John Eby: Surprising Tigers keep Detroit, Michigan hopes alivePublished 10:04am Monday, September 28, 2009
Sports Illustrated’s cover story on Detroit, pizza mogul Mike Ilitch’s “righteous franchise” and my Tigers’ “bold stand with their fans” is so uplifting I block the jinx from mind.
I have my own version of the jinx in store for the final four at home with Minnesota starting tonight.
I’ll wear my Joe Mauer jersey. Mauer’s a great hitter, but he can’t be Justin Morneau, too, and neither can Michael Cuddyer.
Michigan State made it to the national basketball final in Detroit in April. Ilitch’s hockey Red Wings reached Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals in June.
Michigan is overdue for a Cinderella glass slipper to ease onto our tired, calloused feet.
The Tigers, after finishing last in 2008 when they were supposed to be first, have led the weak Central Division since May 10. They lost to Chicago 2-0 Sept. 25; and 8-4 Sept. 27.
In between, down 5-0 to former teammate Freddy Garcia, they bang back with 12 unanswered runs and a season-high 20 hits. We’ll watch tonight, wondering which team will show up.
I tuned in nearly nightly this summer to Rod Allen and Mario Impemba for chess on grass.
It seems like the Tigers devoted September to faltering their way out of first, dropping nine out of 12 at one point.
That’s what happened in 2006, when they squeaked into the World Series as a wild card only to fall short, ironically, against the St. Louis Cardinals in a 1968 replay.
That summer the Twinkies trailed by 12 1/2 games, yet caught Detroit on the final day of the regular season. Last year, the Twins and White Sox played a tiebreaker for the division title, losing 1-0 in Chicago.
I’m sure opposing players are conditioned to glance over their shoulders in November to see if Minnesota is still gaining on them.
My Tigers, whom I followed to Lakeland on a family vacation and across Florida on spring break in college, actually haven’t won their division since 1987 (also the Twins).
That was the one and only time I was in their locker room, jostling for position with Mitch Albom to speak to Frank Tanana, peaking out over ’68 hero Jim Northrup’s shoulder as champagne sprayed on national television and eavesdropping on an argument between Jim Campbell and Jerry Green.
I also made it by the batting cage one time with Cleveland in town, listening to the heckling Albert Belle endured and almost bumping into Dave Winfield.
Most magical summers in my life revolve around Detroit’s baseball club, including ’68 and ’84, whose world champions reunite tonight for their 25th anniversary.
I was at Tiger Stadium that fateful day July 1967 day when riots broke out watching Mickey Mantle’s Yankees and a plume of black smoke billow up over the wall from outside. Forty-three people would die.
The ’68 world champions of present assistants Willie Horton and Al Kaline helped the city heal in the aftermath of the civil disturbance on 12th Street, now Rosa Parks Boulevard.
In 1999, Jordan and I went to the next-to-last game at Tiger Stadium. For Father’s Day 2007 my kids gave me my first trip to gorgeous Comerica Park.
Adding an additional element of fun is that my daughter, who decidedly does not like baseball, has seen it seep into her consciousness at art school just living in a big city. Savannah even went to a game, beating me inside Progressive Field.
And there are constant reminders from home (isn’t that what e-mail’s for?) with the Detroit bats perking up just in time to sweep the Tribe, although 6-5 Sept. 24 was too close for comfort.
Closer Fernando Rodney has 35 saves in 36 tries, but when he’s wild or overthrows, two hits, including a two-run home run to Shin-Soo Chin, and two walks can close a 6-3 gap in a blink.
The Indians’ 11th straight loss was one away from the 1931 club record, 12.
Ace Justin Verlander, 17-9, should already be a 20-game winner. He fanned 11 more to lead the American League in strikeouts with 256. Some of his strongest performances came in losses when the erratic offense gave him no support.
I haven’t known this much about a bunch of baseball players since I bought nickel packs of Topps cards at Lena’s in ’68.
I have a been a fan of Ilitch, 80, since sitting next to him at a luncheon after he bought Fox Theatre and before its restoration to splendor was complete.
Four Stanley Cups with the Red Wings are nice, but I’ve got to think a World Series would be special to a former Cooley High School shortstop the Tigers tried to sign.
Embarrassed after buying the Tigers in 1992 and treating Detroit to a dozen losing seasons, he now regards the team like a public trust, rolling out more $5 tickets, two extra $5 parking lots and new $5 meals.
Season-ticket holders were offered month-to-month payment plans. Partial-season-ticket-holders could select their own dates. The team has given away more than 80,000 tickets and collaborated with more than 2,000 non-profit organizations.
The one gesture with which I was familiar, which reveals a lot about Ilitch, has to do with that spectacular fountain which shoots water into the air after HRs. Reeling General Motors could no longer afford sponsorship. Ilitch, offered $1.5 for three years of this priceless advertising spot, declined. Instead, the founder of Little Caesars Pizza left the GM name, added Ford and Chrysler and his own message: The Detroit Tigers support our automakers.
I know the Tigers win at a .650 clip at Comerica, and I’ve marveled at full houses in ravaged Detroit on my TV screen, but I didn’t realize the extent pampered players on the diamond feel the recession.
Third baseman Brandon Inge acknowledged that Detroit never gives up “knowing there are families in the stands fighting to feed their kids. We take that seriously. We can’t lollygag our way through a game. We have to give them a show. I really believe they are the reason that we are where we are.”
“I was here in 2003, when we lost 119 games, and a lot of nights this stadium felt like an empty cathedral.” Inge admits to the magazine.
Gruff manager Jim Leyland, a Buckeye who looks like he could have worked on the auto assembly lines in a previous life, told his team in spring training, “People are going to be spending some of their last dollars to come to these games, and we need to give them our best effort. This is not the year not to run out a ground ball.”
It’s conceivable puny attendance translates to payroll pruning and another descent into the cellar, like Cleveland jettisoning Cliff Lee, Victor Martinez and Ryan Garko. Except the Tigers stand fourth in the AL, attracting 31,360 a game, and fifth with a $115 million payroll.
Just recently Ilitch shelled out more than $5 million for pitcher Jarrod Washburn from the Seattle Mariners and lefty run producer Aubrey Huff from the Baltimore Orioles.
No. 3 pitcher Rick Porcello, like Jordan, was still in high school in 2007.
His 14 wins at 20 put him in exclusive company: Cincinnati’s Don Gullett and Minnesota’s Bert Blyleven (who started the one time we got to sit by the visitors’ bullpen) in 1971 and the Mets’ Dwight Gooden in 1984 and 1985.
In the offseason Detroit acquired All-Star pitcher Edwin Jackson, clutch-hitting shortstop Adam Everett and catcher Gerald Laird (cutting down base stealers with three-fingered throws like Pudge is back).
Carlos Guillen returned after a long early absence, second base is anchored by Placido Polanco, one of the most underrated players in “all of baseball,” as Rod likes to say, and $152 million first baseman Miguel Cabrera is a still-developing slugger who can also hit .330.
Magglio Ordonez’s power outage is perplexing, but at least he’s quit hitting grounders every at-bat and is spraying the ball like when he was batting champion to get his average back near .300.
Curtis Granderson is a class act, an exciting centerfielder, but his batting average had gone the opposite direction from his power numbers.
Before the SI report buoyed my spirits, the indelible image of the depths of Detroit came from a Sept. 23 report in the Free Press about its 33 strip clubs.
Dancers went before City Council asking that they be allowed to continue in the adult entertainment business without additional government regulation. Many said they are putting themselves through school. Others are the only providers for their families. Most said they have no choice.
“All of us are young. There’s nothing else out there. There’s no jobs,” said single parent Valentina Anderson.
I found the SI editor’s letter as interesting as Lee Jenkins’ story because I knew little about “Assignment Detroit.”
Time Inc.’s news division bought a house on Parker Avenue (Detroit’s average home price has fallen below $12,000) for an in-depth, on-the-ground journalism perspective of what it’s like to live in Motown as the U.S. middle class “scraped bottom … the city’s rise and fall and struggle to rise again reflected the harshest of changing American realities … Detroit is fighting for life” without any national grocery chain operating in the city limits, an unsolved murder rate of almost 70 percent, 29-percent unemployment and a functional illiteracy rate approaching 50 percent.
Assignment Detroit “flood(s) the zone” with journalists, photographers, videographers and bloggers” from Time, Fortune, Money and SI and their companion Web sites.
Some staffers live in the house, others have a place to crash while in town reporting a story that beyond Michigan has been “underreported.”
“You can’t throw a rock from the porch without hitting a strong story,” Terry McDonnell writes of the “D-Shack,” so dubbed after Kid Rock delivered a housewarming gift of a Gothic D for the mantel and a keg of his locally brewed Badass Beer.