PENNANT FEVER! STICKY WEATHER, BUZZING CROWD AND SERIOUS BASEBALL – NOW THIS IS SUMMER

As any chased rabbit can tell you, running from in front is not much fun. You can hurt yourself looking over your shoulder. And no doubt there are a few sore necks this morning, after the White Sox pounded the Tigers on Tuesday night to gain a game in their chase. But keep reminding yourself, folks, this is baseball – not hockey, not basketball, not, as Tigers manager Jim Leyland reminded reporters with a set jaw, “college football.”

The national pastime cranked up for real in Detroit with this game, foot to the pedal, hands locked on the wheel. Oh, sure, the Tigers have been gunning it hard since Opening Day. But it took awhile for the rest of us to hear their engines. First there were hockey playoffs, and then there were basketball playoffs, and then Steve Yzerman left, and then Ben Wallace left, and anyhow, all along, there was the little devil on your shoulder whispering: “Don’t believe it. They can’t keep it up. They’re the Tigers, remember?”

But now hockey and basketball are long over, and famous players have stopped leaving, and now there is baseball, just baseball, a groomed grass highway, for the rest of the summer.

And look who was in town, just a week after the All-Star Game: The White Sox, the second-place team with the first-place image. The Sox had stumped the first-place Tigers so far this season, winning five of six games. So the challenge to the Tigers was clear: the stage is all yours now. Prove yourself.

Oops.

No, a 7-1 loss is not the way you want to start the prime time show – especially a flat offensive night for a team that is rarely flat on offense. Never mind that the Tigers could lose this entire series and still be in first place. Never mind that the White Sox had lost five of their last six coming in and were just swept by the Yankees – another trailing team some think is better than the Tigers.

None of it seems to matter to skeptics who are sure the Tigers’ big rock candy mountain will melt into syrup under the late summer heat. How do you prove them wrong?

Easy.

You win.

Oops.

One game in a marathon

“We made some bad pitches, and they hit them out of the ballpark,” Leyland said, summing up the night. Paul Konerko, a playoff MVP last year, smacked two home runs, and Jermaine Dye, the World Series MVP last year, logged two doubles and made a diving catch in rightfield, and Jon Garland, who started a World Series game last year, frustrated the Tigers all night long.

And the White Sox, reigning champions of baseball, galloped back to the hotel with a blowout.

But we need to remind sports fans around here that certain habits must be broken if we’re going to go back to watching all this baseball. First habit: One game means nothing. No. We mean it this time.

Sure, with the Red Wings, you lose that one playoff game and you start to panic. Sure, with the Pistons, you lose that opener and there goes the home court.

But remember what you may have forgotten since 1987, which was likely the last time a baseball series made a difference in this city. One game in baseball is like one chocolate chip in the cookie. Sure, you’d like to have it. But you’re not giving up on dessert.

“I said before, whether we swept three or got swept three, it’s not gonna be the end of the world.” Leyland said. “But you know, it’s been a little dull around here the last few years, so I don’t blame anyone for getting excited about it and making it a big series.”

That we did. Reporters swarmed like a playoff series. Questions abounded about “pressure” and “rivalry” and “frustration” and “monkeys on your back.”

You know what?

It was great.

OK, we’ve taken notice

“Did you sense that the city was making a big deal about this series?” someone asked Brandon Inge after the game.

“I did when I looked up the stands in the fifth inning and saw not too many seats open on a Tuesday night,” he said, grinning. “I think back a couple years ago, a weekday game … there were not too many people in the seats.”

There were people in the seats Tuesday. A sellout. And tickets are scarce for the rest of the week. Even Ozzie Guillen, the White Sox manager, made a note of it:

“I’ve been saying since 2004 this team is going to be good the next couple of years,” he told reporters. “They are now, and nobody gives me any credit for that. …

“I look in the paper this morning. Finally you guys pay attention to this ballclub again, since 1984. … It’s nice to see the front page of the paper. …”

Well. Let’s be fair. It wasn’t 1984. Maybe 1987.

Anyhow, this isn’t about that. This is something new. Something big. Something great for this town. Yes, the Tigers will need to put these Chicago guys down at some point. They don’t need to dominate them, but they can’t be to the White Sox what the Royals are to them. Otherwise this season is about fighting for a wild card spot at best.

But there are 12 more games between these two teams, and something tells me the White Sox aren’t going to win 11 of them.

So, sure, your neck hurts a little. Sure, the front is a lonely place to be. But the Tigers should keep their foot on the pedal and their eyes on the long summer – and all the chances it offers.

Like, oh, say, tonight.

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).

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