It’s only Monday morning, but I have already forgotten Saturday night. Forgotten that disastrous third inning in Texas. Forgotten the bases-loaded hits, the nine runs, Brad Penny’s leaky pitching, Nelson Cruz’s insult-to-injury home run – even forgotten the Rangers’ on-field ginger ale celebration, happily spritzing each other en route to the World Series as the Tigers watched from the dugout, their faces blank with the gaze of What Could Have Been.
Sometimes it’s the show, sometimes it’s the tent. What I choose to remember this morning about the 2011 Tigers campaign is the way it pulled the state under its flaps, how we all crunched together and swayed in rhythm as one big baseball community, really, from midsummer on.
How people across the state would ask, “Is Verlander going tonight?” and make different plans if he was. How morning coffee would be spiced with laughter over Jose Valverde’s latest pitching mound shake. Inge – yes or no? Avila – amazing? Hey, this Fister guy is pretty good, huh? These were daily conversations from Alpena to Ypsilanti. One victory against a division foe in early September turned to two, three, four, six, eight, nine, a dozen straight – a run that turned even the most cautious fan into a true believer. The Tigers finished the regular campaign with a sure Cy Young winner (Verlander) and an American League batting champ (Miguel Cabrera) on their roster, and an argument for either to be MVP.
And then, the postseason.
Incredible October dramatics
It was a little bit of Noah, David, Goliath, maybe the walls of Jericho. Do you know how long those playoffs lasted? Just over two weeks. That’s all. Didn’t it feel much longer? Didn’t it feel like a season in itself?
Going back to the opening night in the Bronx against the Yankees, all that rain, the start, the stop, the pitching maneuvers, more rain, rescheduling, rejiggering, one game played over two days, the Game 1 pitchers in Game 3, the jaw-dropping stretch of seven strikeouts in nine batters by Verlander, the depressing 10-1 loss at home to force a finale in New York, and then that classic Game 5 in Yankee Stadium, Doug Fister holding down baseball’s most dangerous lineup in its favorite stadium, the whole thing ending with an Alex Rodriguez strikeout and a buoyant plane ride for the local guys.
And then the Texas chapter. Another rain story. Another early hole. Strange injuries. (Did everyone have oblique muscle problems?) Two losses in the Lone Star state. Extra innings. A crushing Cruz home run in the 11th. Then a comeback to Detroit. A crazed Comerica Park crowd. Fister tossing a gem. Cabrera, in that fateful Game 4, trying to tag home, thwarted by a brilliant Cruz throw from rightfield. Then a Cruz home run in the 11th to push Detroit to the brink. Then that amazing Verlander gut check last Thursday – 133 pitches of craft, speed and heart – to push the thing back to Texas, before it finally fell apart and the wheels came off, that endless third inning Saturday night, the Rangers circling the bases like ducks in a penny arcade.
Two weeks? Could all that really fit in just over two weeks?
The underdog stories we love
How many times did Jim Leyland say he has “never been prouder” of a team than this one? No matter what happens, he said in New York, he was proud. No matter what happens in Game 5 against Texas, proud. Game 6, same thing. Proud.
Leyland is not prone to hyperbole. He’s proud because he knows this wasn’t a perfect team. Not a lot of speed. Weak middle relief. Too many injuries at the wrong time. But as he always said, “We’re tough,” and when tough overcomes the odds, you tip your cap and, if you’re a manager, maybe get a lump in your throat. You certainly saw that when Leyland talked about Don Kelly, a guy who made every stop on the minor league board before getting a late shot at the majors – and, at 31, having a big postseason moment.
The Tigers had several guys like that, Kelly, Fister, Brandon Inge, Delmon Young – guys who had their doubters, but who proved worthy in the clutch. Detroit loves players like that, loves an underdog story. And during this baseball parade, the rest of the country jumped on that spirit as well. With the Lions going undefeated as the Tigers surged, it became vogue to report on “Detroit, the Rebirth!”
That’s silly, of course. Sports teams don’t mean urban renewal. It just feels that way sometimes. And this was – in addition to how the Tigers played – also about how we felt. And we felt good.
Sometimes it’s the show, sometimes it’s the tent. These Tigers were a great summer flap to be tucked under, all of us, together. You can forget Saturday night. Remember instead all that came before. See if it doesn’t feel good and warm, even as the team packs its bags and the chill of winter heads our way.