"It was his first teaching assignment and he used to give us vocabulary lists of 25 words and say, 'Write a short story using all 25.' It could be any subject you wanted. Half the time, mine was about the latest monster movie I'd watched at a Saturday afternoon matinee. And half the time it was about baseball," Gage said.
"So that and writing game stories off playing All-Star Baseball games with the disks and spinners, that was my introduction to baseball writing."
In his speech: "That pointed me in the direction of writing about baseball." He and Mestaugh remain friends to this day.
Winning the Spink Award is just about the most prestigious honor a baseball writer can receive. What has made Gage's story particularly poignant is that his highest professional accolades have come in a year in which he twice lost his job.
First, just days after the announcement from the Baseball Writers' Association of America, the News shuffled its beats. Gage was reassigned. He bounced back after being hired by FOXSportsDetroit.com, only to have FOX dismiss all its regional web writers just three months later.
"When I walked away [from the newspaper business] in March, it broke my heart," he said.
Gage started out as a news reporter at the New Orleans Times-Picayune. A Detroit native, his next job allowed him to return home to the Detroit News, where he spent the next 39 years.
"I can't fully express how humbled I am. But who am I? Well, if you've loved baseball all your life, I am you. If your first memory of watching TV is a baseball game, I am you. If you couldn't wait until the first day each spring when the new baseball cards were out, once again, I am you."
His speech was self-effacing. "I can be objective about my own career," he told the crowd. "I was more of a story-teller than a story breaker. Look, I'm not a famous guy. I know that. I'm not a writer who has branched out into television. I'm not a familiar face. And what's worse in this day and age is I don't have all that many [Twitter] followers.
"But what I'm proudest of is something my good friend Danny Knobler, who covered the Tigers for 18 years, wrote for the program of the New York Writer's dinner in January. 'Tom has covered more than 5,000 games and never stopped looking for or finding new angles. He always had a knack for saying what Tigers fans were thinking.'
"But I tell you now, it was a privilege to do so."
He noted that the first three questions he asked Tiger manager Les Moss when he took over the beat full time in 1979 got the same response. "'You never know.' About that time I started thinking, this is not going to be an easy beat," Gage said.
"It wasn't, and that holds true even now. Baseball is not an easy beat. You miss weddings. You miss funerals. You miss birthdays."
Gage, however, never missed an assigned game due to illness.
"I loved the beat," he said. "I loved it because every game was different. There's always a nuance to write about, something that makes each game unique. You just have to recognize it."
Every story has to start somewhere. An off-day story at the 1989 World Series, after the Athletics won the first two games, read: "Only an act of nature rendering the field unplayable could save the Giants."
The next day, an earthquake rattled the Bay Area and the World Series was put on hold for 10 days.
"I received a lot of nasty mail for that," he said, drawing a laugh from the fans. "It was as if I had caused the earthquake. Someone even accused me of being an evil wizard."
He's not, of course. He is, however, the 2015 J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner for gracious prose like that.