It was a thick and showery September night, full of farewell hugs between vendors in the hallways and a promising baseball team looking out at October.
A suddenly wide-open October.
“I didn’t make any plans for next week, just in case,” Justin Verlander said before the final home game of the season. “I didn’t want to jinx anything.”
It didn’t help. Detroit officially was eliminated from the postseason Wednesday, as the Yankees, playing 1,000 miles away, beat Tampa Bay to seal the wild card, while the Tigers watched the rain fall at Comerica Park.
It was a bad pitch one night in August, an untimely strikeout another night in July. You add this loss and that loss and you get a handful, and a handful is enough to cost you the playoffs.
No Miracle On Woodward this time.
“It’s definitely a disappointment,” said Verlander, whose first full season, last year, ended in a World Series. “But if you look at what we went through, it’s amazing with four games left we still weren’t mathematically eliminated. I think that stands to show that we’re not a one-year-and-bust team.”
And that is why no one in Detroit seems too upset. It wasn’t for lack of trying. There were a few key injuries, one very bad bullpen stretch and a brick wall of a team down in Cleveland. That’s acceptable.
At least for this season
The pain of all those injuries
Sean Casey, unlike Verlander, has been through this before. He is 33, on his fourth team. Casey called his wife last week, told her to arrange for their oldest son to get out of school so that he could come watch the playoffs.
“Now,” he said, laughing, “I’ll be going to them instead of them coming to me.”
Casey is a free agent. Before the game, he wondered if this would be the last time he used his locker. He wants to return. “I love Detroit. The toughest part is knowing how good a team we have here and not getting to be part of the playoffs. Cleveland beat us to the division, the Yankees got hot when we were scuffling a bit, and that turns out to be the difference.”
You looked around the room and realize how close they came. There was Gary Sheffield, whose injuries were costly. And Kenny Rogers, who never really got started this season. There were Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney, who missed chunks of the year.
But there was also Verlander, who last year was 17-9 and this year is 18-6. There was Curtis Granderson, who went from hitting .260 last year to .300 in his second full season. There was Magglio Ordonez, who should win the batting title, a first for a Tiger in nearly half a century.
There was a team.
And if the team fell short, well, the team will be back.
The revival of a baseball city
Down the hall, manager Jim Leyland was being asked about a contract extension. He admitted, after prodding, he had “a meeting with Mr. Dombrowski” set for Monday. They would be foolish not to ink this thing for longer.
There is something special going at the ballpark. They blew up the attendance mark. There are fans and expectations now and a level of excellence that is becoming the norm. Wednesday, after a nearly 90-minute rain delay, the Tigers came right out and tied the game with a towering home run by Mike Hessman – then scored five more runs in the inning. Thousands of wet fans who wouldn’t go home stood and clapped to a drumbeat – even though the game meant nothing.
“You know, when I first got here,” Verlander said, “I took a taxi from the airport and the driver said, This is a baseball town that’s sleeping. You guys start playing well, the fans will come out of the woodwork.’
“There’s really been an uprising and to have the seat I have and to see it soldout most nights, it’s incredible.”
They watched their hopes die as they waited in the rain, stranded on the dock, a few victories shy of passage. But these are not your old Tigers. They deserve to be thanked, and to be told that next year, we expect they will do better – both of which they will appreciate.
“Did you ever see that cabbie again?” Verlander was asked.
“No,” he laughed.
He probably can’t get tickets.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).