Postseason fever lifts Detroit's spirits
Baseball a timely distraction for a city enduring hardships
CLEVELAND -- Every postseason seems to have an underdog story. If Detroit can be there, it might well be the underdog city.
As the Tigers creep ever closer to their first division title since 1987 while Michigan's economic woes continue, the bonds between a struggling city and its contending team are now drawing attention well outside Detroit.
That includes Major League Baseball, whose latest commercial for the postseason, "Beyond Determination," profiles manager Jim Leyland's connection to Michigan's blue-collar grit and appreciation for the hard times in the city, the region and the state. The ad began airing on FOX this week.
"My dad was a factory worker," Leyland told reporters earlier this season. "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. You do whatever you can to help. I mean, I've got family members out of work over the recession, so I know what it's like. You just hope that they understand that you have a great appreciation for what they're going through."
Much like the Detroit area that is struggling to break the grips of a recession that swept the country last year but overtook Michigan long before, the Tigers have tried to overcome their struggles throughout the season and ride their strengths to a postseason berth. The success of the latter is becoming a diversion for the former.
It's a dichotomy that might be more surprising than the Tigers' performance on the field. For all the challenges looming over the area and the state, 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. "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 unrest across the country, this year's Tigers have provided a different 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 rioters down, or of Mickey Lolich being summoned to his post in the Michigan Air National Guard that summer. It's a different situation the city and region face now, and a different impact.
The appreciation, however, is becoming similar. 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 e-mail. "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."
The stories of fans' attachment to this club this year have been as varied as the people of the region itself. Many seem to identify 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, Mich., 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 cites 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 among 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," catcher Gerald 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 an 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 up to Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Tigers have filled that summer role. Now they hope to take it through October.
"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.