The Tigers Claim The Central

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Being a fan isn’t a rational endeavor. As much as we apply analytic thinking to sports, we can’t engage that kind of clear-headed thinking about our favorite team. We can think about individual players and games rationally, but we can’t experience the season dispassionately. That’s not a bad thing. When we do analysis here, we do it rationally. When we watch baseball, when we watch our favorite team, it’s about experiencing a cavalcade of emotions. From April to October, it’s about joy, sadness, excitement, amazement, heartbreak, and even, love.

So much can be said about the practice of being a baseball fan, but I think the best way to describe being a fan throughout the season is to liken it to falling in love. You go through stages, you’re tested, and you grow together. That might be a stupid way to look at it, but I don’t care, this isn’t about being rational. It’s about being a fan and being a fan is about falling in love.

We can extend this metaphor as much as we want, but I’ll keep it short. That first moment of infatuation was the April 17th game in Seattle in which Scherzer dueled Felix and the game ended with Brayan Pena absorbing a tackle from Justin Smoak. I think that game ended around 3am. It was my birthday. My wife had gone to bed. Twitter activity was dying down. It felt like it was just me and the team staying up late.

There was Sanchez striking out 17 and Sanchez flirting with a no-hitter. An otherworldly 3-HR night from Miguel Cabrera on a Sunday evening in Arlington. Despite early struggles, both Avila and Martinez came on strong down the stretch. Verlander tried to avoid the Handshake by running away from Leyland.

Big hit after big hit. Excellent start after excellent start. Max Scherzer made the leap from above average to elite and Porcello made the leap from serviceable to above average. Even when Verlander struggled, he was still pretty darn good. The staff was better than any in Tigers history and made a very serious run at being the best all-time, period.

Miguel Cabrera spent most of the summer playing on Easy as he compiled one of the top offensive seasons in baseball history despite fighting injuries for the final two months. Infante and Hunter and Fister and Benoit all had great and under-appreciated seasons. We lost Peralta for mistakes made last Spring but gained the preposterous wizardry of Jose Iglesias.

Hunter walked off to avoid the sweep against the A’s. Avila and Cabrera hit huge homeruns in Cleveland. The amazing rally on the final Saturday night at Comerica Park.

Day after day, week after week, month after month, they’ve gotten a little closer. The big winning streak in August effectively put the race to bed and a series win against the Tribe later in the month put the final nail in the coffin. 2013 was not about winning another division – a third straight – which they finally did tonight with a 1-0 win over the Twins in game 159. 2013 was about winning four more games. The last four. That’s the goal. The mission. And they’ve taken the first step.

I said at the beginning of the season that I thought this was the year. Rationally, they’re the best team in the league. Objectively, they’ve got the best pitching and the best offense. But I felt it too. An irrational feeling, but it was there. This was how the long road back would end, with the team spraying champagne.

Ten years ago, they lost 119 games. Only Santiago and Infante remain from that team, and they both went away and came back. Only Verlander and Santiago were around when it all changed in 2006. This team isn’t really connected to those two teams. There’s virtually no overlap. But it feels like one single thread. One narrative. One story.

As fans, it is. We’ve been in since then. In 2006, it came from nowhere. We tasted what it was like to cheer for a winner. They came close in 2007 and loaded up for 2008 with Cabrera and Renteria and were supposed to score 1,000 runs. That was our lesson in hubris. They were going to run away and hide and instead lost the first seven games and never really made it close. 2009 was even worse. They fell apart down the stretch and lost the most heartbreaking game I’ve ever seen. I’ve still never watched the highlights. I haven’t talked about it. I honestly haven’t even looked at the box score. I can’t. Not yet.

2010 was a transition season. Mediocre, but a shift with Jackson and Scherzer coming on board. The final push started in 2011. A tight race for most of the summer turned into a laugher when they picked up Fister and rattled off 12 straight wins to take the division by more than  a dozen games. A narrow win against the Yankees in the ALDS and then a good series against the Rangers who were just better.

Last year was about learning to come back. They made a final push over the final two weeks to overtake the White Sox and held off the A’s before annihilating the Yankees. But the World Series, much like in 2006, was a disaster. After such a strong run, it was all over so quickly.

This year was about unfinished business. There is nothing else to prove. They’ve shown the ability to endure an entire season. They’ve shown they can win in the playoffs. It’s about the final four games.

The roster has turned over, but the institutional memory remains. Partly from the front office and the coaching staff, but partly all of us watching every day and living and dying with this team with one last, little thing to prove. Those other teams are special to me. 2006 was about being relevant again. 2011 and 2012 about overcoming the ills the befell the team and the city in 2008 and 2009. This year is about victory.

The funerals ended long ago. No one feels sorry for Tigers fans anymore. The city isn’t the jewel it was fifty years ago, but it’s coming back. This is the last step. It’s not rational to place so much importance on the success of a baseball team, but what are we doing in life if not experiencing things that move us?

I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that this is the Tigers team I’ll tell my kids about. I think there’s a rational and irrational case to be made about that. Every single year, I fall in love with that particular team for a variety of different reasons. I fall in love if they suck and I fall in love if they collapse. It doesn’t really matter. I love baseball. I love the Tigers. And in some strange and indirect way, they love me back.

They don’t have to win the World Series for me to have enjoyed this team more than any that have come before. There have been moments of anger and moments of sadness, but it’s been so much fun every step of the way. Perhaps there’s a connection between this site and all of that. Maybe I’ve had more fun watching this team because I’ve enjoyed writing about them so much. It’s possible, certainly.

For whatever reason – Pena’s tag, Sanchez and Scherzer’s brilliance, Cabrera’s magic, or the rest of the team’s moments big and small – I’ve enjoyed this season more than any other. Part of it is about them and part of it is about me. It’s a partnership. Almost like a marriage. It’s not supposed to be a rational endeavor. We can analyze the sport, but we love it because of what it makes us feel.

Today, I feel pride. And determination. Four more wins. Go Tigers.


One response

  1. One of my favorite moments of the season was the Cabrera homerun against Salazaar of the Indians. Cabrera striking out the first three times up and then hit the bejeezus out of the first pitch to give the Tigers the lead and the win.

    Great season, they are right where everybody said they would be back in April which in baseball is not always an easy feat. Good write up Neil, 4 more wins man, well after the first 7 they need to get there.

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