The 2019 Detroit Tigers are not going to win very many baseball games. While my ability to predict the future is limited, the evidence is basically as definitive as you can ever be about this kind of thing. Could the Tigers defy the odds entirely? Stranger things have occurred in baseball’s long history. Anything can happen, but it usually doesn’t.
The Tigers are coming off two miserable seasons of fewer than 70 wins. They made virtually no effort to improve their club this winter and their best pitcher is about to undergo Tommy John Surgery and miss the entire season. A rosy prediction would probably estimate the Tigers miss the wild card by 15 games.
Save Miguel Cabrera—who is coming off a year lost to injury and is about to turn 36—the Tigers will field a roster without any superstars. The bottom-line-be-damned owner is gone. The can’t-build-a-bullpen-but-is-otherwise-great GM just won a World Series in Boston. Jim Leyland no longer holds court after each game. The team’s long-time TV broadcast crew was fired after an altercation last year that the team and network have still not publicly discussed.
After a decade of competitive teams—championship caliber in some cases—the Tigers are firmly in the middle of their decline. It was understandable in 2017 and inevitable in 2018, but the malaise lurks in year three. The brass has made clear that they do not even intend to build a winner until 2021 (even though, as I’ve argued, they could build one more quickly).
By every indication, there will be essentially zero Tigers games with playoff implications over their next 162 contests.
In essence, nothing matters.
So how do we cope this fact? We used to manage just fine, before the revival. But that was before we had experienced the feeling of actually caring. Before we knew the rush of pennant chases and heartbreak of Nelson Cruz, and of Torii Hunter flipping over the right field wall in Boston.
When the rebuild began, I was ready. The team needed to develop a new generation and I was being pulled in other directions in my non-baseball life. It was refreshing to be focusing less on the day-to-day triumphs and more on the growth of the Tiger cubs. After a decade or more of watching nearly every inning of nearly every game, it was kind of nice to be able to step back and allow myself to detach a little.
But it’s 18 months later. The farm is better but the club didn’t make use of any of its financial savings this winter when it could have gone a long way and they don’t seem keen on even pretending. Even if I didn’t win the argument about signing Harper, Gio Gonzalez just got a minor league deal for $3 million!
There isn’t going to be meaningful baseball. So how do we fight the drift towards ambivalence about baseball in general? If the organization doesn’t care, and isn’t going to care for two more years, how do we fight the atrophy of our baseball muscles?
I’ve never needed the team to win the World Series to care. It’s not disappointing for me to watch a team miss the playoffs by three games or run into a wall in the LCS. But finding a way to stay engaged when you know how it ends from the beginning is another matter. It’s one thing for that to be an occasional thing, but this is a four-year promise from management.
One of the things I really like about baseball is that each individual game is relatively unimportant and that the real story unfolds across the individual contests. An intentionally bad team ruins that vibe. Any given day, it could be fun to watch, but the sum total of the product will be subpar.
I am going to try to take two approaches to dealing with this. The first is that I’m going to try to watch more full games that don’t involve the Tigers. I’ve always watched a lot of background baseball but following a single team demands a lot of time and if you give three hours a day to one team, it’s hard to find time to watch other games in full. So sometimes I’m just going to do that. If I can’t follow a single interesting team over an entire summer, I should at least make some of the individual games more exciting.
The other thing I’m going to do is try to watch baseball at a very micro-level. This is easy to do in person when your neck is the camera operator, but I’m going to try to get myself to focus more closely on small things. The batter’s hands. The shortstop’s footwork. The catcher’s stance. I really admire people who can notice detail amid chaos, so I’m going to try to get better at it.
I’ve written a few times in the last couple of years about how it’s getting harder for me to like things as I’ve gotten older because it’s gotten harder for me to ignore the bad parts. It’s harder to like baseball because of the way the league treats minor leaguers. It’s hard to like the Tigers because Al Avila doesn’t care the Derek Norris abused his wife. It’s hard to like art because so many people who make it are terrible.
I don’t want to become a person who just suspends their contempt for something to allow myself to selfishly enjoy it, but it’s probably also too simple to just say anything poisoned at all is poisoned in full. The world is too complicated for that. Liking the good parts of a thing doesn’t prevent you from hating the bad parts as long as you stay angry when it’s required.
This era is going to require that we carry out our fandom differently, both in terms of how we watch games and in terms of how we confront the storm gathering around how the league’s owners are behaving. A few years ago I was content with where the game was. There will probably never be baseball I enjoy more than I enjoyed the early 2010s.
I’m still going to care about the Tigers but I’m going to give myself permission to care differently. Being a Tigers fan was a lot of who I was in my teens and early 20s. It’s probably not going to be that way in my 30s. I’m okay with that. I’ve made peace with it. But just because something is different doesn’t mean it can’t provide meaning.