by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Good news from the Home Opener! We saw some impressive arms down at Tiger Stadium!

Unfortunately, they were all throwing toilet paper.

And pizza boxes. And little plastic magnets. And, oh yes, beach balls. There were, according to one unofficial count, 22 beach balls tossed onto the field in the first inning alone. They bounced around, the game was stopped, security workers scooped them up, and the bleacher crowd roared.

Only in the ’90s could beach balls become social protest.

And that, supposedly, is what the debris was all about. A symbol of unrest. The anger of the Forgotten Fan. Of course, it could have just been some drunken kids with bad aim, but who’s to tell?

The bigger point is, baseball is back — sort of, kind of, creeping into Detroit the way it is creeping into a lot of other cities, like a dog that knows it has done something wrong.

The operative word is: Duck!

There were 39,398 fans announced at Tiger Stadium, and whoever did the counting, I want him doing my tax deductions. If there were 30,000 there Tuesday, it was a lot. Even the announced crowd is the lowest attendance for a Tigers home opener in 23 years.

And I’m not even counting the dozen or so fans who jumped the fence and ran onto the field, stopping the game over and over.

So what does this mean? Have we, as American sports fans, finally summoned the strength we were always told we had? Will we rise like the proletariat in the French Revolution, tossing off the yoke of oppression, fighting for our rights, demanding . . . demanding . . .

What are we demanding?

Come to think of it, if those fans really wanted to protest, why did they buy tickets? And why did they pay for beer? And where did they get all that toilet paper?

Is there some poor guy in a Tiger Stadium men’s room, right now, yelling,
“Hey, yo, I’ve got a little problem here . . . “

Let’s back up.

Winning back the fans

As the beach balls and fence-jumpers accumulated on the field Tuesday afternoon, many fans — and veteran sports writers — looked at their watches and moaned, “Great. Now this game is gonna take five hours.”

And that, if you ask me, will kill this sport quicker than all the labor disputes and giant contracts combined.

Yes, baseball has a huge problem on its hands right now, trying to win back the fan. First the strike took away last year’s World Series. Then it dragged us through a winter of bad news, it insulted us by promoting replacement players until the 11th hour this spring, then tossed them on the junk heap as the two sides agreed to play for real — but without solving the labor agreement that started this whole mess in the first place.

Which means, at any time, we are liable to start hearing words like
“lockout” and “revenue sharing” again — and, what’s worse, we are liable to start seeing Donald Fehr’s oily head on our TV screens, which has been proven by the surgeon general to be hazardous to your health.

To top it off, in the midst of all this karma, baseball has the audacity to pronounce itself “Back!” like some pompous Hollywood starlet. Did it figure by signing a few autographs and giving away some cheap tickets, the fans would

return like sheep?

Well, some of the sheep came back Tuesday. But as sheep tend to do, they dirtied the grass.

Crowd was pretty sparse

Now, the poor attendance in Detroit is significant, because more than any major league city except perhaps Cincinnati, Motown makes Opening Day a huge event. It is more than a game here, it is a rite of spring, a sure sign winter is over, the snow has melted, and in a few short weeks, the Tigers will once again have the highest ERA in the league.

So if you can’t draw for Opening Day in Detroit — and if the people you do draw are only interested in playing Trash Centerfield — you have a morale problem.

And losing the game 11-1 doesn’t help.

But longtime watchers of this sport — and I count myself in that category
— were reminded of something else Tuesday: the tortuous length and pace of the game. A nine-inning affair took three hours and 23 minutes to play.

NFL football games take less than that, and they’re just once a week.

NHL hockey is at least 40 minutes shorter, and NBA games are about an hour shorter, and both of those only demand your attention 80-some times per season.

Baseball gives you 162 marathons in a regular year. And while the players are paid as if it’s the year 2025, they’re playing a game that’s made for 1955. The pastoral grace that poets write about is wasted on the MTV generation. Batters stepping out to scratch themselves and pitchers shaking off a half-dozen signs are sure channel-switchers in the Age of the Clicker.

And that will kill it. Long after this labor thing has passed, and people have gone onto other problems, that will slowly sink baseball to the bottom. Oh, not this year. And maybe not so fast in cities where they build new stadiums. But kids are not playing this sport the way they once did, they are not watching this sport the way they once did, and those kids are only 15 to 20 years away from having kids of their own and deciding where the money is spent.

So all in all, it wasn’t a great day for Tiger baseball, or the game in general. As I saw it, the beach balls were one big problem, the length was another big problem, the unsettled labor situation yet another big problem, and the 11 runs the Tigers gave up, a sadly familiar big problem.

As for the toilet paper?

I’m still working on that.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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