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Friday, October 06, 2006
Tigers, Tigers, Burning Bright

And one game away from eliminating the Yankees.

I should mention here that I've been a fan of Detroit ever since 1963, the first year I followed baseball. My primary loyalty back then was to the New York Mets.

My dad was a Mets' fan, and in the very first game I ever attended, the Mets were losing 2-0 going to the bottom of the ninth. They got two runners on and the chant went up from the crowd at the old Polo Grounds. "Let's Go Mets! Let's Go Mets!" Duke Snider, playing his last season in front of the old fans in New York, cracked a three-run homer to right. Needless to say, I was hooked.

I picked up my fandom for the Detroit Tigers like a typical kid. I decided that even though the Mets were my #1 team, I could also pick an AL club to root for, since they wouldn't be playing them in the regular season. And I liked tigers; thought they were by far the most interesting animals.

Being a Tiger fan in the early-mid 1960s was not too bad; certainly it was more fun than rooting for the Mets. The Bengals had some quality ballplayers in Al Kaline, Bill Freehan, Norm Cash and Denny McClain. However, while they were always in the first division, they always seemed to fall short, finishing second, fourth, fifth, fourth, fourth, third and second between 1961 and 1967. The last season was especially bitter as the Tigers lost in the final game and Boston won, putting the Red Sox in the World Series.

In 1968 things improved quite a bit. The Tigers broke quickly from the gate and by June 1, they were 3.5 games in front. By July 1, they held a 7.5 game lead and Denny McLain was flirting with immortality. He had a sparkling 18-2 record at the All-Star Break. The Tigers were not seriously threatened for the rest of the season; I remember particularly Jim Norththrup achieved a bit of baseball immortality as he hit two grand slams. Denny McClain managed to win an incredible 31 games. Nobody in the American League has won more games in a season since 1913; nobody in the majors since 1916.

But in the World Series that year, it was Mickey Lolich who came through for the Bengals, winning three games including Game 7 against Bob Gibson, while McLain was 0-2. But the Tigers had won the World Series!

As some of you may have heard, the NY Mets then shocked the baseball world by winning the World Series the following year. So my two favorite teams had won the big one two years running. But I was also growing older and discovering that knowing the entire lineup of the 1962 Mets was somewhat less fascinating than knowing the name of that cute girl in my English class.

Fortunately my teams cooperated to an extent, both of them slipping quite a bit from their lofty perches. Detroit slipped to second and then fourth (in the new six-team divisions), while the Mets finished third three years in a row. The Tigers got back into the playoffs in 1972, while the Mets managed to squeak in with a horrific 82-79 record in 1973. Both ended up giving the eventual World Champion Oakland A's a tussle before losing the final game.

And both promptly headed to pretty poor stretches. They went to third, then sixth, sixth, and fourth in 1977. But in that final year, some seeds were sewn as Detroit called four young men up to the senior club in September: Jack Morris, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker and Lance Parrish. That, my friends, must be the September callup of all time; four young men who would all become star players of near Hall of Fame caliber. When you consider that they joined a 22-year old first baseman who hit 32 homers with 105 RBI and a 22-year-old outfielder who hit 18 dingers with 88 runners plated and a 20-year-old pitcher who won 15 games, it's not hard to see that the Tigers' future looked bright, especially when midway through 1979 they picked up Sparky Anderson.

But again, as in the 1960s, the Tigers seem to always be in sniffing distance of the flag, but never quite able to close the deal. They were over .500 every year from 1978 on, but they finished fifth, fifth and fifth from 1978-80. After the strike year of 1981, they pulled up to fourth, and then second in 1983. In 1984, as in 1968, the Tigers pounced out of the box, quickly taking the AL East lead. They jumped to an incredible 35-5 start, then cruised home. In the postseason they easily handled the Kansas City Royals and then the San Diego Padres, losing only one game in the process.

Coincidentally, again the Mets followed suit, although this time there was a year in between. The Tigers did not fall apart this time, finishing third and third with winning records before making a stunning comeback in the final week of 1987 to catch and pass the Toronto Blue Jays for the AL East title. They were helped by the performance of Doyle Alexander, who was traded to the Tigers in mid-season and went 11-1 down the stretch. Unfortunately, what few realized at the time was what the Tigers had given up to get Alexander; it was John Smoltz, who went on to have a Hall of Fame career with the Atlanta Braves. The Tigers were easily handled by the Minnesota Twins in the playoffs.

Detroit dropped to second in 1988, and then the bottom fell out of the bucket as the team crashed to 59-103, only the third time in their history that the team had lost 100 games in a season. The Tigers managed to get back near .500 for a few years after that, but from 1994-2005 they never had a winning season. In 2003, they had one of the worst seasons of all time, finishing 43-119 and almost matching the New York Mets' record of 120 losses. Indeed, as I blogged back then, the only reason the team did not lose more than 120 was that they finished with a roar, winning five of their last six games, including one incredible comeback from eight runs behind.

They moved up to the 70-win area for the last two years, but nothing prepared me for this season, when the Tigers suddenly became one of the elite teams in baseball. You have to give Jim Leyland a lot of credit for that; he's been competitive everywhere he's managed.

So that takes us to the present. The Tigers still have to close out the Yankees, never an easy prospect. But a 2-1 advantage is huge; the announcers tonight mentioned that in the 33 five-game series where the teams were tied 1-1 after two games, the team that won the third game had gone on to win the series 25 times.
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