Politics & Policy

Burning Bright

My obsession with the Tigers.

On the night of my wedding, at the hotel, I insisted on turning on the tube to watch the final few outs of a baseball game. I’m happy to report that the Detroit Tigers beat the Toronto Blue Jays, which made the day just about perfect.

It’s been all downhill from there — I mean for the Tigers — until only recently. Thirteen years later, the Tigers have just finished their first winning season since Amy and I exchanged vows. Tomorrow night, they’re actually going to play in the 2006 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Amy knew that I was a baseball fan — not like the Jimmy Fallon character in Fever Pitch, but, you know, a little different when it came to the Tigers. Since the post-season began, my life has been a swirling vortex of obsession, anxiety, and exhilaration. Amy has recommended lamaze training, especially for those late-inning nail-biters.

The last 13 years of Tiger fandom have been, well, a tad challenging. There haven’t been any late-inning nail-biters, at least not in games that have mattered. In the 1980s, the Tigers won more games than any other club in the majors. In the 1990s, they lost more. Things hit rock bottom three years ago, when the Tigers lost their first nine games in a row, earned their second win in the 19th game of the season, and finished the year with 119 losses. In baseball, it’s said that you can expect to win a third of your games, lose a third of your games, and battle over the remaining third. In 2003, the Tigers came up short in the gimme column. (I wrote about the Tigers that year for NRO, here.)

But I didn’t complain, or at least not much. Being a Detroit sports fan is a blessing: Since the late 1980s, the Red Wings have won three Stanley Cups, the Pistons have won three NBA championships, the University of Michigan has won NCAA football and basketball titles, and Michigan State has won a basketball championship. Every year, it seems as if a couple of teams from the area put on a good show — they may not hoist trophies at the end of the season, but they keep things interesting.

For quite a while, the Tigers have been more like football’s long-suffering Lions than the others. Yet they provided good memories even when they struggled. Amy and I came up with the name for our first cat during a game at Tiger Stadium; in the batting order that day was a journeyman player named Skeeter Barnes. The final game at Tiger Stadium was unforgettable, thanks to Robert Fick’s rooftop homer and all the post-game hoopla. And there were a few times in spring training when the Tigers seemed like they might be ready to compete in August and September — in baseball, of course, hope springs eternal.

This year’s team proves conclusively that the simple act of hoping isn’t delusional. Sometimes a team really can do a lot better than everybody expects. At the start of each season, a friend of mine places a $1 bet on the Tigers to win the World Series. This year, the bookies gave him 100-1 odds. When the post-season started, ESPN asked 19 baseball experts to make predictions. None thought the Tigers would win it all. In fact, none thought the Tigers would advance beyond their divisional series against the Yankees, let alone the league championship series against the A’s. (For some reason, these predictions are no longer easy to find on the ESPN website.)

It is impossible not to like this year’s Tigers, from the core group of players who stuck it out through the miserable 2003 season (Bonderman, Inge, Monroe, Robertson, Rodney, Walker), to the youngsters who are becoming stars before our eyes (Granderson, Verlander, Zumaya), to the grizzled veterans who are finding new life after other teams had given up on them (Guillen, Jones, Ordonez, Polanco, Rodriguez, Rogers, Thames). Did you see the way they celebrated, on the field and with the fans, after beating the Yankees on October 7? I’ve watched less joyful championship parties, to say nothing of such exuberance after winning a first-round playoff.

In May, when it became clear that the Tigers were at least a good team, every edition of Baseball Tonight seemed to ask: “Can they keep it up?” Opinions varied. When they did indeed keep it up, the rap on them was that they could beat the weak teams but not the really good ones. In June, I went to a Yankees-Red Sox game at Yankee Stadium. This was a few days after the Yankees took three out of four games in Detroit. On the way into the stadium, a Yankee fan pointed at my Tigers cap and laughed. The Tigers actually had a better record than the Yanks, but they lacked swagger. Still, they kept on winning. When is a fluke no longer a fluke?

Then they slumped, badly. August and September were dreadful–not a fluke, but a continuing horror — as they squandered a huge divisional lead. The last three games of the regular season were at home against the Kansas City Royals, owners of the second-worst record in the majors. The Tigers needed to win just one of these games to clinch the Central Division. They dropped the first two, and then posted a six-run lead in the finale. Yet they couldn’t protect it and lost in extra innings. They surrendered the division title with a whimper and limped into the post-season as a wild card. Here’s how Filip Bondy of the New York Daily News forecast the five-game divisional series between the mighty Yankees and the lowly Tigers: “Lucky for (the Yankees), their first-round opponent isn’t hot, isn’t lukewarm, is practically DOA. The shattered Tigers are a perfect patsy, just happy to be here, wherever that is. Give them another two weeks, they would have finished in third place. Another two months, they’d be the Tigers of old.”

“The Tigers of old.” Those were the last words I wanted to hear. To be sure, the old-school Tigers weren’t so bad. I often tell people that every American boy deserves to have his favorite baseball team win the World Series. By this once-a-generation measure, the Tigers have done well: In 1945, they won the World Series when my father was a boy; in 1968, the won it when my big brothers were growing up; in 1984, they won it when I was a kid. In recent years, I’ve questioned whether they’d put it together while my brood still approaches sports in the wide-eyed wonder of childhood. Beating the Yankees with lights-out pitching was pretty sweet — take that, Filip Bondy! — and dominating the A’s in four straight was amazing. But the 2006 Tigers still need to win the World Series.

My oldest son is 9, and he’s beginning to wake up to the world of baseball. Last Saturday night, with game four of the American League Championship Series tied at 3 in the bottom of the 9th, and the Tigers just a win away from the World Series, the camera showed Tigers pitcher Todd Jones in the bullpen wearing a rally cap. Brendan saw this and turned his own cap inside-out as well. Then Magglio Ordonez stepped to the plate. For a couple of months, Brendan used a baseball card of Maggs for a bookmark. With two men on base and Oakland’s closer on the mound, Ordonez smashed a ball. It was one of those pretty shots that you know is a home run as soon as it leaves the bat. Ordonez stood at the plate, barely moving, and watched it sail into the left-field seats. Tiger fans everywhere went crazy, from Comerica Park in Detroit to the Miller family room in Virginia. It was another magical moment in what has been a magical season.

To make it perfect — to dispel the demons of 13-plus years, to give my son an enduring memory of how special baseball can be — the Detroit Tigers need to win just four more times. To get me through the next week or so, my wife has promised to be my lamaze coach.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.

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