Blast from the Past

From an editorial I wrote 4 years ago as opinion editor of the Western Herald.

The Detroit Tigers are in trouble.

The Tigers lost their Hall of Fame announcer to retirement. They lost almost two-thirds of their games this season. They have lost more than 20 percent of their attending fans from last season. The Tigers have lost nearly everything that makes the team special and exciting to the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan.

What the Tigers do have is an opportunity.

The Tigers, in the last three years, have drawn seasonal attendances ranging between 1.5 and 2.4 million fans, with an economic impact on the Detroit metro area upwards of $120 million, according to Major League Baseball and Detroit-based Comerica Bank, respectively.

In addition, the Tigers maintain a psychological hold on the state. The team’s history in American sports is so rich and runs so deep, that to speak of many aspects of our present life is to allude to the Detroit Tigers.

The development of the state, the city of Detroit, American sports as a big business and baseball as a leisure activity of enduring tradition all involve the Tigers in some way. The growth of the auto industry fueled the rise of the city of Detroit, after its origins and function as a main maritime port throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Of the forms of entertainment which arose to amuse the growing city, professional sports stands as the most prominent in modern society. One of baseball’s top teams historically (despite their current ineptitude), the Tigers contributed to the current free agent frenzy and hyper-commercialization of the game as much as any, with the possible exception of the New York Yankees. The behemoth that baseball has currently grown into is due in large part to its prominent stars and top teams, both of which Detroit has had many. Too, the prudent stewardship of John Fetzer for two decades brought the state a pair of world championships and enduring stars who provided summers of idyllic enjoyment to families throughout Michigan. The family ties which Detroit baseball helped knot still hold fast our memory.

As the city of Detroit has perhaps lost its grip on the country’s industrial artery, so have the Detroit Tigers slipped from their formerly dominant ways. Rumor has it that the club is in economic trouble, despite a beautiful brand-new ballpark and a bloated payroll. Perhaps most unbelievable of all is that the last winning season in Detroit was in 1993.

A shadow no longer looms over the institution of the Detroit Tigers. Dark clouds have enveloped the franchise, and rays of sunlight are few and far between.

However, with the interview of near-mythical Tiger hero Alan Trammell for manager, and the robust intentions of Dave Dombrowski as president and general manager, Detroit is perched upon a precipice of potential.

It has been said that the Tigers’ chief problem was that there was nothing to draw fans to the ballpark in the upcoming year. History, the Tigers’ chief asset in the past, was no longer on the team’s side. All of the homegrown fan favorites had either retired or been traded away, and even the seeming anchor of the Tigers, Ernie Harwell, just set down his microphone for good.

Dombrowski’s resolve and Trammell’s class and experience may be the necessary ingredients, along with the growing downtown renaissance movement and one of the premier parks in the country, to redevelop the Tigers club into a cultural icon and top tourist destination for the state, instead of the fallen organization it now is.

The next year the Tigers lost 119 games.  Then they signed Pudge Rodriguez and went 72-90 in 2004 and 71-91 in 2005.  I count the most important factor in the Tigers’ resurgence as the replacement of Randy Smith with Dave Dombrowski.  After that, it was the expansion of the Tigers’ payroll ($82m in 2006 vs. $55m in 2002) by a good decision-maker, eg not paying Bobby Higginson 7 million dollars a year to hit .260 or additional millions to Damion Easley, only to (rightly) cut him a year later.