Baseball is alive and well in Detroit
Fan support for Tigers never died even during the lean years
DETROIT -- They heard about it. And if they heard it once, they'd hear it a thousand times.
Virtually every Tigers player had heard, at some point, that Detroit was a baseball town. Sleeping giant, some had said. All it took was a winner, and they'd see. Free agents heard about it when they came in. Prospects heard it when they made it to the big club.
Obviously, they're seeing it now. If they didn't know it before, they're certainly seeing it now. They knew Detroit was a sports town, but being a baseball town is something else.
"They've been great fans," Carlos Guillen said. "This is what they've been waiting for for a long time, 20 years to go to the playoffs, and this is a famous team to me. Back in , they won the World Series, and right now they expect this kind of moment. They enjoy it."
One of the more popular hangouts for baseball fans in Detroit, ironically, is a restaurant/bar called Hockeytown Café that sits steps away from Comerica Park. It predates the ballpark, having opened in 1998 as part of the Foxtown neighborhood redevelopment orchestrated by Tigers and Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch. Another place that just opened outside the park this year is Cheli's Chili Bar, a restaurant owned by Red Wings defenseman Chris Chelios.
The Hockeytown phrase was coined during the 1990s by the Red Wings in their marketing campaign. Since then, the city has become pretty much a town for every sport. When the World Series starts on Saturday night, Detroit will have hosted a championship event in each of the four major sports over the last five years -- something no other city can boast.
"Detroit is a sports city," Guillen said. "We've got basketball, the Pistons, Red Wings, Lions, and now we've got the Detroit Tigers. It's exciting; they're pretty good fans, and I like it."
When Detroit hosted the Super Bowl in February at Ford Field, across the street from Comerica Park, it was supposed to be the biggest sporting event in the city's history. Six months later, with all due respect to the NFL and the convoy of Steelers fans that set up camp for Super Bowl weekend, the city has found something to top that.
"We're just going to enjoy this," Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick said Saturday. "The Super Bowl was great, but that was Pittsburgh's time to dance. This is ours. Hosting a party is always great, but it's better when you're hosting one for yourselves."
It goes beyond having a stake in the outcome. Those who have been around a while insist that the Tigers have a special place in this city, win or lose, because the team has been a major part of the city's history.
The franchise is about as old as the auto industry for which the region is synonymous. When Ford Motor Company first came out with the Model T in 1908, the Tigers were in the midst of three consecutive American League titles.
"I think it started back in the early days of the automobile," Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell said, "back when Ty Cobb came and there was talk that Detroit had a bad franchise and was looking to move. All of a sudden, the Tigers took off and got to the World Series, and interest started to build.
"A lot of it probably stems from the popularity of Ty Cobb back in the time. They were really the first superstar franchise."
The Tigers have often seemed to have a good sense of timing. They won an AL pennant in 1934 and a World Series in 1935, when the city was still dealing with an economic depression. Their World Series title in 1945 came on the heels of a victory in World War II and the eventual shift back to a peacetime economy.
From 1934-50, the Tigers ran off 15 winning seasons in a 17-year span. The franchise went a half-century without a last-place finish until 1952.
"And I think after that," Harwell said, "it became a generational thing. The father would bring his kid, and he would bring his kid, and so forth."
A few years ago, a television documentary chronicled how the Tigers' World Series championship in 1968 helped keep the city at an uneasy peace following the riots that engulfed parts of the area a year earlier. While so many other cities erupted in violence during that turbulent year, Detroit had a diversion. Unfortunately, the 1984 championship became known almost as much for the riots that followed as the euphoria inside Tiger Stadium.
Until now, it has been a baseball town living largely on history. Yet even during the lean years of 12 consecutive losing seasons that almost cost them a generation of fans, the Tigers have been more lamented than forgotten. Opening Day is an institution in Detroit, win or lose, and a rite of spring that for many becomes their first tailgating party. The season finale, in turn, is the last sign of summer's departure and the oncoming chill that soon grips the area in the winter.
It's also a civic matter. The old English "D" that adorns the Tigers cap, meanwhile, is a symbol for the city. Actor Tom Selleck donned the cap often years ago in the television series "Magnum P.I." So have Enimem and Kid Rock over the years. As the Tigers became the toast of baseball this summer, the "D" could be spotted in one city after another.
Yet, it is not a fashion icon like some other teams' caps and logos. To wear it means some sort of connection to Detroit.
As much as this year's success means for those Tigers players who suffered through 119 losses in 2003, they remember it as much for the fans. Many players will never forget the final day of that regular season, when all that was left to play for that year was avoiding the 120-loss modern record of the 1962 Mets. When the Tigers pulled ahead in that final game with a seven-run sixth inning, they were given a standing ovation. When the game ended, they were given a lengthy ovation on their way off the field.
They suspected then it was a baseball town. It was simply just a dormant one.
"Walking around, going to the mall, you hear, 'Thanks,'" Craig Monroe said. "I've heard so many thank yous. And we say, 'Thank you,' back, because they've stuck with us. They've been here through a lot of bad times here. That's what makes it gratifying for us, to know that we've done something special for the city of Detroit."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.