SEPTEMBER MAGIC GONE — BUT TOWN WILL SWING AGAIN

“Is there a baseball game tonight? Oh, no. Now we’ll never find a place to park.”

The woman speaking was an escort taking me to different stops on a book tour. We were navigating dinnertime traffic in downtown Seattle, and the cars and trucks were at a meandering crawl. Fans took advantage, slithering happily between the fenders like kids making their way past desks for recess.

“Sorry about this,” the escort groaned. “When the Mariners are playing, this whole area is mobbed.”

Her words struck a nostalgic chord. It has been a long time in Detroit since someone complained about dinnertime traffic near a baseball stadium. It has been a long time since anyone used the word “mobbed” to describe a pregame scene.

But here we were, in the damp, gray weather of a September afternoon in Seattle — a place where, not so long ago, baseball was so dead the team was mentioned only when someone talked about moving a franchise, and now there was traffic. Now there were crowds. Now the morning newspaper carried a half-page wraparound to update readers daily on the progress of the home team as it chugged through a pennant race.

September. It is the best time for a franchise playing winning baseball. Remember the feeling? When one of your pitchers is going for his 20th victory, one of your batters is going for his 45th home run or 120th RBI, your team has a magic number of games to clinch a playoff berth, and the mind dances with the possibilities of a World Series coming to town. Remember?

September is to baseball what late May is to schoolchildren, what early December is to mall owners, the anticipation of something familiar, something fun, something big.

What I’m trying to say here is this.

I miss it.

It has been 10 years for Tigers

Someone asked me about the Tigers on this swing through Seattle. I was doing a radio interview. The host asked my thoughts about the Seattle bullpen. He asked about Ken Griffey’s home run chase, and Randy Johnson’s pitching. Finally, he got around to Detroit.

“How about the Tigers?” he said. “They’re building a pretty good team for the future, aren’t they?”

I thought about this for a second. He was right, of course. What Randy Smith and Buddy Bell are doing is what should be done, tooling for the future. These days, nobody gets on the Tigers’ roster unless his best years are still ahead of him.

Of course, that doesn’t make for a championship team now. The Tigers were dead last in 1996 and, while much improved, are hovering around .500 in 1997. Baseball interest seems to have gone on a long, deep sleep in our town.

Watching the crowd swell for the Mariners game, I realized it has been 10 years since September mattered in Detroit sports. Ten years since we followed the progress of our team day by day, inning by inning, since Kirk Gibson was barking in the clubhouse and Frank Tanana was fooling hitters with his junkball.

Ten years. And yet there is patience, not anger. If the Lions were going through this many consecutive losing seasons, no amount of rebuilding would squelch the boos and jeering. If the Red Wings fell back to the Dead Wings days, the cynical jokes would be flying fast and furious.

Baseball seems to engender extra barrels of patience. So you don’t hear Tigers fans screaming “You s—!” at their young ballplayers. Most seem to quietly accept how long it takes to build a winner.

Maybe they’re just waiting for the new stadium.

Waiting is hardest part

Now, it’s not that the Tigers are without their stories. The unexpected seasons of Willie Blair and Justin Thompson, the blossoming power of Tony Clark, the league-leading speed of Brian Hunter. There are soldiers to get behind. It’s not like counting Griffey’s home runs or Johnson’s strikeouts, but for a team hovering around .500, it’s a pretty decent cast.

Still, it’s not September excitement. People ask all the time, “What kind of town is Detroit — a football town, a basketball town?” It’s hard to say. We love our hockey. We loved it when the Pistons ruled. We certainly would come unglued if the Lions ever made a Super Bowl.

But we have lived through pennant races, and World Series, and all I know is that when the bats are hot, some fiery lefty is on the mound, the bleachers are roaring, and every car you pass seems to have the game tuned in on the radio, well, Detroit is a baseball town.

And I miss that, don’t you? It would be nice to see a crowd of fans that toyed with traffic, that darted through stalled cars in the delicious excitement of getting to the stadium. If Seattle can create this from nothing, no tradition, then all Detroit has to do is stir up the old magic dust. It will come back to us, one September, maybe a few years, maybe more, but it will come back.

Waiting is the hardest part.

Mitch Albom’s new book, “Tuesdays with Morrie,” is available in bookstores throughout the Detroit area.

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