|Tigers, Tigers, not burning bright|
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist
There are times when the journalism gods shower you with love and kindness: All your locations are warm and sunny, all your interviews are free-flowing and far-ranging, and all your angles are ready-made, crisp, moving and intriguing.
You live and work through one of these times and you know, sure as you know the sun will rise the next morning, that you are one of the chosen, the happy few, the truly blessed.
Then there are the other times, times when the gods feel mischievous, when they whisper wicked little ideas into the ears of your editors, ideas that worm their way in and do their evil magic, magic that leads to phone calls like this:
"We want you to watch the Tigers for a week."
"Watch them do what?"
"(Chuckles) Just watch them play six or seven games. Give us a feel for them. Tell us what you see, what it's like to watch them …"
"Are you upset with me?"
"No. Really. I'm saying … have I done something wrong?"
"Can we talk about this? Because if I've offended you in any way …"
(Laughs -- click)
* * * * *
And I'm here to tell you, this is a bad baseball team, folks. I know you know that. A 3-25 start to the season (and just 13-38 now) kind of says it all.
But the woe is truly deep and wide. The sad numbers are unrelenting.
The Tigers were shut out in seven of their first 27 games this season, and have been shut out nine times in their first 51 games, which is historic, epic, check-the-books bad. They're 4-19 at home and 9-19 on the road.
It's not even June and Detroit is already 18 games back of division-leading Minnesota (and they're seven games off Tampa Bay's pace and five-and-a-half behind Milwaukee's).
Going into Friday's game against the Yankees, they sit dead last in all of baseball in team batting average (.214, and nobody on the squad is hitting as high as .300), on-base percentage (.285 -- every other team in the majors over .300), and slugging percentage (.324), and next-to-last in home runs (37 -- less than half the 80 put up by the Braves so far).
They got it bad and it ain't good.
For those of you who like your coffee black, your whiskey straight and your stories told in cold, hard facts, let's put it like this: The three pitchers receiving the worst run-support in the bigs right now are Tigers Jeremy Bonderman (2.22 runs/game), Adam Bernero (2.26) and Mike Maroth (2.97). For those of you who think more poetically and metaphorically, let's say it like this: The Tigers score runs the way governors grant clemency and pretty girls hand out their phone numbers -- rarely, and only after great pleading and prayer.
Either way you look at it … ugmo.
They're young, too. Real young. Young all the way through. Youngest team in the majors, in fact. No back-catalogue of wily, no bag of tricks, no deep reserve of patience and calm -- just newbie energy to burn.
Young can be good because it's full of promise, spunk and upside, and all that. But Detroit is running guys out there right now who are subject to some serious hormonal rushes and mood swings, you know what I'm saying?
The average age of a Tiger is 26.3, but Bobby Higginson (32), Steve Sparks (37), Shane Halter (33) and Steve Avery (33) are the only guys in their thirties getting regular time. The rest of the crew is hanging way back on the near side of the Logan's Run line.
Ramon Santiago and Omar Infante, who make up the second base-shortstop combination, are both 21, and Bonderman, who came straight to the show from A-ball, is all of 20. The average age of the everyday lineup last week? About 22.8 (and that's including Old Man Higginson). The average age of the starting rotation? 24. Seven regulars have less than one year of major-league experience.
I know age is just a number, sure, and it ain't always one of the really important numbers (until you get old, that is), but still, you look at these kids and you don't know whether to cheer 'em on, scold 'em, or hug 'em and sing 'em a lullaby.
* * * * *
If you know any or all of these numbers when you sit down to watch a Tigers game (or, say, eight of them), you tend to see things through an uglified lens.
It's not that the team plays like the Keystone Cops (though, sure, there were some amateurish moments this week), it's the meaning you bring, the meaning their records bring, to what they do pitch-to-pitch and play-to-play.
I'm trying to watch the games as they unfold on the field, one at-bat, one pitch, at a time, but I keep seeing the Tigers' sorry stats roll across my eyeballs like a bad-attitude ticker-tape, scrolling out the subtext, making sure I never forget that this is some nasty baseball I'm watching.
First baseman Carlos Pena strikes out twice in an afternoon and they aren't just strikeouts, they're symptoms: I'm thinking he's pressing and reaching, going up there with no plan, and forgetting everything he learned in Oakland about plate discipline. I'm thinking he's lost and might never come home.
Santiago is called out for bunting the ball way out in front of the batter's box, and I'm not thinking you gotta love his eager-footed enthusiasm, I'm thinking these guys are bushers, this is pathetic.
Third baseman Eric Munson throws a two-out, twelfth-inning groundball high over first base and keeps the inning alive for Chicago. The Sox' Joe Crede comes up two batters later and blasts a game-winning home run to left, and when he does, I'm not philosophical about it, I'm ready to roll out a little chapter and a bit of verse on fundamentals, ready to write a book on how the Tigers are killing themselves, ready to make like the little sports psychologist guy in "The Natural": "Losing is a disease …"
Avery turns his back and lets Omar Vizquel stroll home to steal a go-ahead run and it isn't a blunder, it's a sign, it's evidence of some structural or constitutional flaw in the Tiger system.
I know at the start of every game that the Tigers don't score many runs or win very often, so wide shots can't help but make Comerica look like a bleak, unforgiving canyon to me, and fans at home and on the road, and in every corner of the park, inevitably strike me as disinterested and scornful.
I know the team's way out of the race, so I spend whole innings wondering if maybe I'm the only one watching what's happening -- the only one anywhere.
The Tigers win three of the first four I watch, but I don't see much more than a flukish blip in the general trend toward ugliness (and sure enough, they lose three of the next four).
I stare at Alan Trammell standing on the dugout steps, and I swear I see him dying a little with every ball hit and thrown.
It's a kind of mental torture to watch baseball this way.
No light in or out, no fresh-grass breezes blowing through my mind, everything already written in the dingy, scribbled ink of losing.
It's like I'm locked in the hole, wondering what life on the outside is like, and trying hard to remember games of chance and possibility.
* * * * *
And in those moments, other stuff would peek through.
There was a subtle but undeniable dignity about the way the guys kept suiting up and playing every day. It was no substitute for talent or results, but it beat the hell out of surrender.
There was the sense that Tiger starting pitchers -- in the way they carried themselves, in the way they thought themselves through at-bats, even when they couldn't quite make the pitches they wanted to -- were setting a confident, composed tone that had nothing much to do with losing.
There was Craig Monroe crushing his wrist like an aluminum can while making a diving catch in left, and then shaking it off and staying in the game.
There was a flurry of hits in the gap and over the wall from Young and Higginson.
Brandon Inge hit a game-winning home run, Franklyn German looked lithe and wicked in relief, Steve Avery, who once looked so young and so easy on the hill, got a win, looking almost as young, though not quite so easy, these days.
And Detroit's youth, if the sun hit it just right, and if you were looking at Pena, Infante and Santiago, sometimes had the glimmer of potential about it.
* * * * *
Bad pitches look pretty much like good pitches. Hits resemble ground and fly outs. Throwing and catching are more or less done without flair and distinction. Terrible teams, in short stretches, don't look all that different from good ones.
In the moments when I was reading everything I saw through the lens of what I knew about how sorry Detroit is, I was sure of what winning baseball was and I was sure these guys didn't, couldn't, and weren't playing it.
In those times when the bad Tiger facts faded into the background for me, I was just watching baseball. And (don't tell my editors) I was enjoying it.
When I didn't think about the overall Tiger numbers, the game wasn't coded and loaded, it wasn't proof of anything; it was open, blank, just happening.
There's something about baseball that's hard to read as it unfolds, and small samples tell you almost nothing. As Leonard Koppett told me last fall, you have to wait until a game's over to know what was important. That's part of the appeal of statistics and records -- we keep track and tabulate because the numbers tell us what happened, game-by-game, week-by-week and so on; they separate the meaningful wheat from the random chaff within a game, and they tell us the difference between the Tigers and the Mariners or the Braves over the course of a season.
But if I'm a Tigers fan right now, I'm trying to watch the games free of context, sans the script and the box scores. I'm looking to lose myself in something less definitive than wins and losses, something less concrete than productivity. Forget on-base percentage and ERA, I want a game, an at-bat, a pitch sequence or a play in the field, to take place in a vacuum.
I want to be able to project all sorts of hopes and fantasies onto it. I want it to mean something in my mind that it doesn't really mean in the world. I want to cozy up to its resemblance to a thing that winners do, and take comfort there, tell myself things are better, or will be better, or might be better some day.
If I'm a Tigers fan, it's that kind of thinking, those kinds of moments, that get me through the season.
And if I'm a writer sent on Tiger detail by his editors, it's that kind of thinking, those kinds of moments, that get me through the week.
Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.