Thursday, October 19, 2006

Motown Musings

Today, I've called on a very special pinch hitter. I've called on a man that I met five years ago wearing a University of Michigan t-shirt and a Detroit Tigers cap. A man that grew up in the city of Detroit, went to college in Ann Arbor, has now returned his ever growing family back to Detroit after a five year stint in the Big Apple, and most of all, a man that personifies the term "fan". He lives and dies with his teams like nobody else I've ever known. In fact, he's the only person I know that could name every starter of the 2003 Detroit Tigers and tell you how many receiving yards Desmond Howard had in his Heisman Campaign. Not to mention, I'm positive he could run down the list of Vinny Johnson's career achievements at a moments notice. I am, of course, talking about my good friend and former law school cohort, HUGE. I must admit, as gay as it sounds, I've taken great pleasure in the Tigers magical run this season, because I knew what it meant to HUGE. Sure, the Pistons have been great recently, and his Wolverines are always tough, but as long as I've known him, the Tigers and Lions have brought him nothing but pain. So, this run by the Tigers is different, and I am happy for him, and I'm happy that I have a team to care about this late into October...even if it's not my own.

At any rate, because I am so happy for HUGE and the Tigers, and because I knew I would butcher any attempt to explain why this is such a big deal for guys like HUGE, I went straight to the man himself and asked him to explain why we should all be pulling for the Tigers next week. And, because he's a great friend, and because he can never pass up the opportunity to talk about Detroit, regardless of the topic, he obliged. So, without further adieu, here's a 1,700 word essay on what the summer and fall of 2006 have meant to a true Tigers fan (by the way, it's really good and worth your time to read):

The WAD asked me to take time out of my busy day (effectively taking food out of the mouths of my ravenous two little wolverines) to let you all in on the best story in sports this year – the 2006 American League Champion Detroit Tigers.

Now you probably have heard a bunch of crap about how this is lifting up a city that is down on hard times, pushing up the downtrodden spirits of an ageing rustbelt metropolis. Or how this is so great because it is small market scouting winning out over big market free agent spending. BS. That’s just FOX Sports trying to make up for the fact that McCarver and Buck make watching baseball on TV painful.

The truth is, Detroit is in the middle of a pretty good sports run. It was just a few years ago that Michigan was National Champion in football, MSU has been a perennial power come March Madness, the Pistons have been through two championship periods, and the Wings’ success coined the term, “Hockeytown.” The more recent history has been even more incredible – the best records in the NHL and the NBA, nearly the best record in baseball, an undefeated Michigan football team – especially when you consider Detroit was chosen to host the Super Bowl, the All-Star game and a near future Final Four.

Sports-wise, Detroit has been just fine, thank you very much. But is has not been perfect. There has been something missing. Basketball is great, but purists find much to fault with the pro game. Hockey is fun, but in the USA – even in Hockeytown – it is still the game of our pacifistic neighbors to the north. U-M and MSU are great – but their successes inevitably divide the community because you are either a Spartan or a Wolverine. And football, well, suffice it to say that Gary Moeller’s interim run as head coach left him as the only Lion coach in recent memory to be above .500 (Even the Big Buck, Cocaine Wayne himself, finished one game below .500 in his (too)long and (not so)illustrious career as the main man in the Silverdome. (That said, everything I am about to say about the Tigers would likely be magnified by 10 if the Lions ever won anything – this is a great sports town, but it is a football town. The UAW locals, the Knights of Columbus halls, the bowling alleys in Hamtramck – they will all rock like they have never rocked before if the Honolulu Blue ever gets its act together.)

But the Tigers, and baseball, are something special. It is the game of summer. When spring training rolls around in Detroit, everybody gets excited because it isn’t just the start of a new sports season; it is the end of a long, hard, cold winter. Baseball is about rituals – the daily checking of the box score at breakfast, Sparky Anderson never stepping on a baseline, Mickey Tettleton eating his fruit loops, Kirk Gibson and Dave Rozema dating strippers – and those rituals are what keep it in the forefront of our hearts even when a team is not doing so well. Baseball is a game that you put on the radio while you are reading a book, or that Grandmas listen to while they are knitting. Baseball is pickup trucks, apple pie, Americana, Dominican shortstops, peanuts for a dollar outside the stadium (and five bucks inside the stadium), and a malt cup during the seventh inning stretch.

That’s to say that baseball always matters. But sometimes it matters more than others. And right now in Detroit, in the midst of our first playoff appearance in 19 years and our first World Series appearance in 22 years, it matters an awful lot. 1984 was a long time ago, but to many of us around here, it is how we measure time. I had just turned 8 years old right before the beginning of the 1984 season, and those were, and always will be, my Tigers. That was when I started the habit of racing to beat my father to the morning newspaper so that I could read about the previous night’s game. That was when I first remember heading down to the baseball cathedral that stood at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. My brothers and neighborhood friends used to get into fights when we would play baseball over who got to be Chet Lemon or Kirk Gibson or Lance Parrish. My best friend and I used to practice over and over turning two just like Tram and Sweet Lou The ’84 Tigers – Bless You Boys! - had a great team from top to bottom, brought to you night in and night out by the voice of Ernie Harwell (the finest Georgia export since Tyrus Raymond Cobb). I remember that they started up the middle (Catcher, Pitcher, SS, 2B, and CF) in the All Star Game that summer. And Sparky – well, suffice it to say that Sparky held (and will always hold) a warm place in the hearts of all Detroiters. Detroit is the kind of town where you may go over to the home of your friend’s grandma and not understand a word she is saying because she only speaks Polish, but where you always felt comfortable because the food was always good and there was always a picture of Sparky Anderson (usually next to a picture of John Paul II) in the living room.

But it has been a long time since 1984. With the exception of a run in 1987 (yes, all you Brave fans in WAD’land, you can thank us later for giving you John Smoltz for Doyle Alexander), it was pretty bleak around here for a long time. We still went to the games, we still talked baseball, but we did not breathe it. And nothing serves as the oxygen tank of baseball quite like playoff baseball in the north - the high stakes, low temperatures, and national spotlight. And nothing could have served as a bigger wake up call to this community than having the hated Yankees in town (this has nothing to do with the Tigers, but how dare they steal Drew Henson and then abandon him in Columbus, Ohio).

And we needed a wakeup call. The one thing about playoff baseball that this town had forgotten is just how intense it is. Baseball is the only sport that features three-hour games 5-6 days every week. To really appreciate baseball, you have to be tuned in to every pitch so that you can really appreciate the way a pitcher is working a strike zone, or what kind of action he is getting on his breaking pitches, or if a hitter is on his game and able to use all fields. For baseball to really grab you, it is not just about winning. It is about being able to stand up to this level of scrutiny and captivate the fans. And this year’s Tigers have been a complete joy to watch from this level.

Maybe they have been unheralded, maybe they are just all coming of age at the right time, maybe they have just been toiling in obscurity in a baseball backwater stung by the stigma of the 2003 season. Who knows? But there is no denying the fact that upon close evaluation, this team is a team for the ages. Hitting, pitching, fielding, base running, managing - you name it, this Tiger team stands up to the scrutiny. We’ve got hitters (look at all the guys at or near .300), batters (the guys at or near 25 homeruns, including the 7-8-9 spots in the lineup), the young pitching (you understand why they call it heat when you see Joel Zumaya in person – you feel that he is throwing 100+ mph), the old pitching (the Gambler, and even Todd Jones!!!, chucking aside their reputations as chokers), the amazing defense (Pudge had just two errors all season while throwing out nearly 50% of all base stealers while Brandon Inge has become the most exciting infielder in the major leagues with his spectacular plays – although in fairness, it would be nice if he cut down on the errors), the classic National League style small-ball on the base paths, and of course the genius of Jim Leyland. To say that this team is just an exciting team because the city of Detroit has not had a good baseball team in twenty years is to miss the point. This team is not just good for the city of Detroit; it is good for the game of baseball. They are not just winning, they are winning the right way – good pitching, young prospects mixed with grizzled veterans, products from the farm system mixed in with one free agent star (Pudge) and a bunch of free agent castaways (Gambler, Mags) who Detroit took a chance on, and who took a chance on Detroit. The big ballpark. The classic uniforms (the day the Tigers wear one of those softball style colored jerseys is the day I turn in my fan card). The crisp autumn weather. The baseball team that is coming back to its roots.

It has been a magical ride. And its not over yet. The big stage awaits our Boys of Summer. There are still questions to be answered: How will Thames and Monroe hit in the fall classic? Will the Gambler’s luck run out? Does Leyland have any more Marlboro Red-stained rabbits to pull out of his hat? We will know if a few days.

May the end of the journey be as exciting as the ride thus far. Is this the year of the Tiger? We won’t have an answer to that for another week, but I wouldn’t bet against this team.

Go Tigers. Bless You Boys!