Today is opening day for the Detroit Tigers, who start their season this afternoon in Kansas City. There will be some hoopla, but baseball isn’t what it used to be in Detroit, or in the country.
The Tigers haven’t had a winning season in thirteen years. The have never been that bad for that long before. They started life as a major league team a hundred and six years ago. William McKinley was president, and Detroit was a town that made stoves.
They played then in a wooden ballpark that wasn’t even fenced all the way around. Later, it became an irregular concrete bowl they called Navin Field and Briggs Stadium and finally Tiger Stadium.
They were sometimes bad and sometimes good, but people followed them passionately. Baseball in Detroit, as baseball elsewhere, produced legends and legendary characters.
There was Charlie Maxwell of Paw Paw, famous for hitting home runs on Sunday. Ty Cobb, the sociopath of the base paths. Crazy Denny McLain, and crazier Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. And then there was Al Kaline. Forty years ago, to mark his long years of stardom, the Tigers raised Kaline’s salary to $100,000, as much as any mortal player could expect to make then. Kaline refused to sign. He said he didn’t deserve to make that much yet. He would only take $90,000. Today, second-string infielders make millions.
Today, the Tigers play in a beautiful new stadium called Comerica Park. But people still miss the old concrete bowl, which sits slowly crumbling by the side of the freeway. And Michigan doesn’t feel the same about the team.
Kids today prefer basketball, or football, or the fast pace of hockey. And yet, it is opening day, and the Tigers have an inspiring new manager, and anything is possible.
Four or five years ago, Denise Ilitch was upset with a particular newspaper’s coverage of her team. I went to a lunch meeting with her and the newspaper’s editors, sort of as an umpire. She had some legitimate complaints, and some that I thought were silly. At one point, she said she thought the newspaper’s negative coverage of the team was responsible for lower ticket sales that year. That was a little too much.
I said “Ms. Ilitch, if the Tigers were twenty games over 500 instead of twenty games under 500, you would have to hire extra security guards to keep people from overrunning the stadium.”
And that could happen yet. One thing is still the same about baseball: You never can tell. And here’s something old codgers like me should keep in mind. Back when Ed Koch was running for mayor of New York City, an old woman ran up to him. “Make it like it was again,” she said. Koch said he would do his best. Then he looked at her gently. “You know, it was never really like it was.”