There was a reference in the newspaper over the weekend, a comparison of the 2010 Detroit Tigers to the 1968 Bengals team. As remote as the suggestion might seem, the alleged similarity bears some study.
The team of destiny that was to be the ’68 Tigers reported to Lakeland with an XXXL chip on its shoulder. Probably no Tigers team of the modern era came so close, squandered such talent, and frustrated so many fans as the 1967 bunch. In fact, it’d be difficult to name a local team in ANY major sport that had disappointed our city and inflicted such fan damage as those Tigers did on the day of the final game of the ’67 season. The disappointment was grinding, and it ran citywide. In 1967 a deeply talented Tiger squad tempted, even taunted, its fans. The team had not won since 1945, and that 22-year spell had seemed SO long … and so bitter.
That season had threatened to cure us all. In 1967 the long promise that had been the career of Al Kaline seemed ready to burst into fruition. The fabulous #9 was finally surrounded by a well-balanced and finely muscled squad of younger players. Sluggers, hurlers, relief pitchers and even pinch hitters had been in place. Think of it … in their primes … athletes like Freehan, Cash, MacAuliffe, Horton, Northrup, Stanley, McLain, Lolich, Wilson, Lasher, Patterson, Gates Brown … served with the fine wine of Kaline’s defining genius, a brilliance tempered by seasons of pitching disappointments, hitting failures, damnable bad luck, managerial blunders. Name the mistakes, point out the lapses, curse the fates … the team and town that had been Yankee fodder for roughly season after season seemed to be finally ready to ride the fabled pendulum that swings through all fields of all human endeavor. What had seemed destined, looming, maybe even unavoidable back in 1954 and ’55 was at long last ready to corral and subdue the American League.
Yet there it was … there we were … on that final regular season Sunday of the tortuous ’67 campaign. There was the ever-reliable Dick MacAuliffe, kneeling in frustration just past the bag on the first base line, throwing a fistful a dust at … what? At the fates? At history? Certainly not at the giddy California Angels, who were romping off the field following their game-ending double-play, celebrating an outcome that had given some meaning to their otherwise disappointing season by denying the Tigers a post-season deliverance to theirs.
That the Tiger Stadium attendees (one always hesitates to call jerks and troublemakers “fans”) proceeded to tear up that beautiful ballpark, descending like locusts, or maybe pirates, on the seats and sod under darkening skies that exactly matched the mood of all Tigers fans in the park or watching the specially televised double-header in their homes … yes, that frustration so immediately boiled over into physical reaction, a surly outburst of pent-up disappointment that seemed to go back to the Middle Ages, was not surprising. We had failed. Again.
Our town has seen its share of such galling letdowns. Last season’s Stanley Cup finale still rings off-key; that outcome absurd, impossible, contorted. As if something was pilfered, stolen by imposters (and annoying ones at that, Munchkins on skates). Staying with baseball history, Tigers post-season disappointments in ’87 and ’72 still rankle. And hurt deep. (The Tigers post-season parade through 2006 seemed too magical, too unexpected all along for it to end the right way, or really register on the bitterness scale.) The Lions, my God, have been the masters of letdown, the artistes of agony. The Lions AARP Bleacher Club will recall the outrages of 1954, ’56 … Milt Plum’s 1962 pass sailing over a slip-sliding Terry Barr and carrying an inferior Green Bay Packers team to a title. 5-0 in Dallas, a baseball score to cultivate ulcers by. Monte Clark praying on the sidelines in San Francisco. The list is continuous, almost obscene. Why not just identify W.C. Ford putting his name to paper in early 1964, and leave it at that?
The Pistons turned their fans inside out with a loss to the Lakers that preceded their eventual triumphs. And the modern era Red Wings were humiliated (meaning, of course, that we were humiliated) by New Jersey in a Stanley Cup sweep in 1995. But both those disappointments now seem, in 20-20 retrospect, to have lost their power to hurt, or gall, in light of both teams’ attainment of subsequent glory.
That leaves us with the Tigers, who made just about everybody sick with their closing performance in the final week of 2009. Giving us an off-season to contemplate, say, a raw recruit sent to left field in Minneapolis, in that absurd excuse for a ballpark, to patrol out there for “defensive purposes” … only to have him lose a routine fly ball, and drop a whole season in the process. Might a 1967-2009 comparison be drawn?
The newspaper says no … the substantial overhaul of the Tigers roster leaves the squads of ’09 and ’10 barely related. And it must be agreed. In these days of free agency, the passion and blood that used to go into baseball fandom seem to no longer extend from one season to the next. And such a loss that is. The 1968 Tigers came back with that outsized chip on their shoulders, and used it to bash opponents from April through October. You could feel their applied anger all season long, based on their ’67 humiliation. And we were angry too. That applied and commonly held feeling were the sporting essence of our town, our fandom. It was there; it was ours.
Yet that seems a dynamic, a magic, from long ago – because these days the connections no longer apply. And what a shame it is. The Tigers used to seem to be ours. In fact, they were us.
Now we just rent them for six months a year, and hope they do well. Here’s hoping that the 2010 Tigers will do well, very well … and then bear a striking resemblance to the 2011 Tigers team.