Tigers a big source of pride in Motown
Detroit's rally around team in tough times harkens to 1968
Curtis Granderson has manned center field for the Tigers long enough to ignore taunts from fans when they're on the road. That doesn't mean he doesn't listen. He isn't hearing quite that much creativity this year. More and more, he's hearing a familiar refrain.
They're not taunting him as much. They're making fun of his city.
"You hear the razzing: 'Hey, man, I wouldn't want to live in Detroit,'" Granderson said. "Or, 'Nice city. The motor industry's gone. Now what else do you guys have left?'"
He's heard it before, but it stings a little more now.
"Just the economic part adds to it," Granderson said.
Then someone like catcher Gerald Laird will have a moment behind the plate when he can look around at a Comerica Park on a Sunday afternoon, or hear the roar of the crowd when Clete Thomas hit a walk-off homer earlier this month to finish off the Tigers' comeback from a five-run deficit.
Or Granderson will have a moment like last Monday, an off-day for the Tigers and a day for Granderson to sign copies of his new children's book, "All You Can Be." He arrived at the Borders bookstore on Woodward Avenue in the suburb of Birmingham to find virtually every open aisle on the second floor of the store filled with spillover from the line of fans waiting for him to autograph their copies.
It's a dichotomy that might be more surprising than the Tigers' performance on the field. For all the upheaval going on around this bruised piece of the Midwest, the Tigers' little piece of it has almost become a separate reality. And they've received such a boost from their fan base that they can't help but wear the Detroit name with pride.
"I've never been in anything like this," said shortstop Adam Everett, whose wife is from the area. "I just know that this is a hard-working town and people are passionate. Going through what a lot of these families are going through, it's not easy."
More than 40 years after the 1968 world champion Tigers helped unite the city and the suburbs for one tremendous summer amidst a year of civil unrest and tension in Detroit and across the country, this year's Tigers are providing a different kind of reminder of the social impact a team can have.
Nothing now will compare to the stories of Willie Horton taking to the streets of Detroit during the riots of 1967, trying to calm down rioters, or of Mickey Lolich being summoned to his post by the Michigan Air National Guard that summer. It's a different situation the city and region face now. It isn't violence, but seeming hopelessness the area is battling.
Yet it's a time when a first-place team has again become a diversion, and a source of pride in a city that others want to put down. As a team defying expectations, somehow getting through so many of its own issues, the Tigers are proving to be a fitting sanctuary for a few hours.
"I think the pick-me-up is huge," Tracey Huff of Oak Park, Mich., wrote in an email. "Being an almost everyday sport, there is always a game to watch or discuss, so as a fan you can certainly spend a large amount of time on the Tigers.
"This city has been beaten up by many folks from the outside, and a fair number of people from the inside, but there is a spirit of not giving up around here. That pretty much sums up the Tigers."
It isn't a feeling that just recently came over Tigers fans. While Michigan has become one of the most-cited examples of the recession, the struggles had been building for some time. Hard times in the auto industry, the state's employment giant, had pushed the unemployment rate upward since 2006. While hope grows that better times are ahead, few in Michigan can seem to agree on when.
Now that the economy is a daily headline, Michigan's woes are hard to miss. The state's unemployment rate, which dropped last month to 15 percent, has been the nation's highest for 26 of the past 27 months through June, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Manager Jim Leyland knows it, because it has impacted people in his family. He grew up about an hour down Interstate 75 in Perrysburg, Ohio, just south of Toledo.
"My dad was a factory worker," Leyland said earlier this year. "He worked at a glass factory that made windshields for General Motors products. I worked at that factory myself. There's not much more we can do but give a good effort, bust our tails for them and show our appreciation. It's tough.
"My heart aches for these people up here. They're trying to feed their families, and we're getting a check every two weeks. We're certainly glad that we are, but we're certainly aware of the people that aren't right now."
The national horror stories were ready when the Tigers headed home in April. Little more than a month into the season, reports pegged home attendance average down 29.4 percent from the same point last year. Soon after, a national writer suggested that finances could force the Tigers to trade superstar Miguel Cabrera.
Both scenarios turned out to be overblown. Owner Mike Ilitch has maintained a payroll in the top five among Major League clubs for the past couple years. The attendance figures, meanwhile, were in relation to 2008, when the trade for Cabrera sent fans into a frenzy for ticket packages expecting October baseball.
Whatever the economy, the Tigers' last-place finish made this a season in which the team would have to prove it could contend. When it did, and when schools let out for the summer, attendance rebounded, even as bankruptcy filings for two of Detroit's Big Three automakers further shook the region's financial base.
Though a Crain's Detroit Business report showed attendance prior to the All-Star break down a little more than 20 percent from last year, average attendance continues to climb, now up to just under 32,000 per game. Only the Yankees, Angels and Red Sox had a higher average among American League teams through Sunday, and the Tigers are 12th in the Majors.
They're on pace to approach or match their totals from 2006, the year they went to the World Series.
"We knew going in the economic challenges, and we wanted to be sure that we offered fans every opportunity to come to the park," Tigers vice president of communications Ron Colangelo said. "What's really been noticeable is the higher energy level. The team seems to be feeding off that. The fans know we're in a pennant chase. They know every pitch matters, every defensive play matters, every attempt to catch a ball in foul territory."
The center-field fountain, meanwhile, has become a tribute to Detroit's auto industry. When General Motors ended its sponsorship, Ilitch kept the GM signage and added Ford and Chrysler logos along with the message, "The Detroit Tigers support our automakers."
The stories of fans' attachment to this club, this year, have been as varied as the people of the region themselves. Many seem to have identified with this particular club, its peaks and valleys, and its seemingly endless battle to take control of a division that has no statistical standout team.
"Maybe there's an allegory there, too," Michelle Moliszewski of Toledo wrote. "The Tigers are struggling to stay on top the same way we are struggling as a country right now. In the same way, the city of Detroit has been through its ups and downs, just like the team, but the potential and the hope to be back on top is always there."
Local resident and partial season-ticket holder Amy Hunt cited the everyday nature of the baseball schedule as a constant.
"What the Tigers offer during the summer months rivals what the Red Wings offer in the winter: A day-in, day-out connection to community and restored hope that lasts all season long, even if for only a few hours at a time," she wrote. "A day without a game is unusual. Whether your team is something to rejoice about is sometimes irrelevant. You sit amongst a group of people that hold the same interest you do, or the game plays to a living room of one. Either way, there is always the next inning, another game, a new series, a prospect from the Minors, and, sometimes unfortunately, a phenom from another team to see. ...
"As Tigers partial season-ticket holders, my husband and I have enjoyed quite a few collective gasps over the last few years, sometimes joyful, sometimes not. Whatever the tangible outcome, the time spent amidst innings have offered a chance to simultaneously heal our personal losses and connect with the recovering spirit of an ailing Detroit."
The Tigers seem to get those connections.
"It's amazing because of the tough times," Laird said, "but this place has always been more of a baseball town. You're surprised a little bit because of the times and people losing jobs, but when you think about it, you can't always be down.
"When you hear about how tough it is, you come here and expect to see the stadium empty," he said. "But then I tell people we're getting 40,000 people on weekends. Honestly, it's funny to see how important sports can be for a town. People can rally around us. It's amazing. I enjoy being here. It's great. People enjoy winning."
It has been a intriguing year for that in Detroit. Michigan State's run to the NCAA men's basketball title game made for a tremendous draw with the Final Four at Ford Field. Likewise, the NHL's Detroit Red Wings were a saga for many fans in the spring, all the way up to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, which they lost to Pittsburgh.
The Tigers have filled that summer role.
"You hear a lot of buzz," said Bob Bronstein, owner of 24 Seconds sports bar in Berkley, Mich. "All summer, there's been a lot of talk about the Tigers. It is a good topic of conversation. Sometimes they play great. Sometimes they don't. Even if they play bad, they're a topic of conversation."
Nearly everyone asked agrees that a Tigers postseason rally could be bigger.
"I am really hoping and praying that they win the division," wrote Theresa Smithwick of Swartz Creek, Mich., "because this area needs to have encouragement and something to cheer about."
Granderson, who has thrown himself into the community and local schools through his Grand Kids Foundation, doesn't pretend it solves the issues. Even for Detroit, there were hard times soon after 1968.
"You get hyped and excited for the time being," he said, "but as soon as it's over, it hits again. The reality is, something's still got to change."
The Tigers can't make those changes. But they can make the city, the area, the state feel upbeat that change is possible.
"It would be extra special to have October baseball here," Laird said.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.