TATTERED TIGERS ARE CLINGING TO HOPE

We arrive in the Big Apple with a whimper, not a bang. We get off the bus with bags heavy on our shoulders. We slink down the ramp and into the stadium and we try — we try very hard — to put on our game face.

“ROAAARRRRR!” we want to say.

“Meow,” it comes out.

We are the Detroit Tigers. We have come to win the American League East. At least we think that’s why we’re here. We have come to fulfill our destiny. At least we thought it was our destiny. That was before the ice packs and the bandages. That was before we lost 13 of 16 games.

“GRRRRRRROWL!” we want to say.

“Grrrrrrroin injury,” it comes out.

Wasn’t it yesterday that we were on top? Wasn’t it yesterday that our pitchers left batters frozen in their shoes, that our defense was glittering, that our hitters would produce only two runs, then laugh and say, “Ha. Who needs more than two runs? We win, 2-1.”

Wasn’t it?

Yesterday we were best in the East. Today we are east of the best. The strongest team, Oakland, looms in the other division, and our nemesis, Minnesota, looms in the other division, and our latest rival, Milwaukee, looms west across the Great Lakes. We have gone to New York for what was supposed to be a battle for first place and instead has become a fight between two weary riders over the last available horse.

We still have hope. We cling to hope. We cling to victories like Wednesday night. But we are not who we once were. Or at least who we thought we once were. Jeff Robinson is hurting. Alan Trammell is hurting. Dave Bergman is hurting. Eric King is hurting. Lou Whitaker is never going to dance again.

We are aching. We are sore. We are hitting grounders and pitching home runs and it’s supposed to be the other way around. We won a good game Wednesday but we lost six bad ones before it.

“EAT OUT DUST!” we want to say.

“Got any aspirin?” it comes out.

Many moons ago, this was to be the BIG SERIES. The Yankees against the Tigers. Wasn’t it? The Tigers had the pitching that could mow the grass off a cabbage patch doll. The Yankees were a supermarket of hitting talent. Pitching vs. hitting. The best vs. the best. This would be the series, right?

Now it is only four baseball games in September. The smart eyes are on Boston. The smart eyes are on Milwaukee. There is a growing sense that somehow the Yankees and Tigers have given away their chances, that they had their time to run away with this thing and they couldn’t get their socks on.

In the good old days — I think it was last week — Sparky Anderson, our manager, was being viewed as the white-haired genius. Now they know why he has white hair; he has been forced to start a pitcher fresh off the minor league bus and tonight he will start a pitcher who still needs a map to find Tiger Stadium. Tram-to-Lou was replaced with Salazar-to-Walewander, which doesn’t have the same ring to it. Sparky smokes his pipe and says, “There ain’t no sense worrying about it.” And then, we suspect, he walks into the closet and, shuts the door, and says: “OH MY GAWWWWD, ARE WE IN TROUBLE!”

Old? Old is a problem. We seem so old these days, our bats creak. We are sending Darrell Evans and Ray Knight and Fred Lynn to the plate. We are following with Larry Herndon and Gary Pettis and Dwayne Murphy. We are watching tired swings at grinning pitches. “Ha! Go ahead,” the baseballs seem to tease us. “Hit me to shortstop like you always do. Ha. Hahahaha!”

We used to scare people. We really did. But now we come in waving our one-game win streak and nobody shivers. Nobody shakes. They look at the Tigers and see a team that is gasping and wheezing and is sending a lot of get-well cards.

“OUTA OUR WAAAAY!” we want to say.

“Pardon us . . . ” it comes out.

What can be done here? What is left to do? The trading is probably over and the games against the Red Sox are over and the injuries will not heal any faster just because we are in a rush. There are these four games against the Yankees and the final weekend of the season against the Yankees and we can only hope that those games matter.

How nice it would be to see Robinson lumber out of the dugout and throw smoke for nine innings. How nice it would be to see Trammell stab a ball, flip to Whitaker, who fires to Bergman for the double play. How nice? Very nice. Nicer than candy.

But we do not have nice right now. We do not have happy days. We have a losing month, a team full of injuries, a few unanswered prayers that we hope to cash in before Oct. 2. We hope Wednesday’s win is the start of something big. But meanwhile, we are watching Kirk Gibson lead a new bunch to the promised land and we are watching Doyle Alexander turn into dust. We are watching the yellow brick road and hoping it doesn’t disappear into the horizon. Two in a row? We cannot remember winning two in a row. Two in a row sounds like heaven right now.

We pick up the bats. We trudge into the cage. We hope the slump is really over this time. We hope our bats are hot, we hope our pitchers are hot, we hope that old will become young and tired will become healthy and weak will become strong. This is what we hope.

“WE AIN’t BEGUN TO FIGHT!” we want to say.

Geez, we’re starting to sound like Sparky.

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