Sunday, September 25, 2005

For The Losers And Their Fans, September The Cruelest Of Baseball Months

(the following column can also be viewed at, where a new column from yours truly appears each Sunday or Monday. They will also appear here for your reading pleasure. For archives of my columns there, go to and click on "Columnists")

Surely there must be dozens of things sadder than September baseball when played by two losing teams, but I’ll be darned if I can think of any.

September can be an awful, cruel, almost unbearable month for players, coaches, fans and even broadcasters of teams who are hopelessly out of playoff contention. If the Tigers and Royals play a game and nobody comes to watch, does it make an impact?

Meaningless baseball has become a staple around these parts -- 12 years in a row and counting -- and it’s a shame, because more and more folks, especially the younger ones, are getting the idea that that’s what baseball is like in Detroit, because that’s all they’ve ever known.

It didn’t used to be this way, of course. A Tigers ticket in September was a hot little item, and there was electricity in the air as you walked from your car to the old ballpark, eagerly anticipating the start of a big three-game series with the Blue Jays or Red Sox or Orioles in town. Now, we’ve even become accustomed to the games meaning very little as early as June, so by the time September hits, the Tigers are pushed so far back to the recesses of our minds, we’re becoming numb to their ineptitude.

But when you package it all together -- the end of summer, the start of school, the complete removal of any playoff aspirations, the weariness of a long season made even longer by all the losing -- baseball games played by losers in September are about as nasty as it gets. Typically, attendance has dwindled by that time, leaving the players to perform in front of scores of empty seats, and let’s face it, the results of those ballgames simply don’t matter in the scheme of things. You almost think that fans who bother to show up for such games should be paid for their efforts. And believe me, it is an effort to watch such inconsequential competition.

For the winners, there is talk in September of magic numbers and which pitchers will get the starts during the playoffs and how every game is a big game, while the losers drag themselves to the park and play mostly for statistical padding and professional pride, if they have any left at that point. And how can any announcer get himself psyched up and excited about the Devil Rays against the Mariners right about now?

It’s funny how years of losing can lower expectations, by the way. Not anymore is there talk of the Tigers actually making the playoffs. Instead, we keep being told the goal of this franchise is "to play meaningful games in September." So I guess it could be called serio-comic that the Tigers are still trying to find a way to play "meaningful games" prior to Memorial Day. And there ain’t nothing comic about the fact that I am not kidding when I say that.

At least today there are three divisions in each league and a wild card to boot, to keep as many teams in the mix for as long as possible, unlike anything prior to 1969, when you had a league champ decided merely by the results of the regular season. And if a team had the pennant pretty much locked up by Labor Day, then that meant nine others were kicking around, playing those dreaded "meaningless games." It was a fate for teams other than the Tigers, though: the Cubs, the Indians, the Senators -- laughable losers who were perennially scraping the bottom of the baseball barrel.

Nowadays you’d have a better chance of working up a conversation in these parts in September about fiberglass insulation than the hometown baseball team.
But now it is the Tigers who are known as one of baseball’s yearly doormats. So it doesn’t matter who manages them -- Alan Trammell or anyone not named him -- because regardless who’s at the helm, there is one job and one job only: try to regain an almost lost generation of baseball fan in this city. It’s not too much to say that the number of fans who actually remember seeing "meaningful September games" when it comes to Tigers baseball is dwindling exponentially by the year. That’s what 12 straight years of putrid baseball can do to a fan base -- tear away at its core and spoil it from within.

For too long, September and baseball has meant this in Detroit:________. It is a month for Yankees fans, or Red Sox boosters, or followers of the Braves. But it is not a month for Tigers supporters. Maybe it won’t be for a while longer yet. Instead, it is a month, for those who still give a damn, to silently curse and stew about the loss of what was once special but is now shamefully irrelevant. Speaking of cruel, does it get much worse than irrelevant when the subject is the Tigers and September? It is one thing to be down and out, but it is quite another to be relegated to irrelevance. George Bernard Shaw had it so right when he said, "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about." Nowadays you’d have a better chance of working up a conversation in these parts in September about fiberglass insulation than the hometown baseball team. Sad indeed.

I’ve always deemed it a genuine mystery that Mike Ilitch could have done it so right with his hockey yet has been doing it so poorly with his baseball. Why doesn’t he just use the same blueprint for the Tigers as he has with the Red Wings: surrounding himself with good, quality people, hiring the best scouts in the business, and snagging a hotshot manager with a respected resume? Granted, it took Ilitch 15 years as Red Wings owner and some failed regimes before he won a Stanley Cup, but once success came, it has never gone away. The Tigers are now in year 13 with Ilitch owning them, and the team hasn’t truly been anywhere near playoff contention. Most years, they couldn’t sniff .500 even if they had Cyrano de Bergerac’s nose. And the owner’s relatively recent aggressiveness when it comes to signing players has "too little, too late" written all over it.

Ilitch’s ownership history aside, somebody better do something because this nonsense of falling hopelessly out of contention long before the All-Star break is getting old, man. A great baseball franchise is being ruined and reduced to a huge butt of jokes right before our very eyes, so somebody better put an end to it, and right now. Change the manager if you must, trade players if you would like, but whatever you do, do it yesterday. Restore pride to the Olde English "D".

At the culmination of the last great baseball season in this town -- 1987 no less -- the Toronto Blue Jays visited on the final weekend. Thanks to a hellacious September, the Tigers had managed to create a scenario whereby if they won two of the three games at Tiger Stadium, they would create a tie in the AL East. Playing before packed houses, the Tigers won all three games, winning the division outright. All this after being 3 ½ games out of first place with a week to play. At the time, it seemed as if exciting September baseball would be here to stay. It was unfathomable to think otherwise.

That’s all changed now -- completely 180 degrees. Today, it is almost too much to imagine a bona fide "big series" between the Tigers and the flavor of your choice as their opponents when the air of summer’s end begins to take on a crispness reserved for a perfect September night at the old ballpark. Around here, black is now white, the sun now rises in the west, and the Pope is now Baptist.

It is that way now -- a baseball month once filled with goosebumps and butterflies is instead infested with mothballs and cobwebs. How this could have happened in Detroit is mind boggling, but it has. September is a football month now in Detroit. Talk about jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

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