The 2011 Detroit Tigers: A Team and a City on the Verge

Only a certifiable fool would risk the ire of the baseball gods by assuming his team is playoff-bound with nearly a month remaining in the regular season. Especially if his team is the Detroit Tigers, an organization far too familiar with heartbreak.

So here goes: Following the Tigers’ Labor Day weekend dismantling of the formerly feared Chicago White Sox … the Bengals will be playing in October. They’re on their way.

Get ready to enjoy the ride. The fall of 2011 should be a special time for Tigers fans.

While baseball remains the slowest and most deliberate of the major sports, it also retains its ability to excite the soul of the metro Detroit area like no other game. Similarly, it can crush Tigers followers with a disappointment that lingers in local consciousness for generations. The trail of local baseball lore is a trip into the agony and ecstasy that accompanies a personal relationship with the national game.

The Detroit baseball experience crystallized around the extremes of exhilaration and despair in 1934 and 1935, when the city went from the depths of anger and frustration to long-awaited deliverance in the space of one year and the twists and turns of two World Series dramas.

Detroit was embarrassed in 1907, 1908, and 1909 when the Tigers — led by Hall-of- Famers-to-be Sam Crawford and Ty Cobb, arguably the greatest ballplayer of all time — were crushed in back-to-back-to-back World Series attempts. Cobb subsequently did everything in baseball but win a World Series, and the stain of those three defeats left a mark on the city’s baseball fanatics that festered over 25 subsequent seasons. The hex — and the inferiority complex — that came with fielding a team that had never won a Series since its inception in 1901 was expected to be broken by the Tigers magnificent 1934 squad.

But the team of Greenberg, Gehringer, Cochrane et al. not only lost the ’34 Series to the purposefully irritating St. Louis Cardinals, the National Leaguers humiliated the Tigers and the town in administering the defeat. Ahead 3-2 in the Series, Detroit lost Game 6 at home in excruciating style, 4-3, only to be embarrassed 11-0 in a Series finale that was marked by furious Tiger fans littering Navin Field with garbage, produce, and everything but the proverbial kitchen sink as years of impotence and disappointment exploded into a riotous display. The Cardinals danced off the field and exited our city the following day waving ‘dead’ Tiger toys from the back of their Missouri-bound train.

The seeds of Detroit’s baseball frustration had taken root. But baseball is nothing — it must be remembered, even in the darkest days — if not ultimately rewarding for those who suffer long and hard. It was only one year hence, the autumn of 1935, that the Tigers finally won it all, defeating the Chicago Cubs in six games, setting off wild displays all over the Depression-ravaged city. The avenging Bengals did it the hard way, waiting until player-manager Mickey Cochrane was singled home in the bottom of the ninth by Goose Goslin to ignite the city’s wildest-ever celebration.

Ah, the Tigers. What’ll it be — pleasure or pain? The years of Detroit’s deliverance are short but sweet in the re-telling. World Series have been won in 1935, 1945, 1968, and 1984. Gut-bending defeats sprung from the Tigers first four Series appearances, along with another Series beating in seven games in 1940 and an ugly 2006 appearance… and painful exits from the postseason playoffs of 1972 and 1987. Along with those awful defeats, the 23-year drought from ‘45 to ‘68 must be tossed into the Tiger annals of pain, with the final-day defeat of 1967 perhaps topping the list of local frustration. Fans again –shades of ‘34 — rioted after that disappointment, an ugly ending to a bizarre season.

But the best way to hold Detroit’s baseball tradition is surely with the recall of the good times. 1968 was one of the greatest seasons that any baseball city has enjoyed. And the magic that the ‘comeback’ Tigers brought to that World Series against St. Louis — finally avenging ‘34 — was the stuff of storybooks and legends. Lolich…Kaline…and Horton’s throw to home … an impossible rally from a 3-1 deficit — baseball doesn’t get any better.

1984 was so sweet that it still seems a dream. Morris…Trammell and Whitaker…and Gibson’s World Series home runs … in retrospect it seems the only year that our Tigers were a sure thing, an immaculate season in which no one could even muster a challenge to local supremacy. It was almost too good to be true … but surely it was.

We remember Don Wert singling home Kaline on a cool clinching night in ‘68 … Lolich and Fryman and Northrup reaching back for one more exciting run towards salvation in ‘72 … with Eddie Brinkman putting a city’s joy into a few succinct, and memorable, words as the city celebrated the Tigers playoff run … the magic of Frank Tanana and the incredible turnaround of the last of the ‘84 Tigers in the memorable September of 1987 … the ascent of a young pitcher named Verlander when the Tigers set the town afire with excitement yet again when he mastered the Yankees in the 2006 playoffs.

Yes, the good times. There are more, it appears, on the way. The riveting Labor Day weekend sweep of the White Sox may have set off a chain of events that will bring baseball magic and hope back to Detroit yet again. The stage appears to be set. You will be practically able to smell it in the air, feel it in your bones. You can love other sports, and follow other sports teams … Red Wings, Lions, Pistons, college football elevens … but there is nothing to compare with a championship season served up by our Detroit Tigers.

Never has been … and never will be.