Saturday, October 28, 2006

Thank You, Boys!

No matter how exciting the ride, no matter how many thrills and chills it produces, no matter how many heroes make it happen, it always ends the same for the team that finishes in second place in major league baseball.

You’ve seen it, year after year. The looks of stunned disbelief on the players in the losing dugout, each of them appearing to be shocked at what they’ve just seen, even if their team failed to win a single game in the Series. The on-field celebration carries on for the victors, and the second place team stares at it, like a customer who can’t believe the person in front of them grabbed the last hot Christmas item at the department store.

The Fox television cameras caught them, and it’s not hard, for they are as motionless as statues. Pudge Rodriguez had the look. So did Sean Casey. And anyone else who bothered to stick around to watch the St. Louis Cardinals carry on, reveling in the franchise’s first World Series win since 1982. The Tigers’ last world championship occurred in 1984, so there you go: another team WAS waiting longer for their end-of-the-season champagne, after all.

The Tigers lost the 2006 World Series, four games to one, and I suppose they were due; they hadn’t lost a Series since 1940, when they got beat by the Cincinnati Reds.

The three-Series winning streak (1945, 1968, 1984) is over, and in retrospect the Tigers never had a prayer of capturing this one.

Too many mistakes – on the basepaths and with the glove, or more accurately, the arm. Too many key hitters as cold as the weather. Too many runners left stranded.

And, in the end, probably, too many hurdles to clear.

None of the people who wear the title of “baseball expert” on their head gave the Tigers a spitting chance to win the World Series this year, when their picks were solicited back in March. But you already know that those titles of expert are worn like a crown that’s two sizes too small. Still, even the clothes-less emperors of baseball prognosticating figured to be right to dismiss the Tigers as nothing more than Central Division fodder for the Twins, White Sox, and even the Indians.

But the season, they say, is a marathon, and along the way, as the wins piled up as surprisingly as Academy Awards would for William Shatner, the Tigers began to clear hurdles.

First there were those darlings of 1984. At one point, in July, the Tigers’ record first matched, then exceeded, that of the ’84 “Bless You, Boys!” team after the identical amount of games played.

Then came the 50-game swoon to close the season, and there was another hurdle to clear: the notion that the Tigers were paper playoff pretenders, backers-in to the postseason who were unable to win a single game from the dregs of the league, the Kansas City Royals, in order to win the division that they led since mid-May. But the Tigers beat the vaunted New York Yankees in the first round.

Next, the hurdle was an Oakland A’s team who had broomed aside the red hot Minnesota Twins in their first round. Surely the A’s would prove to be a formidable opponent. They had some pitching of their own, and a resurrected Frank Thomas leading the offense. Maybe the Tigers would suffer the dreaded “hangover” after beating the Yankees and their $200 million payroll. Ahh, but The Tigers got out brooms of their own, and took care of the Athletics in four straight games.

So here they were, in the World Series. Baseball’s accidental tourists. This was the biggest hurdle of them all. Teams simply do not win 71 games, as the Tigers did last year, and win the World Series the following season. The experts/emperors say so. But so does the record book. Could the Tigers, one year removed from mediocrity, a status that they’d wallowed in for over a dozen years, reverse their course 100% and win the whole kit and caboodle? It wouldn’t quite be a worst-to-first story, but it would be pretty darn close.

And the Tigers, at the end of their hurdle-filled marathon, 25 miles and some change from the starting line, went to leap against the Cardinals and their legs had lost their bounce. Just like what happens when you overuse a spring.

There was too much to overcome. When you cannot hit worth a lick, and your gloves and throwing arms betray you, and your bullpen suddenly morphs into gasoline, then you find yourself exactly as Rodriguez, and Casey, and the others found themselves after the final out was recorded in Game 5: in the losing dugout, with those incredulous expressions, unable to believe that there will be no baseball tomorrow. The same expressions worn by the 2005 Houston Astros. And the 2004 Cardinals. And the 2003 Yankees. And so on, and so on, for all the second placers. They all took different routes to the department store, but they all came up empty when they reached for the last Cabbage Patch Doll, or Playstation 3.

The ’84 Tigers had their “Bless You, Boys!” rallying cry. But even that has irony. The expression was borne out of sarcasm, you see. Channel 4 sportscaster “Acid Al” Ackerman first started to use it in 1983, when the Tigers stumbled out of the gate for the season’s first 30 games or so. The Tigers would win one for a change, and there was Acid Al at 11:21 p.m. during the sports portion of the news, jabbing them with the “Bless You, Boys!” that was dripping with you-know-what. In 1984, though, it was revisited, and this time with sincerity.

The 2006 Tigers, I submit, should be festooned with the cry of “Thank You, Boys!” The stunned faces that are so familiar to the World Series losers indeed showed up in the Tigers dugout as the baseball season ended in St. Louis. They didn’t, I’m sure, feel very blessed at that moment, anyway. So why not thank them, instead?

They deserve it, you know, for taking us along on an unexpected type of baseball marathon. The kind with hurdles. One too many, as it turned out.


Ozz said...

I'm bummed, but I'm telling myself that it's just a baseball game. It was a fun ride, however. The 2006 Tigers seasons was one of those fun surprises that life hands you once in awhile, even if the surprise doesn't turn out the way you hoped it would.

I've had fun checking out both of your blogs this season. I'm glad I stumbled onto them way back in Spring Training.

Greg Eno said...

Thanks, Ozz!

Johnny Grubb will be a Monday & Thursday update during the offseason....