It was 2005 when the Boston Red Sox fan outside Fenway Park looked at the orange shirt. It was emblazoned with an Old English D. And it made him snicker.
“DA-TROIT TIGAHS,” the Sox fan said. “BWATUM OF DA BASEMENT!”
Ahh, yes. Bottom of the basement. T’was the time before Miggy and Max. Two years removed from that laughable 43-119 season, still amid a humiliating stretch of 12 straight losing seasons, and an ugly era when meaningful September baseball was a stage-4 sleep fantasy.
That day in 2005, Fenway Park was an odd-sight for a Detroit Tigers fan: A stadium actually filled to the brim and buzzing with excitement for the home team (and, ironically, the Tigers’ victory that day was aided by a grand slam from Dmitri Young). Red Sox fans intensely watched every inning, every pitching change and every at-bat. Tigers fans were envious of Boston and its postseason appearances. What would that be like, when every ball or strike felt like life or death and had you hanging on the edge of your seat? We haven’t seen that since 1987!
Now we see it regularly, and we should embrace it.
Yes, the ALCS defeat lingers and stings. The $148-million payroll loaded with mega-stars committed base-running blunders that were flat-out embarrassing. Prince Fielder’s face should be imprinted upon milk cartons in the metro-Detroit area. And if Tigers fans dress as Jose Veras or Joaquin Benoit for Halloween, they’ll get candy thrown in their face.
That said, let’s hit the pause button. This is a different era of Tigers baseball.
Today is far better than those final days of Tiger Stadium when GM Randy Smith made 10,000 trades with Houston and San Diego and killed the farm system. Three straight trips to the playoffs is great. The Old English D is respected around the baseball world and it will be ready for another deep run next season. Embrace today, because it could be much worse.
Remember when Cleveland fans filled our historic park and cheered division-winning teams to victory, all while we shook our heads and said, “When’s our turn?” Remember when we used to get excited for Justin Thompson? Gabe Kapler? That “five-tool player” named Juan Encarnacion?
Not much changed as the scene shifted to Comerica Park. We thought Jeff Weaver was the next Jack Morris. We thought Jeremy Bonderman was the next Nolan Ryan. We thought Cameron Maybin had a statue coming to the center-field walkway before he even swung a bat in The Show.
Oh, the days of Adam Pettyjohn’s 88-mph heater are far behind us. That’s when partially-filled crowds to welcome the Yankees and Red Sox were a treat – even if it was just for the marquee attraction in the other dugout – because it still gave us a feel of real baseball.
Temporarily, that is. Because the fraudulent team in the home dugout that posed as major leaguers could not match the atmosphere. No, not with players such as Eric Munson, Shane Halter, Greg Norton, and Hiram Bocachica. We heard about first-round draft picks such as Kenny Baugh and Kyle Sleeth, yet never saw them in Detroit. Free agency? Vladimir Guerrero laughed in our face – literally. Trades? Randy Smith talked about the “.300 hitting” of Mitch Meluskey – a catcher in one of his terrible deals with Houston – but some of us never saw Meluskey dress, some still believe he never existed, and some believe he was just a paper phantom created by the Matt Millen of baseball. (The stats say he had 34 career plate appearances in Detroit, but did you see him?)
Remember when we dreamed of having a dominant ace such as Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez? Now we have him in the likes of Justin Verlander.
Remember when we roared for our lone hero, Bobby Higginson? Now we have a genuine superstar – one of the all-time greatest – Miguel Cabrera. How about that moment in Game 5 of the ALCS? Seventh inning. Two runners on base. The entire Comerica Park crowd collectively chanting “M! V! P!” What a sight to see. The goosebumps. The adrenaline. The hope. Heck, we would’ve killed for that moment in 2003 when you could count the people sitting in the entire outfield. Now we have a standing-room only crowd chanting like animals. There’s real anticipation and excitement, every at-bat, every pitch. And one of these playoff years, a healthy Cabrera – now battle-tested to a premium and well-experienced in stressful situations – will uncork a reliever’s pitch into the gap, and send Comerica Park into pandemonium.
Yes, the exit against Boston is quite sad. It’s probably a top-five Detroit sports playoff defeat going back to 1990.
But with a few tweaks, a few fundamental adjustments (base-running drills, better at-bats), more speed and a healthy core, the Tigers can win a World Series.
The franchise will continue to be a contender as long as GM Dave Dombrowski is employed. Consider the 2008 season: The Tigers, with a $137-million payroll, finished dead last in the AL Central. Dombrowski’s neck was still weighed down by long-term deals for a handful of players, most notably Jeremy Bonderman (another two years at $12.5 M per year), Carlos Guillen (three years/$35.9M), Brandon Inge (four years/$23.9M) and Magglio Ordonez (three years/$36.7M).
It appeared the future faced its challenges. It looked like, maybe, the 2006 playoff run was just a fluke for an organization with a recent history of failure.
Yet here we are today, three straight years into the ALCS or beyond. How good is Dombrowski? How quickly can he build a winner? Let’s put it this way: Just six players have stayed aboard from the 2009 team that competed in the one-game playoff for the AL Central title at Minnesota: Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello, Miguel Cabrera, Alex Avila (72 plate-appearances that year), Ramon Santiago, and Don Kelly (62 plate-appearances).
So remember the good moments of this past postseason as our Tigers memory bank builds. In 2000, we got excited when the Tigers were 4.5 games out of the wild card. We would’ve killed for one genuine playoff moment. Now we can reflect on Jhonny Peralta’s three-run homer in Game 4 of the ALDS. Or Miggy’s two-run bomb in Game 5 at Oakland. And Justin Verlander’s Game 5 gem for the second straight year. And soon enough, it will be announced that Max has a Cy Young and Miggy has back-to-back MVPs.
Bottom of the basement? Those days – as the late, legendary Ernie Harwell would say – are “looooooooooooong gone.”
One reply on “Tiger exit stings, but we’ve come a long way Detroit“
Great read, Bruce! Every word is true.
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