Someone must be blamed. That’s the way we look at sports. Someone, when our team loses, must be pointed to and accused of making the fatal error that cost us the glory we surely would have had.
But when it comes to the 2009 Tigers, you can point and point and still know, deep down, that you’re not really correct.
Because there are two things – and maybe only two things – we can all agree after the Tigers fell one extra-inning run short of winning their division.
First, it was one of the greatest games many of us have ever seen.
Second, they never should have been in it.
“We blew the division,” Jim Leyland told me Wednesday. “We should have closed it out earlier. Shame on us. Â But as far as that game last night – it was one of the greatest games I’ve been involved in.”
Yes, this is a little like the hare saying, “I shouldn’t have stopped halfway through, but, hey, that tortoise ran a heck of a race.” It’s true – but you want to scream and say, “Then why didn’t you do something differently?”
But what? If the Tigers were capable of winning more games, don’t you think they would have? If they had offense that was ready to respond, wouldn’t they have used it?
Someone must be blamed, we say.
But who? Those losses to the Royals and Chisox
“What would you have changed,” I asked Leyland, “to not have blown it?”
“Well, I don’t regret anything,” Leyland said. “You know, we lost several games to Kansas City down the stretch Â and we lost four out of six to Chicago. Â We just didn’t beat a couple of teams we should have beat to get that extra win. And shame on us. Â I make no excuses. We should have had the thing wrapped up.”
OK. This is admirable. Leyland is saying it shouldn’t have come down to the 163rd game of the season. But he isn’t saying, “Magglio OrdoÃ±ez should have hit better.” He isn’t saying, “Zach Miner should have pitched better.” He clearly isn’t saying, “Miguel Cabrera shouldn’t have been out drinking the morning of a huge game.”
In fact, when I asked Leyland, he brusquely said it was “a personal issue” and “I manage a ball team and I saw no distraction whatsoever.”
And, while Cabrera was hitless over the weekend, he had a two-run homer Tuesday. Without that, maybe the Tigers never go to extra innings.
Someone must be blamed, we insist.
But who? A battle of imperfect teams
“I can remember going into the season we were picked fourth in the division,” Leyland said. “For most of the year, we exceeded expectations. And down the end we disappointed a lot of people.”
But what would those people have the Tigers do? With the exception of Cabrera’s terrible judgment last weekend, can you point to examples of the Tigers giving less than their best? They don’t dog it. They don’t play the diva role. Maybe the hitters try too hard or maybe they’re not patient enough. Maybe a few starters and a few relievers coughed it up when dominance was required.
But the Tigers and Twins played 163 games, and Detroit won 86 and Minnesota won 87. Neither was great. The Twins needed an incredible run down the stretch (17-4) just to eke into the playoffs. Both were flawed teams, and neither was favored to go very far in the playoffs.
So maybe the Tigers were just the best available team from the Central Division, until the Twins tripped them at the tape. Or maybe if Gerald Laird gets a hit with the bases loaded in the 12th, maybe if Cabrera is faster and doesn’t get thrown out at home, maybe if Miner doesn’t give up that home run, maybe if the umpire calls the hit-by-pitch on Brandon Inge that he should have called, maybe if Fernando Rodney doesn’t surrender the game-winning single, maybe if any of that happens, the Tigers would be in New York with the Yankees right now.
But it didn’t. And you can be angry, depressed, worn out, but I don’t think you can point to one thing that blew it – unless that thing is they didn’t win enough games. Which is kind of obvious.
“What did you say to the team when it was over?” I asked Leyland.
“I told them there’s not a manager alive that could complain about that effort tonight, because you left your hearts on the field,” he said.
And you’ll see them next year?
Maybe, in the end, despite a burning, gnawing desire to blame something or somebody, that’s all there is to say. Kills us to admit it.
Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org.