by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

OK. Time’s up. Sparky Anderson said you can’t tell anything about a baseball team until 40 games have been played. Fine. Sunday was No. 40.

What can we tell about the Tigers?

Well. That depends. You want the optimistic version or the realistic one?

The optimistic version says this: Without Kirk Gibson, with a weird streak of poor pitching, with a weird streak of poor hitting by Lance Parrish, Larry Herndon and Alan Trammell, and with enough bumps, breaks and hamstring pulls to last a season, the Tigers have still managed to stay afloat. And from now on things will be better.

Of course, optimists always say, “From now on things will be better.” That is what makes them optimists. Realists look at the Tigers, look at the way they’ve lost 20 of 40 games, cluck their tongues and say, “This is a mediocre team, that’s all. By the way, my glass is half-empty.”

Which are you? Well, if every time the Tigers win two in a row a voice inside you says, “The magic is back,” you’re in the first category.

But the fact is, the Tigers have won two games in a row several times this season — they’ve even won three games in a row — and they’ve come back to lose just as many.

Forgive me for a moment. But I’m going to jump into the second category, the realistic one, and see how things look from in there. No championship chemistry

Well. It’s dark in here, for starters. On one wall are all the different lineups the Tigers have used this season. On another is a tote board of how many men the Tigers have left on base — 49 in the last six games alone. There’s the team ERA, painted in red. There’s a picture of Darrell Evans, who has hit nine homers, but driven in only 20 runs, and Willie Hernandez, whose glory is fading fast.

And a framed portrait of Sparky Anderson.

Ah yes. Whenever things go wrong in baseball, people point at the manager. Stop by any Detroit saloon or office watercooler these days and you’ll likely hear anti-Sparky sentiment. “He pulls pitchers too fast. He changes the lineup too much.”

Well. The manager doesn’t swing the bat or throw the pitch. Yes, perhaps Sparky has over-monkeyed with the lineup. In an effort to meet every statistical probability — lefty against righty, righty against lefty — he has overlooked a very human consequence: It is hard to build confidence and leadership in players who never know if they’ll be sitting this game out.

(Interestingly, in Saturday’s 4-1 win over the A’s — one of the better games the Tigers have played — the starting pitcher went the distance and the starting lineup remained intact.)

But — and this is a BIG but — that doesn’t explain everything. There is a chemistry lacking with the Tigers. The kind of thing that pounces on scoring opportunities, chews up teams on the road, and is convinced that the pennant was created with the Detroit insignia on it.

Without it, you can forget it. Where is the leader?

Say what you will about overrating Gibson, but Anderson’s hope for another spark plug when Gibson went down was wishful thinking:

Parrish, an obvious choice, was struggling; Evans has not been timely with his hits, and he is too quiet by nature; so are Herndon and Lou Whitaker;

Chet Lemon is a nice guy but not a man the team would rally behind; Trammell has seemed too involved with recovering his own confidence to worry about inspiring others; Darnell Coles is a rookie; Dave Collins is a newcomer, a quiet newcomer at that. So who does that leave you?

None of the players has been electric. The pitchers — excluding Walt Terrell and Jack Morris on occasion — have been less than inspiring, despite their rave reviews in spring training.

Recently, Anderson commented that the Boston Red Sox, who lead the AL East, exhibit that “special something” that already has given them “five wins in a row that they wouldn’t win in a normal year.” It’s that intangible something that is so far missing from the boys of Detroit.

Yes, Gibson should be back soon. And the Tigers have won their last two games — which means some of you are getting juiced up again. But this is not 1984. The more time passes, the more it becomes clear that 1984 was the weird year, not the years that have followed. Since then, the Tigers have specialized in inconsistency. What they shine in one day, they sink in the next.

So what is real? This is real: A .500 record would put the Tigers in a tie for first place in the American League West. Only they are in the American League East. In sixth place. And clawing back to the top of this division will be like climbing an iceberg. Slow, and slippery.

Forty are gone and 122 remain. Summer will be more fun if the optimists are right. But for now, I’m going to swallow hard and be realistic. It has taken the Tigers 40 chances to get back to square one. Forty more like this and the season is over.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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