By Patrick M. O’Connell • Chicago Tribune

DETROIT, Mich. — His 6-foot-4 frame fills the bed, the rumpled sheets and blanket covering his bare feet. Ventilators hum. The weary moans of an elderly woman fill the hallway. Nurses, therapists and guests shuttle in and out of the room, a fabric curtain the only partition between Ed Mierkowicz and a new roommate.

A few days before, Mierkowicz, 91, fell at his apartment, injuring his hip, leg and left foot. His head is propped up on a mound of pillows in the Woodward Hills Nursing Center in the Detroit suburbs. He hopes the pain subsides so he can go back home.

Tacked to the bulletin board is a photocopied, black-and-white photo of a young baseball player wearing a Detroit Tigers cap and uniform.

It’s a picture of a promising outfielder with a strong arm and good speed living out a boy’s dream of playing for his hometown team. There’s Mierkowicz 70 years ago, the same prominent nose and kind eyes.

It’s a picture of the last remaining survivor of the 1945 Cubs-Tigers World Series.

A link to history

Tethers to the Cubs’ last World Series experience are almost nonexistent. Mierkowicz is the only player left.

As the Cubs start spring training in Arizona, they enter the season in unfamiliar territory: the betting favorites to win major league baseball’s championship. Buoyed by 2015’s postseason, when they won a wild-card playoff game and a divisional series before losing the National League Championship Series, the Cubs enter this season with a talented core of players, a charismatic manager and high hopes of breaking their 108-year-old World Series drought.

The club was never closer to ending that streak than on Oct. 10, 1945, when one win separated it from a title for the first time since 1908.

In the visitor’s dugout at Wrigley Field that day was Mierkowicz, a rookie reserve outfielder for the Tigers, who for the first six games of the World Series and eight innings of the seventh game, had watched the action like the 41,590 fans who packed the ballpark.

But with the Tigers holding a commanding 9-3 lead entering the bottom of the ninth, and aging star left fielder Hank Greenberg ailing, Mierkowicz suddenly found himself trotting out of the dugout and onto the Wrigley Field grass.

Since making his big league debut five weeks before, he played in only 10 games. Mierkowicz, who idolized Greenberg as a boy in Wyandotte, Michigan, ran toward Wrigley’s ivy-covered walls. He remembered his knees were shaking.

The Cubs’ first batter in the bottom of the ninth, Roy Hughes, stepped in and promptly cracked one toward left field. It dropped in front of Mierkowicz, who fielded it cleanly and tossed it back to the infield.

A strikeout, a flyout to center and a ground ball ended the inning, the game and the series. The Tigers defeated the Cubs, four games to three, prolonging a championship drought that lasts to this day.

After the final out, Mierkowicz ran in from left field, greeting his teammates with handshakes and hugs. The 21-year-old headed to the clubhouse with the veteran players, where they drank champagne and celebrated before boarding a train back to Michigan.

Mierkowicz was sent back to the minor leagues the next season. He was called up again in 1947 and played a few games for the Tigers in 1948 and one game with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1950. By 1958, his baseball career was over.

Taste of the big leagues

Seventy years later, at the rehab hospital, Mierkowicz retells the story of his place in baseball history. His hand mimics the flight of the ball on its trip to the outfield that October day, his eyes locked on its trajectory like the ball is still coming toward him.

“Just like it was yesterday,” he says.

Those days were among the best, Mierkowicz says, back when his arms were strong and his legs were stronger.

“You look at that picture, and you’re young,” Mierkowicz said, pointing to the black-and-white photo of himself in his Tigers uniform. “Now, I’m an old man. Now, I can’t walk. Back then I could run like hell.”

He talks about the famous ballplayers and managers he once knew: Greenberg, Gabby Hartnett, Luke Appling, Billy Pierce. Greenberg once called out to him using a nickname — “Hey, Mierk!” he yelled — and it made Mierkowicz “feel like one of the boys.”

When he made it onto the field in the World Series, Mierkowicz said he was determined to prove he belonged.

“I really wanted to play to just prove that I could,” he said.

In the locker room after the win, “it was crazy. Just like now, but maybe on a smaller scale.” Parts of that day he remembers clearly, others have faded.

He regrets that he didn’t make a greater impact at the major league level, his competitiveness still evident as he talks about his best minor league games — he was a career .284 hitter over 13 years.

“I was so close, yet so far away,” he said. “It’s something that you make it to the big leagues, and then it stops right there. I felt like I was a little better, or I could have played better to prove myself. And I didn’t have the chance.”

After his baseball career ended, he got married and had kids. He worked at a bar and as a mechanic and machinist in Wayne County, Michigan.

“When I was through,” Mierkowicz said, “I just lived a normal life.”

When Lennie Merullo, the last remaining Cubs player from the 1945 Series, died last year, Mierkowicz became the lone surviving participant. He says he rarely thinks about it but is grateful for the attention.

“I’m surprised I’m the last one,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m lucky or what.”

Still tenacious

A physical therapist who takes Mierkowicz through exercises describes him as tenacious.

“Ask him to give you 10 reps and he’d give you 20,” the therapist says, patting Mierkowicz on his broad shoulders.

On a recent visit, the therapist says he’ll come back the next day, when Mierkowicz’s leg feels better.

Mierkowicz sighs deeply. He wiggles to get comfortable, closes his eyes and takes a deep breath.

His body ails but his mind is clear. His eyes are alert and alive despite his complaints about the aftermath of cataract surgery. When the interview is over, Mierkowicz reaches out his arm to shake hands, the long fingers that once wrapped around the handle of a bat now cool and bony.

“I appreciate that someone still remembers me,” he said. “I’ll never forget this in my life.”

His eyes twinkle. And he smiles.