Friday, October 02, 2009

Twins Better Than Tigers, But Got Going Too Late

Ronald Reagan was in the midst of his second term as president. The Pistons were still having ghoulish nightmares about Isiah Thomas's pass to Larry Bird in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Steve Yzerman has just completed his first season as a boy captain. Darryl Rogers hadn't started wondering about what it took to get fired around here.

That was the political and sports landscape, nationally and around Detroit, when the Blue Jays' Garth Iorg tapped one back to Frank Tanana, who underhanded the ball to first baseman Darrell Evans, clinching the Tigers' last divisional title.

It was October 4, 1987---22 years ago this Sunday.

The Gregorian calendar is the exact same in 2009 as it was in '87, the last time the Tigers were division champs. So maybe that's a good omen.

It would have been nice to write this today in the past tense, talking about how the Tigers clinched the division yesterday, at home, against the Minnesota Twins, their only pursuer.

But it still feels inevitable, here on Friday, so time to reflect.

Time to soak in what a 22-year drought means in baseball terms.

Yeah, yeah---the Tigers went to the World Series in 2006, thanks to Bud Selig's Wild Card. The Tigers were that year's Kings of Second Place, and thus squeezed into the post-season, despite gagging the Central Division away to the Twins---culminating in the Tigers' inability to beat the woeful Kansas City Royals even one time, at home, during the season's final weekend.

The World Series appearance was nice. No question. And had the Tigers not had to wait a full week to start the darn thing, they might have fared better in it. Oh well.

But the Tigers don't have Selig's Wild Card to fall back on this time. If they want to play some truly meaningful October baseball, they're going to have to be first place participants, not Kings of Second Place.

Twenty-two years without a division. That's seven years longer than the wait between Billy Martin's Hitless Wonders of 1972 and Sparky Anderson's Comeback Kids of '87.

The 1968 crew's pennant---the last time the league could be won sans playing an LCS series---came 23 years after the 1945 World Series winner's.

Don't tell me that it doesn't matter if you lose the division, as long as you make the playoffs. Remember the utter disappointment when the Tigers couldn't close the deal in '06, despite the Wild Card already having been clinched?

OK, so what will it be like around here if the Tigers cough this one up, too?

No ALDS against the Yankees. The Kings of Second Place this year are the Boston Red Sox. So it'll be Boston who'll be in the playoffs as second place crashers.

The Tigers had a seven-game lead on Labor Day. That's usually a good thing.

The Twins lost Justin Morneau around the same time. That's usually a bad thing.

Yet a division that should have been salted away a week or so ago is still hanging in the balance.

The reason is pretty clear, or at least should be.

The Minnesota Twins play a better brand of baseball than the Tigers. The truth hurts, I know.

It should be the Twins, by rights, who represent the AL Central in the playoffs, except that they underachieved most of the year---and they were missing MVP candidate Joe Mauer for the first month of the season.

The Twins team that you're seeing in September is more representative of what they truly are.

The Twins do many things better than the Tigers. They move runners along the basepaths better. They walk fewer hitters. They drive in runs from third base with less than two outs far better than the Tigers do.

They have a better lineup, hitting-wise.

They have Ron Gardenhire as manager, who nullifies Jim Leyland, and then some.

They had the Metrodome for 81 games.

Yet they---the Twins---are still likely to fall short, despite their late run, because they muddled along at or just below .500 most of the season. That's their fault, of course.

That the Tigers couldn't put the Twins away is an indictment against the Bengals.

If the Tigers win the division, Leyland should be considered highly for Manager of the Year. For he will have piloted a team to first place---no matter what you think of the division, which is lousy---without the benefit of an offense.

Martin did the same thing, too, in 1972. His team's batting average was, get this, .237. The Tigers scored 558 runs in 156 games (the season was shortened by a strike)---an average of just 3.6 runs per game.

Sparky's '87 team was the opposite---it could mash the ball but didn't pitch so well a lot of the time.

Different teams, different eras. That happens.

Leyland's Hitless Wonders might win this thing after all, which is truly amazing.

A team with Clete Thomas hitting third. A team that got virtually nothing offensively from catcher, shortstop, left field, right field, and DH.

A team with an underachieving Curtis Granderson. A one-legged Brandon Inge. An invisible late-season acquisition in Aubrey Huff. A team without a typical Magglio Ordonez until September. Or Placido Polanco, for that matter.

The Tigers' offense has been Miguel Cabrera and a bunch of no-names such as Ryan Raburn and Alex Avila. For 159 games.

Yet they're in first place.

The best team with the best manager won't win the Central Division. But that's baseball.

And that's why Jim Leyland should be Manager of the Year.


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