Monday, August 19, 2013

How I Fell In Love With Baseball Again

On Sunday, I went to see the Tigers play for the 5th time ever.  They beat the Kansas City Royals 6-3.  I watched Miguel Cabrera hit his 361st home run, tying Joe DiMaggio for 77th all time. 

Two years ago, I never thought I'd write something like that.  I only got interested in the Tigers somewhere late in the 2011 season during the playoffs.  If someone calls me a fair weather fan, I'd say guilty as charged.  Same could never be said for the Lions.

I grew up in a Detroit Tigers household.  My earliest memories of the team are watching them on Channel 4 in Detroit in the summer of 1985, a year after they won the World Series.  Sports came to me kind of slowly; the next sport I fell in love with was basketball via the Detroit Pistons.  Then came football and the Detroit Lions and hockey with the Red Wings.

My favorite Tigers player growing up was Cecil Fielder.  "Big Daddy" came out of nowhere in 1990 to hit 51 home runs, with the last two on the final day of the year in dramatic fashion.  Fielder was the first player to hit 50 homers since 1977.  Before 1990, he was a journeyman ball player having bounced around the Toronto Blue Jays and some teams in Japan. 

Fielder was an All Star on teams that had heavy hitters, but only average pitching.  Fielder, along with Mickey Tettleton and Rob Deer managed to hit more than 30 home runs in 1992, the same year Tom Monaghan sold the team to Mike Illitch. 

1993 was the last year the Tigers would have a winning season until the 2006 season.  After an underachieving 1992 season, the Tigers suddenly got hot in May and June, taking a commanding lead of the AL Central.  They cooled off in early July, and despite losing the division, still remained above .500. 

Two things happened that made me lose interest in the team.  The 1994 strike and the subsequent bottoming out in 1996.  I didn't understand the politics and business side of baseball much, but the strike that year ended the season and baseball wouldn't come back until the first half of an abbreviated 1995 season. 

Illitch hired Randy Smith to be the new GM, despite having a losing record with Florida and the team never posted a winning record under his tenure.  Baseball wasn't fun for a long time, despite the 1998 season where Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa obliterated Roger Maris' single season home run record and the New York Yankees posted a record win season and won the World Series.  Those were exciting times despite the Tigers' irrelevance.

After 2002, Randy Smith was fired and Illitich hired Dave Dombrowski as the new GM.  Dombrowski's first move was to hire Tigers' great Alan Trammell, the MVP of the 1984 World Series Tigers.  They won only 43 games that year, barely avoiding the record for most losses in a season. 

By then I had accepted the Tigers' irrelevancy as part of summer.  Detroit had improved in each of the next two years under Trammell, but 2005 wasn't good enough and Dombrowski let go of Trammell for failing to post a winning season.

The same year, the steroid scandal went public after Jose Canseco (a former crush of my sister's) wrote a tell-all about steroids in baseball and dropped names.  To me, the scandal was hypocritical.  So many players were found to have "cheated," including McGwire, Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, and Ken Caminiti. 

My stance on performance enhancing drugs are the same now as they were eight years ago: let them eat PEDs.  It's not cheating if everyone's doing it.  No, not every ball player was using steroids, but it's hypocritical for baseball to be outraged when the league has for years done things to juice the game (ending the "Dead Ball Era," adding lights to night games, lowering the pitching mound, etc).  Just tell the players what's in them and let them decide if the risks are worth it.  I'd rather see home runs galore.

But the Tigers apparently weren't using them enough as they still couldn't post a .500 record or better.  Until Dave Dombrowski hired Jim Leyland to manage the club in 2006.  That year, the Tigers not only posted their first winning season, but went all the way to the World Series and lost to St. Louis in five games.

We had a World Series contender, and I still didn't really care.  The steroid "scandal" maintained my apathy.  The Tigers managed to stay competitive, despite underachieving from 2007-2010. 

Something finally clicked towards the end of 2011.  The Tigers were in the ALCS, facing the Texas Rangers.  Despite having one of the best pitchers in the game, Justin Verlander, he struggled and it was another pitcher they had acquired at the trade deadline that got me curious about the Tigers again: Doug Fister. 

Fister managed to play well when their ace and other pitchers on the staff couldn't.  Before being traded, Fister was another nameless pitcher on a languishing ball club in Seattle.  He never had a winning record until he was traded to Detroit.  He went 8-1 in the second half of 2011 and Dombrowski pulled off another of many coups (the trade for Cabrera, the trade that got Max Scherzer and Austin Jackson, and more recently, the trade for Anibal Sanchez). 

In 2012, the Tigers were expected to compete for the World Series.  They got off to a hot start, but cooled off and struggled most the summer.  Fister injured his right costochondral muscle (rib cage) and struggle to get healthy for the next two months.  He arrived just in time for the team to get hot.  Luckily, Scherzer managed to find his game in the middle of that year, and the Tigers had a solid 1-2-3 rotation with ace Verlander, Fister, and Scherzer.  Adding Sanchez late in the year gave them what's now the best starting rotation in the league with Rick Porcello rounding out the rotation.

We thought once the playoffs had rolled around, that Verlander finally found his way in the big game.  Verlander had struggled in the 2006 World Series, and again in the years where he was playing in prime time.  He played brilliantly against the Oakland A's in the Divisional, and the Yankees in the ALCS, but was shelled in Game 1 of the World Series at San Francisco. 

Fister, on the other hand, showed he was pure clutch down the stretch.  Despite finishing with a 10-10 record on the year, Fister managed to be the pitcher Verlander was in 2011, a pitcher who comes in to stop the bleeding and get a win the team needed it most.  On the final home game of the 2012 season, a game I attended, he broke the AL record for consecutive strike outs with 9.  He was one shy of tying Tom Seaver's MLB record of 10 in a row. 

I was excited because I was probably the only one there that was wearing his jersey (even though I saw a fan a few rows away wearing a shirt with his name and number on it).  Make no mistake, my support of him can't be in question even if my support for baseball on the whole can be.

His reliability moved him up to No. 2 in the rotation and he earned the nod for Game 1 of the ALCS.  The Tigers swept the Yankees and Fister was called on again to start Game 2 at San Francisco.  Fister outperformed Verlander, but ended up picking up the loss despite giving up only one run.  The game was most memorable for Fister taking a line drive to the back of the head from a hit off of Gregor Blanco's bat.  What initially looked like a deflection of his glove was in fact a ball that smacked the back of his head behind his right ear.  I have no idea how he was still alive, let alone able to continue playing.

The Tigers got swept, and that loss was tough to take.  Come 2013, the Tigers currently have a 7-game lead and the 2nd best record in baseball behind the Atlanta Braves (as of August 19).  Fister is currently 10-6 and has an ERA of 3.63.  I predicted he'd win 20 games and he started off going 5-0 before hitting a wall with some bad luck from the offense and a about three or four poor outings. 

He should have won about 15 games by now, but he's still one of the best in baseball.  Both he and Verlander have since been eclipsed by Max Scherzer, who's pitching out of his mind and now stands at 18-1 on the year with a 2.82 ERA. 

But I'm not mad.  Between Fister, Sanchez, and Verlander, any of those three could fall in the 2-4 spot.  If Fister is the No.3 come playoff time, I suspect he'll be pitching in Game 7s if need be.  Despite Scherzer's season and Verlander's resume, I'd go with Fister in a Game 7 situation.

As the season begins to wind down, my chances to see Fister pitch are left to two or three games.  In order for him to win 20 games, he'll have to win every start from here on out.  That's too much to ask.  But I have to see him play in person at least one time this year. 

Even if I don't get to see him, I have faith he and the Tigers are going to win the World Series.  Although I'd like to see them play San Francisco in a rematch, it's highly unlikely, given the Giants' record. 

If Doug Fister can't win 20 games, this year, may he at least be the pitcher who seals the deal for Detroit in October.

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