Thursday, September 1, 2011

Being a Tigers Fan, Part One: The Heartbreak

I know I’m jumping the gun, especially considering this team’s recent history, with my playoff hopes for a month from now. But this Detroit Tigers team feels different to me somehow.

In 2006, after 19 years of futility, I didn’t expect the team to make the playoffs. When they got in as a wildcard, I was happy but expected the Yankees to roll through the them. We made it…good enough. But it wasn’t good enough for them and they stuck it to Jeter, A-Rod, and the rest of the Bombers. By the time the Oakland series came around, I didn’t know what to feel…it was a dream come true. It was so surreal to be in that spot, it didn’t even seem like the end of the world to me that our boys eventually lost the World Series to the Cardinals.

Yeah, it sucked, but I appreciated that the Detroit Tigers had just given me and Tiger fans everywhere a season that we would never forget. It was such an amazing feeling to be winning for once after so many seasons of disgust. I’ll never forget it.

And that’s why I’m getting playoff fever in late August/early September. I expect to be there this season. This is the best baseball team the city of Detroit has had on the field since the wonderful 1987 season that was so important in making me a fan. Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Alex Avila, Jhonny Peralta, Jose Valverde, and the rest (except for Don Kelly) are more than capable of beating Boston, New York, or Texas and making the World Series this year, I feel. Unlike 2006, anything less will be a disappointment. To be honest, Philadelphia is the only team that really scares me.

As the mentally unstable court jester of Tiger sites, DesigNate Robertson pokes fun at the Tigers on a near-constant basis. But I hope that underneath it all, you, the reader, understands that it’s all meant in good fun and that I live and die with this baseball team. As an 8 year old in 1985, my grandmother introduced me to Tiger baseball and I fell in love with it. I’ve enjoyed good times and MANY bad times since then. I’m sure most of you all have, too…even those of you that have only been on this wacky ride since 2006.

But that’s what I want to write about the next couple days. These are my five worst and five best memories of the Tigers in the past (almost) 26 years. I realize that I have covered some of these events in the past on this blog, but most of these are moments that I never get tired of reliving…well, at least the good ones. And isn’t that a big part of being a fan? Sharing our heartbreaks and triumphs over and over about our favorite team?

Anyway, today I’ll deal with heartbreak. In a day or so, I’ll give you the triumph. Deal? Deal…


HEARTBREAK

I Temporarily Go Insane

June 9, 1998

The ’98 season in Detroit was depressing, to say the least. It had been five years since the Tigers had finished over .500, and that team was only a mediocre third place team in the strike-shortened year of ’93. These Tigers finished the inaugural first season of the new AL Central in last place at 65-97. The team’s best pitcher was Brian Moehler. Tony Clark, Damion Easley, and Bobby Higginson were the only guys on the team that could hit a lick, other than a young Luis Gonzalez who was quickly traded to Arizona for a pile of garbage. Even manager Buddy Bell resigned after 135 games because he “couldn’t stand the losing”. Yeah, Buddy…I was there with you. But I stayed.

Since ’87, the team had fielded three teams over .500 in eleven years at that point. And a month past my 21st birthday, I went with a buddy of mine to Tiger Stadium to see the Tigers/Astros game. It was the second year of interleague play and I was excited to see Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, my two favorite non-Tigers, in person for once. But of course, I was there mainly to root for my loser Tiger team more than anything.

And for once, they looked like a good baseball team! Amazing! Higginson, Brian Hunter, and Joe Randa each came up with clutch two-out RBI’s and Brian Moehler was brilliant through 8, only allowing one run. Detroit led 3-1 to start the 9th and Moehler came out to go for the complete game, still well under 100 pitches.

Cue the ominous music. Moises Alou led off the ninth by launching a homer to left field over where we were sitting. It’s now 3-2. Moehler then got the hook and Todd Jones was brought in to get the save. You know where this is going, right?

Jonesy got Carl Everett to fly out to left and then Dave Clark struck out. Two down. The immortal JR Phillips then came up to bat for shortstop Ricky Guitierrez. He drew a walk. Todd then uncorks a wild pitch to every-other-year-Tiger Brad Ausums to move the runner to second. Ausmus, with two strikes on him, of course then singled him in. 3-3 tie. That brought up Biggio, who on the first pitch hit one that may not have landed yet to this day. 5-3 Astros. Doug Brocail came on for the final out and in the bottom of the 9th, Billy Wagner came in to strike out the side, sandwiched with a pair of walks. Higginson, my hero, was the guy to K to end the game.

From the Jones meltdown to the game-ending strikeout of Bobby, I just sat there in left field quietly losing my mind. And then I snapped. All the losing seasons, the dozen-plus games I attended yearly in an empty stadium, all these emotions just exploded out of me in a fury that I can’t quite totally remember, to be honest with you.

Have you seen “Major League 2” when Randy Quaid’s superfan character finally goes nuts after all the losing and starts screaming at the team at all times? That was me. I actually climbed on top of the left field wall letting loose with every profanity that I could think of. I just lost my mind for a minute and had to be restrained by my friend. I never yell at players when I attend the games. I think it's the most disrespectful thing in the world. Nothing like that had ever happened before and it hasn’t happened since. But I seriously wanted to kill someone at that moment.

Many people say that Todd Jones made them crazy over the years in Detroit. Well in my case, the bastard really did, even if it was just for a moment.

The End of an Era

April 10, 2005

It’s 2005 and the Tigers are at the beginning of what will be their fifth straight year of losing at least 90 games. I organized a bus trip for the bar I worked for at the time for a Tigers/Indians game, since Toledo has such a mix of Detroit and Tribe fans. We had a group of about 50 people head to the CoPa and I’d say that about 75% of us were Tiger fans. My then-obnoxious boss, however, was an Indians fan. In fact, he’s one of the most annoying Cleveland fans I’ve ever met and that’s saying a lot.

Well he teased me the whole trip up there because Bobby Higginson had an elbow injury and wasn’t expected to play. Bobby, by this point, hadn’t been worth a damn since 2002 and most of the Tiger “faithful” had turned on him. But not me, or my friend from the Astros story, who was on the bus trip, too. Higginson was our favorite and I just took the abuse from my boss while occasionally questioning his sexuality or the size of his anatomy. Whatever.

Fun fact for this game? Brandon Inge hit leadoff for the Tigers. Yikes. Anyway, Jeremy Bonderman had one of his many “Bad Bondo” games and allowed 7 runs in 6 innings. But the Tigers kept it close and entering the bottom of the 9th, they trailed Cleveland 7-5.

Indians closer Bob Wickman entered the game and got Marcus Thames to pop out to start the ninth. Second baseman Jason Smith is due up, but who is sent out to pinch hit? Bobby Higginson, that’s who.

I immediately start going nuts. So does my buddy. My boss is bad-mouthing me, fans are booing Higginson, and he works a full count. My friend and I, both wearing Higginson jerseys, still believe. Wickman winds and delivers…Higginson SWINGS…and strikes out.

My boss laughs his ass off and hounds me. Tiger fans are booing and screaming at Higginson and me for my jersey. I believe I threatened to fight several people at that point. To add insult to injury, Inge would then single, Carlos Guillen would drive him in to make it 7-6 and I still had hope with Pudge Rodriguez coming up to the plate. Even my boss shut up for a minute. Of course, Pudge grounded out to third on the first pitch to end the ballgame.

It was the last time I saw Bobby play in person. He would see action in six more games that year before finally being forced to retire. And now, six years later, I’m seeing history repeat itself with my current favorite, Magglio Ordonez, as his career is winding down due to age and injury.

It’s hard to see your heroes fail. And it’s even harder to see them broken down and not being able to perform anymore. But for a moment during this game, I still had that hope that Higginson still had one more in him. And that kind of hope, even if it doesn’t pan out, is one of the best parts of being a fan, in my opinion. It can also be one of the worst.

Worst…Team…Ever

2003

43-119. That was the record for the 2003 Detroit Tigers. 119 losses is the most for any team in American League history and only one less than the worst of any team in MLB history. And miraculously, they won five of their last six games to avoid the dubious record. By comparison, this year’s club won their 43rd game on June 27th. If you weren’t with us in ’03, imagine us not winning any more games after June 27th. That would require three months of not winning a ballgame. Yeah, it was awful beyond words.

The Tigers were outscored by 337 runs over the course of the season (928 to 591) and finished 47 games behind the first place Twins. Blame for the dismal season was shared by both the pitching staff which had an ERA of 5.30 and the batters who finished with a team batting average of .240…19 points below the American League’s .259 batting average.

Mike Maroth became the poster boy for futility that year by losing 21 games, the first guy to do so since 1980. Finishing second and third in the AL in losses were Tiger pitchers Jeremy Bonderman (19) and Nate Cornejo (17). But they were all terrible that year with the exceptions of Dmitri Young (.297 avg, 29 HR) and relief pitcher Jamie Walker (ERA+ of 130 in 78 games).

Poor manager Alan Trammell was forced to send out guys like Eric Eckenstahler, Chris Mears, Brian Schmack, Danny Klassen, Kevin Witt, and Ernie Young that year. If you’ve never heard of any of those guys, there’s a reason. Brandon Inge was the starting catcher and had an OPS+ of 64. Starting shortstop Ramon Santiago was even worse with an OPS+ of 59. Looking back, I can’t believe they’re with the current club. Only three regulars hit over .250 that year…pathetic.

It was hell being a Tiger fan in 2003 is what I’m trying to say. So whenever people today start complaining and acting like the sky is falling when their first place Tigers lose two games in a row, I think back to 2003 and remember how lucky we are in 2011.

I would wish 2003 on no one. Except Yankee fans.

Game 163

October 6, 2009

The ’09 Tigers spent 146 days in first place. They had a three game lead with four games left to play over Minnesota. From September 13th to October 4th, the Twins finished the season 16-4 to tie the Tigers for first place. Three of those four losses were to the Tigers. Oakland, Cleveland, Chicago, and Kansas City went 1-12 against the Twins during that stretch. One little win by any of those guys in those games would have prevented the one-game playoff between Detroit and Minnesota and would have sent the Tigers into the playoffs against the Yankees. It didn’t help that the Tigers went 11-10 over the same stretch.

So there we were, Tigers vs. Twins in the dreaded Metrodome. Rick Porcello went 5.2 solid innings of 4-hit ball, only allowing 2 runs (only 1 earned). In the third, Miguel Cabrera took Scott Baker deep to give Detroit a 3-0 lead. I was in a bar surrounded by at least 150 screaming Tiger fans (and one Twins fan) and we were all going ballistic. With two outs in the sixth, Porcello gave up a homer to Jason Kubel to make it 3-2. A walk later and he was lifted for Zach Miner. Miner got the final out with the lead still intact.

Then the bottom of the 7th happened. Miner would give up a single to Nick (F’ing) Punto and a homer to Orlando (MF’ing) Cabrera. 4-3 Twins. Fu-Te Ni and Brandon Lyon would stop the bleeding and keep the Twins lead at one.

The top of the 8th was lead off by a homer by Magglio Ordonez, my favorite player on the team. I was beside myself as the bar went crazy. Amazing moment. The game would go to extra innings and in the 10th, Brandon Inge would come through with an RBI double to put the Tigers up 5-4. Fernando Rodney just needed to get three outs. Sigh.

Leadoff triple for Michael Cuddyer. COME ON! Delmon Young grounds out…run holds at third! Woo hoo! Brendan Harris walks on a 3-1 pitch. And light-hitting Matt Tolbert comes up as Tiger fans everywhere can see the double play coming, right? It’s Matt Tolbert! Base hit to center, game is tied again. Punto would then line into a double play. Both teams would go in order in the 11th, leading into the famous 12th.

Clete Thomas, a defensive replacement for Ordonez, flied out to center, followed by a Cabrera walk. That brought up Don Kelly who had ran for Aubrey Huff earlier in the game. I immediately began cursing Leyland, God, and anyone else I could think of. Amazingly, Kelly made up for losing a ball in the Metrodome roof earlier in the year by singling Mig to third and taking second on the throw! Oh, happy day! Ryan Raburn was then intentionally walked to get to Brandon Inge. Then IT happened.

Inge was clearly hit by a pitch. Tigers should have taken the lead. But, of course, the ump missed the ball grazing Inge’s jersey. I’m screaming at the top of my lungs along with 150 of my new closest friends. Inge hit a grounder and the Twins got the force at home. That brought up offensively challenged Gerald Laird and I remember begging for a pinch hitter. Nope…Laird K’d on a full count.

Rodney was sent back out for the 12th and I was beside myself. I knew he was gassed. He knew he was gassed. The bar knew he was gassed. Everyone in the world knew it, except Jim Leyland. Single, groundout, walk, RBI-walkoff single by Orlando (MF’ing) Cabrera wins it for the Twins.

It was one of the greatest baseball games ever. At least that's what the lone Twins fan told me after he was done celebrating and trying to shake my hand. I told him he should probably leave before he got lynched. And it’s the first time I almost cried over a baseball game as an adult. Excuse me while I go throw up for just reliving it.

RIP

March 24, 2009
May 4, 2010
November 4, 2010

When you watch a team day in and day out, they almost become a part of your family in a weird way. In fact, I see Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Alex Avila and the boys a lot more than I do my actual family, now that I think about it. But when guys are around for years, no matter what their capacity with the team, you start to feel that you know them. They become important to you. Well, they do to me, anyway.

And it was even more so in my youth. As an impressionable 8 year old, I fell in love with baseball and the Tigers. And there were four men that I considered to be my teachers of the game. They were George Kell, Al Kaline, Ernie Harwell, and Sparky Anderson. Kell and Kaline were the TV commentators when I was growing up, Ernie was the legendary radio announcer, and Sparky was the colorful general on the field. And I adored all of them.

George passed away first on March 24, 2009. Ernie went next on May 4, 2010. And Sparky left us on November 4, 2010. In a little over a year, three of the four men that taught me the game all died. And while my sadness over this could never compare to those who actually knew and loved these gentlemen, I was still heartbroken over their passings.

As hard as it has been to watch Higginson and Ordonez decline in skill, nothing can compare to hearing your heroes have died. George, Ernie, and Sparky touched thousands and thousands of people’s lives in their decades they spent in the game. And some might feel that myself or any fan is silly to feel so close to people they only knew through a TV, a radio, or whatnot. But not me.

No, these men were a huge part of making me the fan I am today. They taught me the game of baseball, which went on to be a big part of my life whether it was playing for six years as a kid, watching for 25+ years, writing this silly blog, or passing on what I know to my young son. In fact, I can’t imagine being near the fan I am today if it weren’t for them and their lessons.

Is that stupid? To be honest, I really don’t care what anyone thinks. Every fan becomes a fan for a different reason. George, Ernie, and Sparky were three of the biggest in me becoming one. And I can’t thank them enough for it.

Rest in peace, gentlemen.

So that was the heartbreak. In a day or so, the triumph.

Click here to go to Part Two, The Triumph.

8 comments:

Adolan said...

Great article. 2003 was awful, but  you really tapped into something with the frustration of 1998-- seeing guys like Justin Thompson, Higginson,  and even Brian Hunter just collapse in spectacular fashion after the promising 1997 season was somehow even more painful. Personally, I attended 23 games that year and saw the tigers go 4-19. 

Derek Schwanger said...

Awwwwww....Scott. Ya ole softy, you....

Eric said...

I sincerely hope you include Juan Gonzalez not signing an extension here as one of the triumphs in the next article. 

Good read.  "Touch em all, Cecil Fielder.  You just hit another Faygo homerun."

The Eric said...

I'm a little younger but the 2008 start was bad.

H2OPoloPunk said...

I've always considered being a Tiger fan masochistic. 

Joey said...

You seem to have forgotten that the leadoff triple for Cuddyer in game 163 was in fact Raburn's fault. The ball was hit in front of him, he dove for it, missed, and Cuddyer ended up on third when he should've been on first.

Wm Westbrook said...

The wonderful 1987 season had that dagger-strike moment at the end, when Darrell Evans was picked off third after former Tiger Juan Berenguer's first pitch in game four of the playoffs, stifling a rally and as good as burying the Tigers -- for 19 years! That might have been my most painful moment as a fan. But I was around for 1968 and 1984 and the 11-year run (1978-88) of winning seasons. And what I remember about the terrible seasons from 1994 through 2005 is that, in addition to having had the good luck to live outside the country for nearly half of it, I had pretty good luck in the games I saw. The woebegone 1996 squad? I was at Yankee Stadium for a 13-7 win over the eventual World Champions. And I saw the 1998 team beat the Yankees in 17 innings (a five-hour-plus first game of a Monday twi-night doubleheader). In 2005 I took a train down to Baltimore and saw the Tigers sweep the Orioles (who at the start of the series were 30-16) to climb to the very edge of .500. And farther back, in 1989, as the Tigers were losing 12 of their last 15 games, I was passing through Detroit and caught a game against the eventual division champ Blue Jays. The Tigers scored three in the ninth to win, 5-4. I suppose I've blacked out the rest . . . 

Wm Westbrook said...

And what was Granderson doing so far off first in the ninth?