fulfilled.

"I have so many good friends," Johnson said. "And I didn't even think all my life that this day would come."

Steve Eick, whose godparents employed Johnson for three decades, and his family have looked after Johnson for years. Eick, wife Terri and sons Kyle, 18, Spencer, 16, and Tyler, 8, were all in the suite to help Johnson celebrate.

"She doesn't have any family, hasn't for a long time," Terri said. "She's so happy, so appreciative."

Bert and Audrey Jackson were Johnson's neighbors before she moved into the nursing home last August. They also came to the game to be with Johnson. Bert said her devotion to the Tigers surprises some people.

"Her furnace went out, and when the people came by to fix it, I remember taking the guy down to the basement and showing him where the furnace was," he said. "While we were down there talking, I said, 'You know, the lady upstairs is 100 years old.' That didn't seem to impress him very much.

"But when he came upstairs and she was sitting there watching the ballgame, he said, 'Are you watching that?' She said, 'Oh, yeah.' When she started talking sports -- 'cause she likes sports -- he was just flabbergasted."

Baseball is her first love, but Johnson said she also enjoys hockey.

"I like to see them play hockey when they fight," Johnson said. "Otherwise, I don't see how they hit the moving thing with the stick. But I love to see them fight."

Although the Tigers put up a fight, they lost to the Seattle Mariners 7-3. But that wasn't enough to spoil Johnson's big day.

"It's beautiful," Johnson said. "I couldn't say another word. It's beautiful. This is the best birthday I've ever had."