Thursday, September 1, 2011

Being a Tigers Fan, Part Two: The Triumph

Welcome to part two of this Detroit Tigers “Heartbreak and Triumph” bit. And even though today was a frustrating loss, the Tigers-Royals series finale was a perfect game for what I’m trying to say in these two pieces. The Tigers fell behind quickly…ugh. They kept fighting back…yay! The aging, benched hero Magglio Ordonez thrilled the crowd with two doubles, a steal of third (!), and a home run. And finally, a rookie was brought in to make his major league debut in the most important part of the game, only to give up a two-run, go-ahead, game winning single to the Royals.

Lots of emotions today. And that’s what baseball’s all about to us diehards. Yesterday, I covered my personal most heartbreaking moments as a Tiger fan. Tonight, I’ll relive the moments we live for and what keeps us watching baseball.

These are my five favorite moments since I began watching the Tigers so many years ago.


JV Makes History

June 12, 2007

The first no-hitter I ever saw from beginning to end was Randy Johnson doing the deed to the Tigers on June 2, 1990. What an awful, helpless feeling that was. I didn’t care how awesome Johnson was that day. All I wanted was to know what it was like to be on the other side and feel the rush of one of my guys tossing a no-no. Sadly, the chances of a Tiger doing so (other than Jack’s in 1984, a year before I began my fandom) seemed quite remote with the clowns in our rotation.

17 years and 37 no-hitters (including another by Johnson and two by Nolan Ryan) later, I finally got my chance. Justin Brooks Verlander, in only his second full season, no-hit the Milwaukee Brewers while striking out 12 and hitting 102 mph on the radar gun at one point. It was the first no-hitter in the history of Comerica Park, too.

Seventeen years is a long time to wait for something. And as the innings piled up and the tension got thicker and thicker, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was fidgeting around, not wanting to talk/move, and getting angry at the people that called or texted me to see if I was watching. Of course I was watching, your jerks. Go to hell and leave me alone. History was happening here.

Looking back, much of the game is a blur to me now, as I was just in awe of JV that day as the outs kept racking up. It got real in the 8th when the crowd roared as Gabe Gross grounded into a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning. Only one more inning left.

The ninth saw Verlander strike out Craig Counsell on 4 pitches as the Tiger fans in attendance (and at home) let out a thunderous cheer. That got even louder three pitches when JV K’d Tony Graffanino, too. Only JJ Hardy remained, and on an 0-2 count, Hardy lifted the fly ball to Magglio Ordonez in right and the epic celebration was on. Justin Verlander tossed a no-hitter. Holy hell.

Seeing him do it again this year was awesome, don’t get me wrong. But the first one will always be special to me as I had watched every start of the guy’s career at that point, and it just felt cool as hell to follow a guy from his debut against the hated Indians up to joining the history books. JV was a made man that day and has only become more and more dominant since then on his journey to become the greatest Tigers pitcher of all time.

Big Daddy Hits 50

October 3, 1990

Until the nightmare of 2003, I didn’t think things could get any worse as a baseball fan than they were in 1989. Just two years after winning the AL East, the Tigers were beyond awful, finishing the season in last place at 59-103. ’89 saw a major power outage in Detroit, as with the exception of Lou Whitaker’s 28 round-trippers, no one on the team had jack or squat for any power. In fact, only two other guys on the team managed double-digit homers that year, Fred Lynn (11) and Mike Heath (10). They were a pathetic bunch and needed to find some pop from somewhere…anywhere.

That anywhere turned out to be Japan. A MLB afterthought named Cecil Fielder had hit 38 homers for the Hanshin Tigers in 1989. Fielder had previously been seen playing part time for the Toronto Blue Jays in the late-eighties, but he wasn’t going to get any steady field time with a young Fred McGriff around and manning first base. Thus, Fielder went to Japan where he was given a raise of around nine times his Toronto salary, a personal chauffer and translator, and most importantly, a chance to play every day.

As I said, Fielder responded well and hit some long balls in Japan, earning the nickname “Wild Bear” from the Japanese fans. You see, in Japan “wild” is the image of power and “bear”, well, that was because Cecil was a big dude. Anyway, the Tigers had nothing to lose and signed Fielder for the 1990 season. And boy, was he a big hit back in the States…especially in Detroit.

Cecil, now nicknamed “Big Daddy” by the Tiger fanbase, was an offensive force. Homer after homer left Tiger Stadium, including one that left LITERALLY. On August 25th, Cecil became the first Tiger in history to hit a ball over the left field roof, a truly gargantuan blast. Only Harmen Killebrew, Frank Howard, and Mark McGwire, all visiting players, have also done it. Fielder’s homers made him a local and national hero out of Detroit. His gigantic smile and good nature didn’t hurt, either. In fact, it was Cecil that helped me rediscover my love of Tiger baseball, as though I still rooted for Detroit every day, I was paying more and more attention to Jose Canseco and the Bash Brothers of Oakland with the Tigers losing so much. Cecil made Tigers baseball exciting again.

And as the season was drawing to a close, Cecil had a chance to do something that hadn’t been done since George Foster in 1977…hit 50 homers in a season. At that point, only ten men in history had hit the 50 home run plateau and no Tiger had done it since Hank Greenberg in 1938. Everyone was behind Cecil and his march toward 50 and on the last day of the season, October 3rd, “Big Daddy” lumbered into Yankee Stadium with 49 homers and looked to make history.

Sparky Anderson, bless him, batted Fielder second that day to try and maximize his chances at getting enough at bats to hit his goal. Yankee starter Steve Adkins (who?) walked Fielder in the first, before allowing a grand slam to cleanup hitter, Gary Ward. With the score still 4-0 in the fourth and Tony Phillips on first, Cecil unloaded on one and hit number fifty into the left field bleachers. Your 13 year old Party Host and, I’m sure, thousands of other Tiger fans, went crazy as the big man, the new Tiger hero, had hit the unthinkable goal.

After striking out in the 6th (something else Big Cec was good at), he got one last encore in the 8th against Alan Mills. Make it 51 as Cecil plated himself, Darnell Coles, and Phillips again to make it a 10-2 Tigers romp. Jack Morris would finish the game with a complete game as Detroit pulled it out, 10-3.

The Tigers were still losers, finishing the season 79-83 and in third place. But baseball was back in Detroit and so was I. No more entertaining the thoughts of cheating with another team, no matter how cool (and apparently roided up) Canseco, McGwire and the A’s were.

I have Cecil Fielder to thank for that. But hey, if I was an A’s fan today, at least I could still cheer for Scott Sizemore! Ha…


September 1987

As I said before, 1985 was my first season as a Tiger fan. But 1987 was what got me hooked.

The year started out in typical Tigers fashion. After 30 games, they were 11-19. But by September, they were in a dogfight with the Blue Jays for first place. The two teams would square off in seven crazy games during the final two weeks of the season. All of them were decided by one run, and in the first six, the winning run was scored in the last inning.

Detroit entered the final week 3.5 games behind the Jays. After a series against Cal Ripken’s Orioles, the Tigers returned home trailing by a game and ended up sweeping Toronto to the joy of Tiger Town. Detroit clinched the division in a 1-0 victory over Toronto in front of 51,005 fans at Tiger Stadium on October 4, as Frank Tanana went all nine innings for the complete game shutout, and outfielder Larry Herndon gave the Tigers their lone run on a 2nd inning solo shot. Sparky Anderson’s crew finished the season at 98-64, two games ahead of Toronto before losing to the stupid Twins in the ALCS.

But what I remember most about ’87 was Alan Trammell. The Tiger shortstop had the finest season of his border-line Hall of Fame career hitting .343/.402/.551/.953 with 34 doubles, 28 homers, 105 RBI, 21 stolen bases, a 155 OPS+, and a WAR of 8.4. Trammell became my new favorite Tiger that year, an “honor” he would hold until a polarizing figured named Bobby Higginson came along a little less than a decade later and won over my cold, black heart.

My first favorite Tiger had been Kirk Gibson. Gibby just seemed like the coolest guy on the planet and I worshipped him. Lance Parrish was another early favorite since we both caught and batted cleanup, though looking back, I suspect he was a little better than pre-teen/early-teen Rogo behind the dish. But as awesome as Gibson was and as much as I thought I identified with Lance, Trammell became the player I always wished I could be. His bat, his flawless defense, and the way he carried himself…I thought he was the greatest player alive and hated the O’s Ripken and the Cardinals’ Ozzie Smith for getting all the headlines when it came to shortstops.

Well, ’87 was Trammell’s year to shine. And in those final games against Toronto at Tiger Stadium, I’ll never forget the sellout crowds on their feet chanting “MVP, MVP” every time Tram came to the plate. Trammell was larger than life at that point and I was unknowingly hooked on baseball forever at that point.

He also got robbed by the voters. George Bell of the Jays ended up winning the MVP that year with Trammell finishing second. Bell hit .308/.352/.605/.957 with 47 homers, 134 RBI, an OPS+ of 146, and a WAR of 5.0. Bell was a beast that year, don’t get me wrong, but taking all factors into account, Tram still should have won the award.

Two years later, I met Alan Trammell at a baseball card show and got him to autograph his rookie card for me. It’s scary to meet your heroes, especially as a kid, since you never really know how they’ll be in real life. When you put a guy on a pedestal, it doesn’t take much to make them fall off in your eyes. Luckily, Tram didn’t disappoint as he was kind, talked to me for a minute, and thanked me. It was a moment I’ll never forget, just like those MVP chants.

Bobby Does It Again

Early 2000’s

Yeah, yeah, yeah…Bobby Higginson is my favorite player of all time. Hardy har har. Kiss my ass. But there’s a good reason for that.

In the late 90’s/early 00’s, there was a stretch of at least six games that I attended where Higginson hit a homer in each of them. In late 2004, when he was supposedly “finished”, he had two games in a three-game set at Chicago where he homered twice in each game. I’ll never forget him pointing into the dugout after his second bomb in one of them…awesome. Countless big hits were delivered by Bobby over the years that revisionist historians have blocked out as they’ve made him the scapegoat of those awful teams he played on. In fact, over his career, Higginson never played on a Tiger team that finished over .500. But he was the lone bright point for the majority of a decade of Detroit baseball. He just had so many little moments that registered with me and that's why I will never forget him, no matter what anyone (almost constantly) tells me different about him.

But one Higginson moment stands out over any other…well, despite the fact that I can’t remember exactly when it happened. 1998-2004 (or so) are kind of a blur to me due to all the partying I did back then. But this happened somewhere in there, I’m sure of that much. Ha...

Here’s the backstory drama. A buddy of mine was into this girl that didn’t feel the same way about him. And she made that clear to him and he said he was cool with it. Liar. Anyway, this girl had a thing for me, though, and why wouldn’t she? I’m quite charming when I’m not eagerly trying to pick out a girl’s insecurities and exploiting them. But I turned down going out with her for a while for two reasons. One, I didn’t want to upset my friend. Two, she had a voice that sounded like Snarf from the Thundercats (look it up on youtube or something, kids). But finally, one night, I gave in and went out with her.

We were at some club or whatever and another friend of mine saw us and stopped by and said hello. Apparently, he left soon after, went to my regular bar hangout, and saw the buddy of mine that had the crush on this girl. He told him that we were there together, dude gets pissed, comes to the club we’re at, and comes over and tells me what I can do with myself. I really felt bad since the dude was probably my best friend at the time. Later that night, I backed into something, ripped the back bumper off my car, and when told I was in an accident of some kind, my friend was heard to remark “Good…I hope he dies.” Fun stuff. Postscript… I never did anything with that girl. I felt too guilty. Ahh, the good old days when I still had feelings.

Back to baseball. A few weeks later, my friend and I still aren’t speaking, but we find each other sitting at our local hangout on opposite sides of the bar with the Tigers game on TV. It’s a close one and Detroit is down going to the bottom of the 9th. We spent the whole game not acknowledging each other, but then Higginson came up. We both exchanged glances. A minute later, Bobby goes yard with a walkoff homer. We both jumped to our feet cheering like lunatics, looked at each other, and ran at each other like a couple of goofs and started hugging.

Yes, Bobby Higginson brought me and my friend back together again, and we’re still close to this day. Only in sports can something so silly, yet so important, happen, I think.

Baseball can be magic.


October 14, 2006

What else would I put here? Geez.

The 2006 ALDS was amazing. I never thought we stood a chance against the heavily favored Yankees and their lineup. But Kenny Rogers and company wouldn’t be denied and the Tigers advanced to the ALCS against Oakland and I was on cloud nine.

After getting out to a 3-0 series lead over the A’s, thanks in part to another Rogers masterpiece (making him an all-time Tigers legend in my mind), I was sitting in my office at work thinking to myself, “I have to be there for this.” I knew I would hate myself if the team won the series the following night in Detroit and I wasn’t there. But the night before the game, I’m not going to score tickets to the biggest baseball game in Detroit in 20 years, right?

So I called my buddy (dude from the Higgy story) and we talked about how cool it would be to go to Game 4. As we’re dreaming out loud, for poops and giggles, I went onto Stubhub to see what tickets were going for. As expected, they were outrageous. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt that we had to be there. We NEEDED to be there. The Tigers NEEDED us to be there. You know, the normal irrational thoughts that psycho baseball fans think.

And then I saw them…two tickets down the third base line halfway in between the bag and the left field fence. Third row. Around $300 each, if I remember correctly, and not a bad price for being so close to the field in a playoff game. Without saying a word to my friend, I got out my credit card and bought them. Then I told him and he freaked saying he couldn’t afford a ticket. I said screw it, he can pay me whenever…we NEED TO BE THERE.

And we went. Though I had been there dozens of times, I had never seen Comerica Park as crazy as it was that night. We all had our silly white homer hankies and were bundled up since it was freezing that night. But I didn’t care. I was convinced that we were going to witness history and we were meant to be there.

Oakland touched Jeremy Bonderman up early to take a 3-0 lead. At that point I wanted to die after dropping $600 that I really had no business spending in the financial shape I was in. But in the 5th, Brandon Inge reached on an error, and Curtis Granderson and Craig Monroe hit back-to-back doubles to narrow it to 3-2. The CoPa was jumping. In the 6th, Magglio Ordonez hit a solo shot to tie it at 3 and 43,000 people were all starting to believe in destiny again in the stands.

In the bottom of the 9th, it’s beyond freezing outside and still tied 3-3. Oakland’s closer Huston Street got two quick outs out of Marcus Thames and Curtis Granderson. I can’t remember ever being as nervous as I was right then…I can’t imagine what the players were feeling. But Craig Monroe came up with two down and singled. Comerica started rocking again. Placido Polanco, who was AMAZING in the playoffs up to that point, followed with another single. And that brought up Magglio again. I was no longer feeling the cold.

On a 1-0 pitch, surrounded by a sea of waiving white towels, Magglio Ordonez swung at Street’s offering. When my buddy tells the story, he always says “I heard the crack of the bat and Rogo’s voice saying ‘holy fuck, it’s gone, and then the place went nuts.’” And indeed it was.

Pandemonium broke out. Strangers were hugging strangers. My buddy’s was crying like a small child. An old man a row away was crying, too, saying how he never thought he’d live to see this again. Joel Zumaya jumped into the stands and our faces were a foot apart as we both screamed “fuck yeah” at each other. The Tigers celebrated on the field as the Detroit faithful continued to do the same in the stands. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of and probably never will again. The Tigers were going to the World Series.

We stayed and watched the AL Championship trophy presentation. When it was over, we headed for the main exit, but I stopped and turned around. I walked back out into the stands behind home plate and just took it all in one last time. At that point I began to cry.

Only in baseball. Magglio forever, man. Magglio forever.

Heartbreak and triumph, kids. That’s what baseball is all about as a fan. And with a month to go, we’re headed toward one or the other, you can count on that. That feeling in 2006 was unlike anything I’ve ever felt in my life. It was better than any drug (and I did my share back in the day), better than sex, better than anything I’ve ever felt, with the possible exception of a sappy, tender moment with my kid that’s none of anyone’s business…but the point is, I want to feel it again. And I want you all to, as well.

Bring it home, boys.

Okay, this was a lot of serious stuff the past two days. Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed it.

Don’t worry, I’ll come up with something juvenile and stupid over the weekend to get back to normal around here. I don’t want you all thinking I’ve gone all respectable or anything...


Garret Craig said...

Thanks for this. Both parts. Thought I would just skim through, but I couldn't stop reading. Great stuff, and as a much younger fan (17), I can only hope that the triumphs of my future fandom rival these.

$300? What a bargain. I only vaguely remember watching Ordonez' walk-off shot, but I have an image of 12-year-old me standing in my living room watching with my dad. At my age, I'm almost positive I didn't fully grasp how meaningful the game was, but I knew enough to know I wasn't missing it--and I wasn't going to let my Dad miss it either. I believe I was standing when Maggs hit it out, and I probably had been for the whole half-inning. As soon as the ball left that bat, I stumbled backwards into my chair and as soon as the shock of the moment wore off; I promptly began screaming like a little girl.

Since that iconic moment, my following of baseball has steadily increased to it's peak this season (I watched most of the games in seasons prior, but never as passionately or as knowledgeably).

I remember being elated watching the final few outs of Justin Verlander's first no-no, and I remember the looks I got from our visiting family friends who just didn't understand. Of course, I also recall the lows of the final days of the 2009 season. I had watched the game with my Grandpa, I believe, and at the game's conclusion, I immediately got up to leave and I think I exclaimed angrily something to the effect of "see you next season." I watch most games with my Grandpa, and the other astronomical low in my experience with the Tigers was June 2, 2010. I was on my way home from somewhere and before turning on the radio I had no clue what was going on. I told my Mom, who was driving, to step on it; she knew I was serious. I blew off friends who wanted me to help them load something they were borrowing from us and sprinted into my Grandparents' (next door) to hopefully witness the conclusion of Armando Galarraga's perfect game. What happened next I need not describe, of course, but it induced the biggest rage-filled sports-related (and probably not sports-related) rant I can remember uttering which included the closest to expletives I could ever speak in front of my Grandparents.
I don't care where I am or what I'm supposed to be doing. I will not miss one second if the Tigers make the playoffs this year. Can't miss a moment like the ones you just described, and I would never trade any of the experiences I've had with this team. That includes the lows--they make the highs feel higher.

JacksTigers said...

That was your best piece Rogo. I loved the description of Maggs homerun. It made me think of being 10 and jumping/screaming while my 5 year old bro followed suit even though he had no idea what was going on. It might have been the happiest couple of minutes of my life. And it is something that I will never forget.

JacksTigers said...

Wait. You're 17. I'm 15. This blog has a much younger fanbase than I thought it did.

Laura said...

I almost cried reading both of these pieces. Amazing work, Rogo! Our boys need to add another section to The Triumph by winning the pennant this year.

Jeffrey Sparbeck said...

Rogo - you outdid yourself with this one.  Especially the 2006 piece and the "Maggs" moment that will forever be burned into the brains of every Tiger fan.

My story on that particular moment.  My brother and I had split a package of playoff tickets with an old friend of ours so that we had every other playoff game that year.  We had just witnessed the glorious termination of the Yankees the Saturday before, and would later attend our first WS game the following week -- the brilliant "pine-tar" game with Kenny Rogers on the hill.

We also had tickets for what would later become the Maggs game.  I had 

Marty Kissell said...

Great work, Rogo -- both the Heartbreak and the Triumph pieces.  I, too, was at the game when Maggs hit that unbelievable shot -- what a crazy, out-of-control, joyous moment!  Thanks for bringing that feeling back.  Here's to many more ...

Epalicki said...

I had a chance at a free ticket to game 4 of the '06 ALCS, but I'd already commited to a friend's bachelor party. I remember sitting at Fricker's when Maggs worked his magic in the 9th and thinking, "Fuck. I coulda been THERE."

SRogo said...

Hooray...I'm helping to corrupt the youth of America. Just don't ask me to buy you guys beer, okay?

Jason Sparks said...

Great. Both pieces brought me to tears. Way to be serious. Jerk.

ManTiger said...

Wow Rogo. Amazing.

Your heartbreak post made me very upset. In fact it ruined my day.

Three of the triumph stories literally gave me chills. I have been in a good mood all day since reading it the first time this morning. The second time through it was nearly as good.

You have effectively doubled my level of excitement for the rest of this season, and my excitement level was already staggeringly high. Buckle up!

Wm Westbrook said...

I paid about $130 for a $48 ticket to game two of the ALDS at Yankee Stadium,  only to sit in the rain for three hours (we still got the national anthem, by DeLeon Sheffield, and the ceremonial first pitch, by Paul O'Neill, but that was the extent of the entertainment). I thought I was severely out of luck, given that I had a day job that required me to be in on Thursdays. (I asked a Yankee employee on the way out what I was supposed to do, and she said the ticket was exchangeable for one the next season, up to its $48 face value . . . ) But a deeply understanding supervisor -- when I called as I was walking out of the stadium, he didn't answer the phone with "Hello," but with "You want tomorrow off?" -- saved me from my financial folly, and the game the next afternoon was all I could have asked for. I really think the Tigers might have lost the night before. Yankee Stadium was at its most intimidating in the darkness and foul weather, and the fans likewise. It was a different crowd the next day -- a lot more kids -- and in the beautiful autumn sunshine the place actually seemed friendly. My best day as a Tigers fan.

Tomrahl2002 said...

Rogo, saw your comments after saturday's game on BYB.  Does that game sneak into the top 5?  Speaking of top 5, these last two posts, Best/Worst, are in my top 5 Blog posts all-time, any Blog.  Nice job, man.

SRogo said...

It's close. Probably need to expand to ten moments.

And thanks.  Much appreciated.

Jay Hathaway said...

Kenny Rogers was such a beast in '06.  He was pissed--a man on a mission.  As Rod would say, "The Gambler is DEALIN'!"

Jen McDonald said...

Cecil was always my favorite Tiger..