TIGERS FANS STILL PLAY WAIT-AND-SEE

I’ve been hearing a lot of talk lately about the apathy of Tigers fans.

The Tigers, as we know, are in first place in the AL East. Yet, critics claim, you couldn’t tell it by the crowds at Tiger Stadium. According to recent league attendance statistics, you’d think they were showing old movies down at Michigan and Trumbull. Detroit ranks 15th out of 26 teams.

Sunday at Tiger Stadium was Autograph Day. It was also Sun Visor Day. It was also a day Jack Morris pitched, and a wonderful, warm summer afternoon.

The attendance was 35,977.

That’s not great — not for a first-place team on a Sunday. On certain nights, the Tigers draw less than Baltimore. Critics scold Detroit fans: “Show some appreciation,” they say. “After all, you won’t be in first place forever.”

Now, it’s true. The Tigers deserve larger crowds. But I understand the numbers, considering:

1. The Pistons-Red Wings Factor. Detroit is no longer baseball-only during April, May and June. The success of our hockey and basketball teams — new success, unlike the Tigers’ good but familiar work — has sapped both interest and bodies from baseball.

2. The Stadium Problem. Going to Tiger Stadium is not exactly a rowboat on a lake. There’s the lousy and expensive parking, worries about safety, watered-down beer, outdated organ music (how many teenagers want to listen to
“Doggie In The Window” ?) and recently, hot, humid weather. “Face it,” Morris says, “would you rather be down here sweating, or at home sitting on a lake with a couple of sudses, watching on TV?”

3. Hunt-And-Peck Offense. The Tigers lately are winning with bloop singles, sacrifice flies and muscular pitching. Good baseball. But not always exciting. “Maybe,” laughs pitcher Walt Terrell, “it’s the way we win that’s the problem.” A team of mostly nice guys

All this accounts for some of the empty seats. Yet the criticism extends beyond the turnstiles. The passion doesn’t seem to be there among Tigers fans
— even in their living rooms. They watch, they root, but they remain . . . unobsessed. Or so critics say.

Once again, I believe, the Tigers get what they earn. Remember, this current team is mostly wisened veterans who know their baseball. They are not volcanic personalities.

At the risk of sounding simple, here is pretty much the makeup of the Tigers: Nice guys who are not controversial (Alan Trammell, Darrell Evans, Tom Brookens, Mike Henneman, Jeff Robinson), nice guys who are into religion
(Chet Lemon, Matt Nokes, Frank Tanana), nice guys who are quiet (Terrell, Pat Sheridan, Paul Gibson, Luis Salazar), nice guys who are virtually silent
(Larry Herndon) and not-so-nice guys who don’t want to talk anyhow (Doyle Alexander, Lou Whitaker).

Controversy? The most controversial figure on the team, Guillermo Hernandez, changed his name and went silent for half the year. Explosive? With Kirk Gibson gone, Morris is probably the most explosive guy in the room. And, as a pitcher, he plays only once every five games.

Now, make no mistake. This is OK. You can win with such personalities. Truth is, it’s the kind of team Sparky Anderson prefers. On his clubs — and he will tell you this — Sparky would rather be the focus than his players. Takes the heat off them, he figures.

And he has succeeded. Think about it. Which baseball face do you see in Detroit TV commercials? Who does the morning radio interviews? Little surprise that the longest autograph line Sunday was for Anderson. He is the team’s biggest star. Which is OK. But, you don’t buy tickets to see the manager.

As for controversy — which, like it or not, sparks interest among fans — Anderson, to his credit, has quelled even the sniff of it. When was the last incident involving a Tiger? Outspoken newcomers do not last long here. Dave LaPoint. Bill Madlock. They had loud opinions; they were quickly gone. Eric King learned his lesson in spring training.

So the 1988 Tigers are, for the most part, good company men. Only Jim Walewander (he of the punk rock music) is an exception. But Walewander, too, was told to tone down his act this year. And he doesn’t play enough to disturb the equation. Detroit’s changing marketplace

Again, this is fine. Really. You don’t need a New York Yankees atmosphere to be good. But in New York, the faces of Winfield and Mattingly are larger than life. They do the endorsements. Likewise for Mets Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry and Fernando Valenzuela and now (gulp) Gibson with LA. When those stars get hot, the fans get hot.

Without star personas, the Tigers, it seems, must see circumstances heat before fan interest sizzles. When Boston comes in this week, people will buzz, the stands will be crowded. If the AL East goes down to the wire, we’ll be more than ready to follow.

But this only proves that this team alone, playing normal baseball in the middle of a long hot season, will maintain the fans but not mesmerize them. Sad? Maybe. A first-place team deserves more. But it’s the price the organization pays for calm, stable players, an historic but less-than-seductive ballpark, and a hometown where the NBA and NHL have already raided the kitty.

Call it the realities of the marketplace. We, as Tigers fans, love this team, but we seem to love it these days the way you love tea or flannel sheets: happy it’s there, but you don’t embrace it all the time. Until the hot teams or the final weeks arrive, that, apparently, will have to suffice.

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