TIGERS THROW IN THE TOWEL

Well, that was a nice, big, fat towel the Tigers just threw in.

Cecil Fielder to the Yankees? There goes the last piece of the portfolio. There goes the last blue chip stock. Detroit has officially become the carcass of professional baseball, ready to be picked for the right cost-cutting measures. I guess the people running the team feel it can’t get any worse, why not take all the hits now?

So there goes Cecil, emerging from Buddy Bell’s office with his fist high and a smile. I’m outta here! Whoo-hah! Tell me something. If your players react that way when they get traded, what do you expect your fans to do?

“I can’t say anything bad about Detroit,” said Fielder, who somehow kept himself from bursting into “New York, New York” until he was out of earshot. This is a great move for him. He finally gets what he always wanted, after years of playing backup in Toronto, a year of playing stranger in Japan, years of playing for an also-ran in Detroit.

Now he gets to play for a winner — a World Series hopeful this season. And he gets a huge spotlight at Yankee Stadium. The new Bronx Bomber? Cecil stretching the limits of pinstripes? Whoa. They’ll eat it up in New York.

Funny, isn’t it? In the past four weeks, Detroit has sent its most promising basketball shooter and its only baseball attraction to the Big Apple.

Don’t expect a thank-you note.

What do we get in return? Well, in the case of Allan Houston, nothing. And in this latest case of Fielder, we get somebody’s else’s headache, Ruben Sierra. If you haven’t followed this guy’s career, let me tell you the words that most often pop up: 1) Showboat. 2) Disappointment. 3) Disgruntled. 4) Traded.

Try to contain your excitement. Why watch this team?

Yes, Sierra can hit home runs — although nowhere near what Fielder can hit — and yes, there is a minor-league pitcher involved, Matt Drews, whoever he is. If this strikes you as a great move for Cecil, a fine move for the Yankees and a “What’s going on here?” move for the Tigers, well, join the club. You can understand Detroit unloading Fielder’s fat salary in exchange for a future. But Sierra is 30. I don’t see him changing his pattern. Maybe Drews turns into a great pitcher. He has a fastball, they say. Fine.

But we’re talking one of the premier home run hitters in the game. This is the best the Tigers could get?

Maybe it is. And maybe they are so desperate to stop the hemorrhaging of money at Michigan and Trumbull that saving even $4 million over the next two years — the difference in Fielder’s salary versus Sierra’s — is worth it to them.

But they have to know they have killed the goose. People go to baseball games to watch home runs. However few were showing up at Tiger Stadium these days, you can bet most of them would answer the question of “What are you doing here?” with the response “Maybe Cecil will hit one out tonight.”

Forget that now. The Tigers are looking toward the future. That is what they will say. But remember that just saying it doesn’t mean you know how to do it.

They were looking to the future with Chris Pittaro, too. They’re long gone

A few months ago, I ran into Fielder at a local restaurant. He had been eating out most nights, because his wife and kids were down in Florida, in the massive mansion he had purchased with the money Detroit gave him to play baseball here.

“Man, it’s terrible down at the park,” he told me. Cecil had a way of smiling as he moaned, and you never minded it much. But he was truly unhappy. That much was obvious.

“I don’t even like going to work, man,” he said. “I get down there and it’s like, I can’t wait until it’s over.’

“What are they doing here, Mitch? What are they doing here?”

He’s asking me?

I can tell you this much. They are not thinning ranks. They are thinning payroll. They are downsizing, as it were — only in corporate business, you downsize to get leaner and stronger, to pass your slow, fat competitors. The Tigers are getting leaner and weaker, and the idea of passing competitors seems about as likely in Detroit this summer as hosting an Olympics.

There goes the last star. You know this is about business. All of sports is. But it seems lately, the business moves have been leaving Detroit fans empty. Chris Spielman takes off. Allan Houston takes off. Juwan Howard won’t come here. Cecil Fielder takes off.

Is it our breath?

Or is it simply the reality of sports — that players say, “I need to take care of my family” and demand a fortune, then say, “I need to play for a winner,” and demand to be traded. I am happy that Fielder gets his dream, but I am disappointed that he was so anxious to jump ship from a place that made him filthy rich. That was once his dream, too, remember?

So be it. The towel is tossed. The stock is sold. Cecil Fielder, the last big reason to go to a Tigers game, will now be one of many big reasons to go to a Yankees game. Maybe five years from now, we can point to some good coming out of this, some move we can’t even anticipate this morning.

For the moment, it just proves that losing chases everyone away, even players. Man, as Cecil would say. Can you even remember when this was a baseball town anymore?

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