Sunday, September 02, 2012

Tigers Proving That Winning Divisions Only Easy on Paper

It wasn’t supposed to go down like this.

As August turns to September in this sometimes God forsaken 2012 baseball season, this isn’t whatTigers fans had in mind for Labor Day weekend.

The worries were supposed to be the usual for this time of the year: getting the kids back to school; figuring out what to throw on the grill as the outdoor cooking season winds down; wondering what you have with the Lions—playoff contender or pretender?

And hey, can you really not wear white after the first Monday in September?

Maybe there’d be lawn work to consider or an oil change for the car or one more trip to the zoo to hastily plan.

The baseball fans in this town didn’t figure on worrying about the boys with the Old English D sewn on the front of their creamy white uniforms.

This was supposed to be a cake walk. There wasn’t a more sure bet since Ali over Wepner, or Nixon over McGovern. The Tigers were a lock to win the AL Central. The bookies in Vegas all but took the division off the board. You could have gotten more action on a playground at recess.

When those baseball preview magazines started hitting the shelves over the winter, the experts with “so-called” before their moniker all liked the Tigers—and I do mean all. The Tigers cruised to the division title in 2011 and no one saw any reason to feel that 2012 would be any different.

Then Victor Martinez, the switch-hitting RBI machine signed as a free agent prior to last season, wrecked his knee in January. For about two weeks, the Tigers’ place as cemented division champs became slightly wobbly.

Until the team signed Prince Fielder; after that, the bandwagon became overfilled again.

The question wasn’t whether the Tigers would win the AL Central—it was by how much. Baseball pundits from Bangor to Seattle—across the board—treated the Central as if the Tigers were the Harlem Globetrotters and everyone else was a version of the Washington Generals.

The lineup looked deep. Fielder was plopped into the middle of the batting order, behind Miguel Cabrera and ahead of Delmon Young. Fans saw the growth and maturity of catcher Alex Avila and pegged him for a breakout year in 2012. Brennan Boesch was penciled in for 20 homers and 80 RBI and a .275 batting average.

Jhonny Peralta may not know how to spell his first name, but he could hit and that’s all that mattered.
Avila and Peralta were All-Stars in 2011—so why not expect more of the same in 2012?

The pitching staff, from the starters to the bullpen components, appeared to be battle-tested and ready to go—a wonderful blend of youth and experience. To be safe, the Tigers signed nomadic reliever Octavio Dotel.

Last season, the division was in doubt in late-August, and then the Tigers pulled away with a 12-game winning streak.

But that kind of hot streak wouldn’t be needed in 2012, to hear everyone from award-winning journalists to your neighbor to YOU say it.

Back in April, when the Tigers got off to a 9-3 start, you can imagine what the images of Labor Day brought to the minds of Detroit baseball fans.

This was going to be a relaxing, care-free weekend.

The Tigers would be making mincemeat of the RoyalsTwinsIndians and White Sox. There would be no “race,” per se—only a wake for the other teams.

Labor Day would come along and it was going to mean just one measly more month before the excitement of playoff baseball would be returning to Motown.

No worries, no angst, no hand-wringing. A division sewn up, a playoff spot assured. You want drama? Look elsewhere for it.

It was going to be a fun, frolicking summer of baseball in Detroit. The Tigers were too deep, too powerful, too experienced to be challenged seriously. The “race” would be over by the All-Star break, tops.

There weren’t going to be any worries this Labor Day weekend. The sizzle of the brats and the hot dogs on the grill were going to match that of the baseball team in town.

1984 even came to mind—the year the Tigers ran away and hid from the pack, making a mockery of the AL East.

If they played baseball on paper, the Tigers would be leading the division by 10, 12 games.

Paper baseball assumes that the numbers put up by certain players would be replicated the following year.

Avila, Peralta, Young and Boesch haven’t produced anywhere near the performances turned in last season. All four, you could say, have regressed as hitters.

The White Sox, not the Tigers, lead the AL Central as the calendar flips to September. The White Sox, a team buried like Caesar before the season, is the squad getting big years from unexpected sources. They lead the Tigers by two games after Friday’s loss in Detroit—but they still lead, when most observers would have left them for dead by now.

The Tigers, on the other hand, have put their fans through a meat grinder this year.

There was that 9-3 start, highlighted by a three-game sweep over the Boston Red Sox on opening weekend, the third game of which featured a monstrous late-inning comeback and a walk-off homer by Avila.

It all appeared to be a grand omen and a division title seemed fait accompli.

But 9-3 suddenly turned into 10-10 and from there on, the Tigers have been a maddening, sometimes gut-wrenching team to follow.

Sports talk radio and the blogs have blown up with vitriol for this baseball team. The fans come off as having been duped—even betrayed. Sometimes they swear they are done investing their emotions into the Tigers, yet every night at Comerica Park, the joint is packed.

Baseball isn’t played on paper. The seasons are like snowflakes, to be frank—each one is different, no matter if the players are mostly the same.

If you’re a baseball fan, each season means 162 times you’re either giddy or snarling mad. Like the great broadcaster Red Barber once said about the Brooklyn Dodgers and their boosters: “When the Dodgers lost, a lot of suppers went cold and uneaten in the borough.”

This wasn’t supposed to be a summer of cold, uneaten suppers in Detroit. Everyone figured on eating just fine, thanks.

Especially on Labor Day weekend.

Baseball on paper, indeed!


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