Declawing The Tigers

[from The A.V. Club Chicago / September 26, 2009]

Life as a Sox fan means leading a generally hateful existence, one defined by an inborn, pointless rivalry with the Cubs, endless bitterness toward the Minnesota Twins, and a genetic predisposition to curse anything associated with the city of Cleveland. Yet for all the righteous venom directed at those three clubs (not to mention the implied, justified disgust any self-respecting baseball fan feels toward the Yankees, Red Sox, and Cardinals), there is a geographically closer villain occupying first place and just as worthy of the full, collective spite of the Sox faithful. With nothing left to cheer about on the South Side, it’s time to direct all that energy at tearing down the Detroit Tigers like so many of that city’s unoccupied skyscrapers.

Their fans have a weird definition of loyalty

In 2008, 3.2 million fans (third-most in the American League!) passed through the turnstiles of Comerica Park to watch the Tigers finish in dead last. In 2007, 3 million came out to cheer the kittens on to 88 wins and second place. Contrast this to 2006, when the Tigers actually played baseball worth paying for yet drew 451,202 fewer fans to the park than they did in 2007. It’s as though they’d rather reward lousy baseball while punishing their team for daring to win. This might just be fans’ delayed reaction to their team’s success (it’s pretty hard to follow too closely when you flee Michigan at the first opportunity), but these are also the same people who made Travis “never led the league in a good way” Fryman a five-time All-Star. Sox fans’ avoidance of Cellular Field is certainly no secret, but at least they’re consistent about it: The average crowd in World Series-winning 2005 was 28,923, while in comically bad 2009 it’s holding relatively steady at 28,000.

The myth of Jim Leyland

A lot of people talk about Detroit skipper Jim Leyland as some kind of old-school, tough-guy miracle worker for getting the high-powered, high-payroll Tigers to the World Series his first year on the job, although most of this probably just stems from Leyland’s surliness and penchant for Marlboro Reds. In truth, Leyland is really just another perpetual runner-up. As manager of the 1991 Pittsburgh Pirates, Leyland had a devastating lineup anchored by Bobby Bonilla, Barry Bonds, and Andy Van Slyke and a pitching staff whose worst starter, Bob Walk, posted a 9-2 record with a 3.60 ERA; that team ended up as cannon fodder for the eventual World Series-losing Atlanta Braves. In 2006, old-timey superhero Leyland let something as trivial as infield defense cost the Tigers the World Series, as five fielding errors by Detroit pitchers led to a laughably high seven unearned runs for St. Louis. The lone instance of a Jim Leyland team actually going the distance came in 1997, when his Florida Marlins combined an A-list of mercenaries with a then-exorbitant $52 million payroll (fifth-highest in Major League Baseball) for a World Series title, although that team owed most of its success to a famously terrible strike zone. Grizzle aside, is this the work of a great manager, or is this the mark of an overhyped also-ran? Meanwhile on the South Side, Ozzie Guillen’s two playoff berths in six years as a manager (not to mention the World Series won on a shoestring) have earned him no more than a local sports press second-guessing his team’s every move.


“Detroit needs it.”

The woes of Motor City are well-known and numerous: a largely abandoned cityscape straight out of Mad Max, a former mayor fresh out of jail, and a 17 percent unemployment rate only slightly less outrageous than the crime rate. Yet tell a casual observer about the Tigers’ current good standing and in response you’ll hear a patronizing, “Good for Detroit.” These people somehow ignore the perpetual excellence of the Red Wings and Pistons while falsely equating a likely first-round shellacking by the New York Yankees with urban revitalization; then again, any city that counts turkey Bobby Higginson among its franchise greats probably needs all the help it can get. Detroit, that city of nothing, is somehow entitled to the world yet the Chicago team is mocked for even thinking it could compete. If that’s not worth hating, nothing is.