The day began with the feel of something big. People sipped their morning coffee thinking baseball, and they dressed in layers thinking baseball, and they came to the stadium on this October afternoon thinking baseball, baseball, baseball. It was football chilly, it was Hockeytown, but the ball and the bat ruled the day, in a way the ball and bat have not ruled this city in more than 20 years. It felt like destiny, like something special was going to happen.
And here, after a shaky start and a three-run deficit and a bases-loaded blown opportunity and a bases-loaded escape, here after almost every chance imaginable and the score still tied, here came the bottom of the ninth, two outs, two on – I mean, come on, is this perfect or what? -and here came your something big, folks, here came Magglio Ordonez, one of those free agents who a number of years ago might never have signed with the Tigers, and he smoked an 1-0 pitch so high and so far into the leftfield seats that he had time to watch, walk, raise a fist, then raise another fist, then run the bases pointing the new direction for this new era of Detroit baseball.
A team that three years ago suffered a classic fall was now going to the Fall Classic.
Today, the league.
Tomorrow, the world.
The Series? The World Series? The Tigers are going to the World Series? Hadn’t we given up on that phrase? Hadn’t that become a subset of words permanently associated with the past, like “horse and buggy,” like “five and dime”? Tigers and World Series? Not with Gibson and Trammell. Not with McLain and Lolich. With Polanco and Inge and Pudge and Kenny and Verlander and Maggs and Jonesy and Zoom and Guillen and Granderson and Monroe and the White Wizard, Jim Leyland?.
The Tigers swept Oakland four straight, they won every game by at least three runs (never happened in baseball history) and there is a banner with this one, oh yes, something tangible, finally, to mark this season of seasons.
The Tigers are finally champions of something beyond most of our imaginations: They own the American League. They will hoist at least one flag next spring. And having snagged one, they will go for two.
Today, the league,
Tomorrow, the world.
A timely comeback
As Ordonez circled the bases, his teammates surged from the dugout and gathered at home plate, leaping and cheering. The pitchers came racing out of the bullpen as if it were on fire. And they all waited for Ordonez to reach them, to officially touch the plate that lay in the middle of that maddeningly happy huddle.
Saturday night at the ballpark. A week earlier, Jeremy Bonderman threw a classic to beat the Yankees in the clinching game of that series. The night ended in champagne showers for everybody – fans included.
Now, one week later, same stadium, same starting pitcher, a bigger stake was on the line, the American League pennant. And here they were again, partying all over the outfield and infield.
How did they pull this off? It was every little thing. It was Brandon Inge’s beating out a ground ball and then racing to second when the throw went awry. It was Curtis Granderson’s stretching a single into a double with smoking speed, then scoring from second on Craig Monroe’s double. It was Jamie Walker coming into the game in the seventh and getting Mark Kotsay to strike out to end a threat.
But it wasn’t just what they did, it was what they survived. They survived a 3-0 deficit. They survived Oakland pitcher Dan Haren’s masterful control in the opening innings. They survived so many blown chances, none worse than the bases-loaded at-bat by Carlos Guillen in the bottom of the seventh. There was only one out, the place was on its feet, and Guillen did the one thing you simply can’t do when you’re trying to capitalize on that, ground into a double play to end the inning.
They survived that. They survived the next half-inning, when Jason Grilli walked three straight batters on 12 straight pitches. Three batters? Twelve pitches? Surely Oakland could take advantage of THAT, right?
Wrong. Wil Ledezma came in and got Marco Scutaro to foul out to end the inning and the game stayed tied. At that point, you felt the gods were simply horsing around, keeping it interesting, waiting until the perfect dramatic moment to bring a pennant to a pennant-starved city.
It came just before eight o’clock, after three hours and 20 minutes of baseball, after Monroe singled, and Placido Polanco singled. Ordonez, who had a solo homer earlier in the game, took his destiny pitch over the wall, and took half of this state with him.
Today, the league.
Tomorrow, the world.
Saturday night fever
Stop and consider what the Tigers have done to this point. A team that no one expected to make the playoffs burst into the first place and held it most of the season. Then, against everybody’s favorite playoff roster, the Yankees, they dropped one game, before storming through the next three. Against Oakland, a team that swept its way into the American League Championship Series, the Tigers won, 5-1; then, 8-5; then, 3-0; then finally, 6-3.
They won large and they won small. They won with timely hits, but mostly with strong pitching. Three of the four starters got credited with the victories, and Bonderman, after early jitters, pitched solid baseball to allow his teammates to catch back up.
And now, the World Series. It’s almost too much to fathom, one of those pinch-me things, except nobody wants to get pinched, because nobody wants to wake up.
They have reached the Promised Land – using one game more than the minimum required. Now a most unlikely team will represent the American League in the last step of the long, long, baseball journey.
From a messy collection of table scraps the Detroit Tigers have fashioned a seven-course meal, and they will sit down to it soon: It’s called the World Series. It starts on Saturday. That works for us. Saturdays in downtown Detroit are turning out of be a lot of fun around here, a lot of fun indeed.
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). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.