When the Tigers left Boston a week ago, on the 18th of May, they were coming off sweeps of both the Orioles and the Red Sox. The pitching staff had only given up three runs to the Red Sox. Three runs in three games. In Fenway Park. The offense was scoring consistently and it didn't seem to matter yet that Romine and Avila weren't hitting. At that point the Tigers were 27-12, already 7 games up on the Royals in the Central. The division title seemed a foregone conclusion, at least to many fans.
That first loss, on the day after a nightmare of delayed planes from Boston to Cleveland, appeared to be a blip, a hiccup between winning streaks. Still, it was thrilling to see J.D. Martinez tie it on a pinch-hit homerun in the top of the ninth. Even the Brantley walk-off homerun on a 3-2 Al Alburquerque slider that didn't break was bearable. After all, there were still two more games in Cleveland. The Tigers would get back on track tomorrow. Blame it on the plane.
But here's the thing: they didn't get back on track. Verlander got knocked around in a 6-2 loss the next day. Blame in on the plane, part two. Then came the heartbreaker. An 11-10 loss in thirteen innings after the Tigers had scored the go-ahead run in the top of the inning. Single. Sacrifice bunt. Hit by pitch. Single. Groundout that moved the runners to second and third. Coke pulled in favour of Alburquerque, he of the Brantley walk-off two days before. Intentional walk to load the bases. Balk to end the game. Swept by Cleveland.
Even coming back to Detroit didn't turn things around. Nor did playing the badly injured Rangers, who took two of the first three games at Comerica Park. Neither of the games they lost was even close. After the extra-inning games in Cleveland and the way the Rangers were hitting Tigers? pitching, the bullpen was so depleted that Danny Worth, the back-up shortstop, was brought in to pitch in both losses. With Verlander taking the mound, though, they would surely turn it around today. Wouldn't they?
Maybe I was destined to become a Tigers fan. After all, by the time I moved to Windsor in the summer of 2000, I had twice been to Tigers Stadium. The first time, in early September of 1989, my friend Peter and I rolled into Detroit for a game against the Royals. Living in Edmonton, it seemed to me that the two-hour drive from Peter's home in London was more than reasonable. We must have seen Windsor on our way to the Tunnel, but I don?t remember it. What I do remember is emerging into downtown Detroit. The manhole covers steaming. The people slouched into their coats in the early September chill. The wonder and fear of being in Detroit, its reputation extending all the way to the prairies. But as we drove down Michigan Avenue, I began to see the bustle of the neighborhood around the stadium. Hear the men outside hawking extra tickets. Feel the pull of the stadium on a cool September evening.
The only concrete image of that game that I can summon is Bo Jackson hitting a home run into the upper deck off Frank Tanana, a baseball memory as acute as any I have. In my memory the park was packed to see the Tigers win and Bo slam that ball into the night sky, but the box score tells me that there were less than 13,000 people there that night. For me, though, that crowd was electric and I knew I wanted to be part of it, again and again.
Ten years later, I was back at Tigers Stadium with Heidi and our friend Steve. As always, I felt the familiar pull of the crowd and the excitement of being in a major league park, but I also felt strangely at home. We were visiting from North Carolina and as Steve drove us along Jefferson Avenue, he pointed across the river and told us that was Canada. Less than a year later, we would move to our new home in Windsor, while the Tigers would move to their new home at Comerica Park.[?]
At first we went to the park a few times a year, buying tickets on the day of the game, a spur of the moment thing. We'd buy cheap seats and sit wherever we wanted, moving around the park to check out different angles on the game. In those years the Tigers were a bad team, so bad, in fact, that in 2003 they went 43-119, the most losses ever for an American League team and one loss shy of the most losses ever by a major league team. For me, though, having a team so close and being able to go to games any time was magical. Just being at the park was more than enough. Then, without realizing it, as the games at Comerica started to pile one on another, I was falling for a team for the first time since watching the Expos as a kid.
As the Tigers began to rebuild the team after that 2003 season, signing Pudge Rodriguez and then Magglio Ordonez, I began to follow what was happening more closely. By the time Jim Leyland arrived in 2006, I was reading about the team's moves in the off-season, eagerly awaiting spring training. I soaked up everything about that season. Chris Shelton's home runs. Verlander. Zumaya. Gum Time. The magical first four months when it seemed like they couldn?t lose. The frustrating last two months when it seemed like they couldn't win. Beating the Yankees in the playoffs. Magglio's home run to win the ALCS. The micro and the macro. Watching that team every day made me see baseball as the arc of a summer, each game a small segment in a much larger narrative. I had given myself over to the rhythm of the season.