BACK IN THE GAME!

Knock, knock. Come on out. Wipe your eyes. Adjust to the lights. It’s October, and tonight the Tigers, for the first time since Ronald Reagan was president, will compete in the playoffs.

Missed you, boys.

“It’s true?” says a fan, lifting the lid off the trashcan he has been hiding in.

“It’s true?” says a fan, crawling out of a tunnel beneath Tiger Stadium.

It’s true. Come on out. Lose that sackcloth and ashes. Drop that “Wait’ll Next Year” sign. Finally, October in Detroit means more than falling leaves and the mathematical elimination of the Lions. Finally, the sport that defined us in the mid-’80s has returned to grace an autumn.

Tigers-Yankees. Playoff baseball.

Missed you, boys.

True, we didn’t feel so great Sunday evening, after the Tigers blew the division crown with an extra-inning loss to – ugh – Kansas City. True, this team is not exactly approaching the playoffs like a herd of stampeding buffalo. More like a herd of grazing goats.

But the Tigers are in New York. They take on the Big Kahunas of baseball tonight, prime time, sexiest game on the playoff stage, where anything can happen. And let us not understate this moment. After six different managers, hundreds of different players, a new stadium, a new owner and 19 fruitless years, 15 of which were losing seasons, the Tigers are finally, once again, part of the baseball conversation.

“We’re really in?” says a fan, slipping out from behind the refrigerator.

“You’re not making this up?” says a fan, lifting a manhole cover.

Really in. Not making it up. Come out from the darkened corners where you’ve been hiding for nearly two decades. October is no longer someone else’s playground. And if the Yankees think the World Series is their manifold destiny, well, that destiny must now pass through the Motor City. And while the Tigers surely stumbled at the finish, they still won 95 games this year to the Yankees’ 97, hit nearly as many home runs and had a far better ERA.

Besides, our team has nothing to lose.

The Yankees have about $200 million worth of payroll to account for.

Shades of the good old ’80s

“I don’t think we’re going in there negative; I’d be surprised if we do,” manager Jim Leyland said Sunday night, discounting the stumbling regular-season finish. “It’s the first time for a lot of the guys. I’m sure they’re going to be excited and pumped up.”

If they aren’t, Tigers fans will compensate. Remember, the last time this happened, the Berlin Wall was standing, no one had a cell phone and coffee came in one flavor.

The last time this happened, “Dirty Dancing” was the hot movie, “A Different World” was the hot TV show, and we had never heard of Harry Potter or Hogwarts.

The last time this happened, Sparky Anderson was the Tigers manager. Jack Morris was the pitching ace. Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker patrolled the infield. Kirk Gibson still had hair.

The last time this happened, baseball was our sport, Detroit was a baseball town, and we expected a postseason way more often than we expected a presidential election.

Now, five presidential elections later, the Tigers finally have returned.

Missed you, boys.

“The main goal when you start spring training is to get to the playoffs,” said Craig Monroe, who was 10 the last time this franchise did that. “I’ve seen a lot of wild-card teams win. I like the chances with this team.”

We like that the team has a chance, period.

A nod to Bo, Cecil and Tram

Now, to folks in New York, the Tigers are just another squad to put in its place. The Yankees have beaten the Tigers five out of seven times this season. And thanks to George Steinbrenner’s bottomless pockets, they don’t have Murderers’ Row in their lineup, they have Murderers’ Section.

But New York’s pitching doesn’t bowl over anyone. And pitching is usually the story of these short, first-round series. The Tigers have not pitched well as of late, but they pitched well early. We will see if that magic comes back under the lights. There are a lot of young guns on this roster – Justin Verlander was 4 when the Tigers last had a playoff game, and Joel Zumaya was only 2 – but young guns can have some fresh success in the playoffs, or have we forgotten what a 23-year-old Josh Beckett did to the, ahem, Yankees in the 2003 World Series?

But before all that, before the first pitch is even thrown tonight, a moment for the futility the Tigers endured before turning this thing around. Consider the people who came through the transom in the last 19 years:

Tom Monaghan was the owner. Gone. Bo Schembechler was a team president. Gone. Randy Smith made countless bad moves as GM. Gone. Cecil Fiedler was going to home run the team to glory. Gone. Juan Gonzalez was going to save the franchise. Gone. Buddy Bell, Larry Parrish, Phil Garner and Luis Pujols were going to manage the team better. Gone. Alan Trammell was going to recapture the magic. Gone.

Everything was tried, from a new stadium to a new mascot to new announcers to new ad campaigns.

But finally – just three years removed from a team that had the most losses in American League history – the Tigers finished among the sport’s elite. As Leyland said of this year’s squad: “They played their (bleeps) off.”

Oh, yeah, we have the more colorful manager, too.

So when the Yankees look at their opponents tonight, they might see a bunch of guys in uniforms. But Detroiters see 19 years. We see the possibilities.

So come out from behind the drapes. Unfasten the attic door. The sleeping Tigers Nation has a reason to awaken. It’s called Autumn in New York.

“We have the opportunity,” Monroe said, “to do something special.”

Missed you, boys.

Now go kick some butt.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). He will sign copies of his new novel, “For One More Day,” at noon Friday at Starbucks at Maple and Lahser in Bloomfield Hills and at noon Saturday at Borders on Liberty in Ann Arbor. Albom will be appearing today on “The Early Show,” 7-9 a.m. on CBS (Channel 62 in Detroit).

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