Better Than Ever, Less Enthused Than Ever.

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Welcome to a weekly column by Kyle Bauer on various happenings in national and local sports.  Agree or disagree with the author? Please comment below or let him know your thoughts by email,[email protected] or twitter, @kyle_bauer

Last Saturday, I was at my local gym burning up the elliptical as well as any man possibly could. As I stepped off the machine, wiping sweat off my brow, a middle-aged woman in an hi-lighter pink Tigers shirt asked,

“Excuse me, can you make out how many runs the Royals have?”

It would’ve been a valid question, we were positioned far enough from the TV, a score could be hard to make out. The problem with her question was that the Yankees were playing the Red Sox at Fenway Park, two uniforms–that unless you have a serious vision impairment, which she might’ve–are pretty hard to mix up with the Tigers and Royals and Fenway Park is arguably the most distinct stadium in baseball. Withholding condescension, I politely explained that was the Yankees and Red Sox on TV and the Tigers game will begin in a couple hours. As I walked away, I couldn’t help but shake my head.

Whoever wants to be a Tigers fan, has a right to be. The fact that for some awful reason hi-lighter pink Tigers apparel exists is enough to give fans a right to buy it. I really shouldn’t find anything wrong with such an expansive and inclusive fan base, especially considering I was the one desperately pleading for this area to get behind this year’s underdog Red Wings team back in June. If there’s a good sports story in town, I shouldn’t have a problem with newbies latching on to the side of the ‘Frontrunner Express’, yet I’ve been unsettled by the overflowing cart of sudden Tiger diehards in the past two seasons. I can’t exactly justify my feelings, I can’t say that I’m not an insufferable hack for writing this, but I can’t help feeling jaded.

I wonder if anyone else is with me. I wonder if those fans who were with me in the build-up to 2006, feel similar. I actually hope they don’t because I don’t like feeling snobbish. Yet I think back glowingly to July 22, 2004 on a sweltering Thursday afternoon when I watched a promising, not-yet-ready-for-primetime Tigers squad chained to relief pitcher Danny Patterson who ostensibly served as a pitching machine for his opponent–on this day, the Royals. He gave up three runs on two home runs in 1 and 2/3 innings, blowing the game wide open for Kansas City in the 8th, after it appeared the Tigers were primed for a comeback. Sitting up in section 340, with the sun baking my skin and brain, I became increasingly agitated, shouting obscenities as Royals rounded the bases. I knew at that point it was another wasted summer. Marked improvement was shown from the record-setting futility of 2003, but it still wasn’t enough.

Two years later I was vindicated with a magical summer, one that saw me go to Comerica Park at least once a week. Despite being a 19 year old who was barely working part-time, my meager funds were still enough to get $6 or $12 seats either in the 345 section or Kaline’s Corner (those seats are now both over $20 face value). I could walk-up a half hour before first pitch and pay cash for decent tickets or buy them at the mall or Meijer without a credit card. Those were good times–I’m talking like it was 25 years ago. With every game I attended, I watch more and more seats fill up and enthusiasm grow. “Bless You Boys!” was being chanted again, “Eat ’em Up Tigers! Eat ’em Up!” was as well.

In some ways it culminated in those nightmarish error-addled final two regular season series against Toronto and Kansas City. The Tigers lost the final five games of the season, four of the five I attended. I skipped class for the Thursday matinee against the Blue Jays then had to beg my professor not to drop me (he didn’t). In the series opener against the Royals, the Tigers blew the 9th inning lead on multiple errors and a hanging Todd Jones cutter, then eventually lost in 11 innings. The following night, I stood in standing room through a two hour rain delay only to watch Zach Miner start and give up five runs in 1/3 inning–the Tigers eventually lost 9-6 in what remains as the rowdiest Tigers crowd I’ve ever been apart of and I’ve been to two playoff games and two Opening Days since.

Yes, I referenced all loses in my “fond memories” file. No, this isn’t because I’m a gigantic troll, it’s because I’ve been there through some dark times with this franchise. I feel like being there through those tough times is what has defined me as a fan, not that I’m saying that’s what has to define you as a fan, but it’s what’s defined me as a Tigers fan.

Though the Tigers were not without the big free agent signing of Pudge Rodriguez, Kenny Rogers and Magglio Ordonez, I still felt like that 2006 team and the fans who were with that team from its infancy in 2004, went through such an incredibly organic experience. We watched that team grow and the fan base slowly grow with it. I had a complete blast, even though the incredibly painful losses and certainly through the jubilant times.

I was a partial season-ticket holder 2007 through 2010 and I certainly witnessed a lot more of the amazing and disparaging in person and on TV. Yet, as a fan, I’ve never felt so disconnected from the team, that since I was in pre-school, I’ve felt so connected to.

The reason why so many new fans have come aboard is simple: for the first time ever since the modern playoff format was implemented in 1969, the Tigers made the playoffs in back to back seasons, they have developed and traded for big names like Verlander, Scherzer, Jackson and Cabrera and signed the likes of Hunter and Martinez.This strategy has worked in every regard; Comerica is packed not only on weekends now, but also on weeknights in the dead of summer, the team is underachieving yet still in first place and the park has stepped up adding more and more seats the past five seasons and now we got an even bigger new scoreboard, craft beer and sushi. But with all the fancy come-on’s and assured victories, ticket prices have gone up in every section–tripling and doubling in some, parking has gone up and the mere raised expectation has oddly soiled the surprise and spectacle of taking 3 out of 4 from Boston or winning a road series in Anaheim.

The organic experience I felt as a fan, one that made me feel galvanized as a supporter of this franchise through every 90 to 110 loss season up to coming up just short, is gone. I still root for the Tigers and watch or listen daily, but I hardly go to games anymore, I’m just not compelled to because everything is so different now. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there is an ora of inauthenticity I can’t shake. For that, I can’t even think back to any seminal moments from a team that won the American League Championship—um, maybe that ALDS game against Oakland when Donnie Kelly (Baby) got the game winning hit? Or Verlander stepping up in game 5 and completely shutting down Oakland? Did the Tigers even actually play a World Series game, or was that all a computerized CGI simulation presented by Fox?

I blame myself for becoming so jaded and I applaud those that haven’t because you’re enjoying what I’ve wanted all along; a team that is one of the big boys of baseball. Our Detroit Tigers are now a perennial contender and featured and talked about on the national stage frequently. We are more like the Yankees and Red Sox than the Athletics and Rays, and if you’re cool with that, good, because you should be. We should all want our team to be successful and respected, not overlooked.

I suppose this is all just a testament to how much I hate change. The culture around Comerica Park has certainly changed. When I think how much change there has been in six short years, I think back to September 26, 2007– the Tigers were playing their last home game of the season against Minnesota. I sat in the right-centerfield bleachers in the cold drizzling rain, purely there to help send off Magglio who was completing one of the greatest offensive seasons in Tigers history (pre-Cabrera). Torii Hunter was one of the biggest free-agents heading into that off-season and though he was still a premiere center fielder at that point in his career, I had the pipe dream of him in right and Granderson in center. I kept yelling at Torii, like the idiot 20 year old I was,

“HEY, TORII, YOU KNOW YOU’D LOOK DAMN GOOD IN A TIGERS UNIFORM!!!”

I chirped him for three innings, until he finally looked back, tipped his hat and laughed. I never thought he’d sign with the Tigers then. I never figured the Tigers to ever be the type of franchise Hunter would sign with. Oh how things have changed. I got my wish six years later.

Leaving the stadium soaked that night, a lot of season-ticket holders were saying bye to each other, the vendors and ushers we’re wishing everyone goodbye as well, all knowing that we’ll see each other next season and it will be better (though it wasn’t). On the way out, I stopped at the corner of Montcalm and Witherell to congratulate James Van Horn on another season of priming Tigers fans with his “Eat ’em Up Tigers!” chant, dropped a couple bucks into his cups and cheesily took the photo you see above with him. His rampant enthusiasm tinged with desperation always made us smile, and I think his gravely voice would always stick in our heads on the way into the stadium and walking back to our cars. As I’m typing this, I can vividly hear him simply meekly mumble, “God bless you. Thank you.” Now tragically that’s even changed.

 

Kyle Bauer is an award winning college sports broadcaster and former Sports Director of WXOU 88.3fm, freelance journalist and radio producer who has been published in The Macomb Daily, mlive.com, Oakland Post and MIPREPZONE.com, follow him on Twitter @kyle_bauer