Magical Detroit Tigers Weekend: A Cleveland Sweep and Inge’s Return

Lost amid the post-game noise and hoopla that go with a pennant race sweep this past weekend … was the smile.

The three-game showdown against the Indians seemed to have it all — the anticipation, the tension, sold-out crowds, late-season lineup juggling by a suddenly bold front office, and controversy (holding out Justin Verlander — almost a surefire two-game swing for the Tigers when they needed it most — made Jim Leyland seem a managerial terrorist, daring the fates to break our battered hearts once again).

The Tigers’ well-worn script, the one that had featured Leyland’s teams succumbing to a familiar final weeks fold in a kind of painful slow-motion … like viewing the original “Night of the Living Dead” rerun on a cable channel that shows bad commercials … underwent a major rewrite this weekend, suddenly being performed in differing style this time by actors named Young, Betemit, Fister … and Inge.


Okay, Inge aside, who are these guys? They are, it seems, a transformed squad that has brought new life to our town’s most familiar team, Detroit’s longest-running soap opera … our Tigers. Suddenly, maybe this recent weekend marked the turning point, they are no longer the perennial disappointers that have lured and teased … and bled us … during Leyland’s tenure. It almost seems that we can actually pull our hands away from our eyes, and see that Avila and Boesch and Martinez and Jackson and Peralta and Valverde truly are a new deal, the real thing. Perhaps these Bengals are a competitive Nine that will NOT fall at season’s end, taking our lifelong dreams with them as they go.

What kind of Tigers are they? Are they 1934 Tigers? 1961 Tigers, 1967, ‘72, ‘87, ‘06, ‘09 Tigers? … teams that took us on wild and disorienting roller-coaster rides that had us hanging on by our fingernails until the downward plunging car abruptly ran out of track? God knows we could give a pass to the ‘72 and ‘06 teams, squads that gave us terrific and surprising runs for our money. But the abrupt crash in ‘72 was too heartbreaking to count on the plus side; and there was something so meek and agreeably surrendering about the club that went to sleep in the ‘06 Series that I place them as negatives on the Leyland resume.

The Heartbreak Kids team appeared back in evidence Sunday, when the team seemed only too ready to blow their early 7-0 lead to Cleveland. Suddenly we were nervous again, and here came that old feeling. But then those new guys, players like Young and Jackson and Avila came to life and refused to give that game, and the in-division momentum, back to the Tribe, seemingly exhibiting the kind of will that guys like McAuliffe and Gibson once did.

I was already cursing Leyland, for having a one-man pitching staff most of the season, and then for tempting the fates by refusing to send that one-man staff to the mound Sunday. He didn’t want to appear to panic — my reckoning — so Verlander sat throughout the crucial showdown series. I wanted the guaranteed two-game swing. But we got it anyway … and the excitement of Sunday’s final play will — hopefully — get hauled out and replayed when the Tigers clinch their divisional title. (And they could be scary-tough in the playoffs, with Cabrera’s potential for domination at any time, and Verlander hopefully available for multiple starts in limited series play. He will be THE most potent weapon on any American League lineup card, so who can say how this ride may end?)

Still, IF they get there … and if this season boasts a “Go Get ‘Em, Tigers” and “Bless You, Boys” feel … the expected highlight runs that will dominate the media at the end of the 2011 regular race run will not be complete for me without the personal memory of that smile.

I keep hearing — it has that stupid ring of familiarity where the media starts quoting each other over and over, and repeating a conjecture until they form it into fact — that baseball fans in this town either LOVE or HATE Brandon Inge, with no middle ground. Yep, that’s the deal. His appalling batting average dips have more than erased memories of his highlight-reel defensive plays, and he is suddenly the lightning rod of the franchise. Inge.

First, the idea that anybody hates Brandon Inge hits a flat note with me. The guy plays his ass off, cares about the team and this town, and wears his sincerity and his emotions like a uniform. He’s been here, and been pleasant and fresh and likable, through times good and awful. To me, he’s such a positive influence, and so much the guts of that organization, that I easily forgive his painful plate adventures.

And I forgive him so much that I felt lousy when he got sent to Toledo last month, and felt hopeful recently when they called him back to the big club. He survived a personal hell in that demotion, and had vowed he would fight his way back. Thus I was exhilarated that Leyland gave him the start Saturday, and shared goose bumps with a lot of you when he homered in his first at-bat.

That could have been a fluke, surely. But then he hammered the ball up the left-center alley in his next appearance, hitting a likely triple until the ball jumped out of the field of play and limited him to an RBI double, and he had to pull up at second.

So he stood there, Brandon Inge did, and bit his lip. Bit it hard. Like a kid when he’s not supposed to be laughing in school. We can all identify. But this was a grown man, with kids of his own, playing in a high pressure game and surrounded by some of the richest, and sometimes surliest, athletes on the planet. There he was, biting SO hard on that lip … trying not to let his absolute joy come exploding out of his face. His ebullience at having come home, as he promised, playing once again in front of his family and fans, in front of his own children … and having put HIS team, in the midst of a crucial series in a tight pennant race … in front with an opening 2-for-2 performance, with a homer and double and two RBIs … at the time when he, and his team, needed them so much — the moment reeked of baseball at its best.

It was something he’ll never forget, obviously. And neither will I, because I wanted it to happen for him so badly, and neither should this city, because that lip-biting smile on his face — fighting an excited grin that might “show up” Cleveland’s team if he let it loose — was the most satisfying and meaningful thing I’ve seen on a baseball field this year.

They say baseball’s a kid’s game. And Inge surely reminds you of a kid. I don’t believe the media. But even if you don’t like Brandon Inge the individual … beyond any controversy about his swing and questions about his capabilities as he ages at third base … if you didn’t get a buzz watching him fight that smile Saturday night… then you’re watching, and worrying about, the wrong American game.