STOP THE PRESSES! TIGERS OWED APOLOGY

It’s never good to start with an apology, but we owe one to the Tigers and we should say so at the top. This is a good team with a great story and until very recently, some of us in the media treated them the way middle-aged disc jockeys treated early rock ‘n’ roll: just a fad, a flash in the pan.

Well, they’re more pan than flash. The Tigers have talented young pitchers, a proven veteran starter, hungry hitters and a manager who understands games are won by what’s in the players’ heads as much as what’s in their swings.

Yet while this team has already given us storybook moments, many days it was treated like pulp fiction – at least by newspapers. The Pistons sneezed, it was front page. The Red Wings burped, it was front page. Steve Yzerman alone garnered more Page 1A headlines – some of them atop my columns – than the Tigers have to date.

Remember, we are talking about a baseball team with the best record in the majors. And it’s almost July. Sparky Anderson always warned me, “Don’t judge nothing until 50 games.” Well, you know where the Tigers were after 50 games?

At the top. Where they were after 75.

So I dropped by the Tigers’ clubhouse Friday night to own up to the negligent spotlight.

Instead, I learned we did them a favor.

Paper shortage

“The slower we break in that kind of stuff the better,” Jim Leyland warned of media attention. “I’ve been talking to them a lot about that. We win five in a row, we’re the ’61 Yankees; we lose three in a row, we’re the ’62 Mets.”

But with the Pistons and Red Wings, haven’t you felt overshadowed in Detroit?

“Well,” he said, laughing, “one time when reporters were asking, ‘How’s it feel to be a national story?’ I said, ‘What the heck are you talking about, a national story? We’re on Page 7 of the Free Press.’ “

He meant it as a diffusion. But he was right. When the Tigers won their fifth in a row in early May, they were on Page 3 of our sports section, while the Red Wings dominated the front.

When Jeremy Bonderman threw a three-hit shutout in mid-May, moving the Tigers within a half-game of the division lead, the story was on Page 9, while LeBron James dominated the front.

When the Tigers hit three home runs in the ninth inning to beat Kansas City and retain the best record in baseball, they were on Page 7. Ben Wallace was the front.

“You expect a wait-and-see attitude,” Leyland said. “I don’t blame ’em.”

Added relief pitcher Todd Jones: “It might have helped. We’ve got a lot of young guys that haven’t been in this situation before and might not know how to handle success.”

Who are these guys? And what have they done with the “Nobody respects us” athletes?

Less attention isn’t necessarily bad

Yes, it’s true, when you suffer 12 straight losing seasons, fans are slow to arouse. But that’s not Joel Zumaya’s fault. It’s not Curtis Granderson’s fault. It’s not Kenny Rogers’ fault.

“Were you surprised at how little coverage this team has gotten compared to other places you’ve pitched?” I asked Rogers.

“In some ways it might have helped us focus,” he said. “We’ve kind of been under the radar – and that’s a good thing.”

Hmm. Maybe we should stay away until the playoffs (whoops, did I just use that word?). But not before saying this:

What the Tigers have done to date has been remarkable. All you had to do is go to Comerica this weekend – with standing-room crowds, with roaring fans, with the Tigers chopping down last year’s Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter on Friday night – to know that things have changed dramatically. So fast, in fact, that the media, often too far ahead, have actually had to play catch-up.

“We got no complaints,” Leyland said. “We don’t mind just being part of the story.”

A much bigger part from now on.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.

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