If the Tigers fail this test, will fans forgive them?

Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera will be key factors in determining whether the Detroit Tigers reclaim the AL Central lead in 2014.

Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera will be key factors in determining whether the Detroit Tigers reclaim the AL Central lead in 2014.

During their recent alarming slide, the Detroit Tigers’ misfortunes multiplied—very much like the last time they visited the East Coast and were briefly overtaken by the Kansas City Royals.

Bad games were mixed with bad news. The injuries to two-fifths of their vaunted starting rotation reduced it to three dependables and two prayers. The frustrations seem to mount and began to show up in shoddy defense. The collapsing bullpen unraveled even more. Attempts to find someone to rescue the relief corps keep coming up short or lame: Hanrahan and Soria injured, Joba inconsistent., the Toledo shuttle working overtime, and now Jim Johnson (he of the 7.14 ERA).

On MLB Network’s “MLB Now” afternoon panel show, they play a satirical game called “Concern? Panic? Doom?” The Tigers are definitely deep into panic territory. Even calm and rational Brad Ausmus is starting to look a little rattled in some postgame interviews, and who can blame him?

When Joe Nathan gave the fans the bird, it was a startling show of childishness by a veteran who is obviously very frustrated, as my colleague Dan Holmes details so well in his recent post. And heck, he wasn’t even booed that badly.

Tiger patrons are pretty forgiving in general. They excuse a lot of incompetency and always hope for the best. The general attitude in Detroit has always been that our sports teams (save for the Red Wings of recent vintage) are not entitled to win every year—unlike those in New York or LA. But owner Mike Ilitch’s spending spree in the last decade or so has catapulted the Tigers to the top echelon in payroll, and the fans are justifiably impatient to see the investment pay off.

This is a new sort of attitude in Motown. Pennants have flown so infrequently here over the life of the franchise that each generation expects to see only one or two in their lifetimes. You have to be nearly seventy years old to have witnessed more than two World Series winners in Detroit.

You can’t fault some fans for chafing at the bit. But baseball is a tough game—and justice isn’t guaranteed. Detroiters understand that all too well, perhaps because we’re use to hard knocks and know how difficult comebacks can be. But we don’t give up—and we don’t flip life the bird, even when you might not blame us for doing do.

This latest wave of the finger somehow reminds me of the time I witnessed perhaps the greatest show of forgiveness ever displayed in Tiger Stadium. In 1987, after a thrilling pennant race that culminated in a tense three-game season-ending sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays—all one-run “must” victories—the Tigers faced the Minnesota Twins in the ALCS. Detroit was understandably a bit spent: they’d been sprinting to first place since being buried in the cellar in mid-May. The team lost the first two games in Minnesota and then came home to take game three. They needed to win a Sunday night game to even the series. But they lost, and a key play came when Darrell Evans stupidly got picked off third base to kill a potential game-saving rally.

I sat in the bleachers the following afternoon. The mood was a bit glum. Evans was a fan favorite since his acquisition as a free agent had put the 1984 team over the top, but I was cringing inwardly against the expected chorus of boos as he strode up to bat. But then something amazing happen: fans started to clap. Then the clapping rose to a roar, and soon it became a standing ovation. It was one of the most surprising moments I’d ever seen in a ballpark, as Tiger fans demonstrated they understood that Evans was human and, like them, capable of making a mistake. The Tigers lost that day and went home for the winter, but it was actually a wonderfully bittersweet climax to a beautiful comeback season.

Now we are witnessing the opposite: a disappointing slide by a team for which expectations were sky-high, coming right on the heels of a masterful trade that was supposed to put Detroit over the top.

A friend suggested to me that maybe, back in June, when the Tigers shrugged off Kansas City’s challenge and immediately slapped them back down, they became too complacent. It did seem like they needed a kick in the butt then, but now they’re facing a real test of their mettle. And they’re doing so with an outfield defense that’s pathetic, a bullpen and closer that’s been proven completely unreliable, and their fair share of injuries. As expected, J.D. Martinez, who carried the club for many weeks, has finally crashed back down to earth.

Some fortitude and some magic are needed now—and if the magic doesn’t materialize, forgiveness all around. But that forgiveness is harder to come by when you have to shell out so much money to take your family to the game and then watch a millionaire give you the finger.

Times have changed since 1987, when fans gave Darrell Evans a hug, not a round of boos. Of course, it’s much more satisfying to watch an underdog win than a top dog go lame and stumble. But there’s no crying in baseball. And expectations don’t win ball games.