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Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2017 — No. 22: The Tigers Break Up The Band

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We’re a few short days away from 2018 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2017. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

In 2003, the Detroit Tigers lost 119 baseball games. When they won the game that kept them from losing their 120th, they had an on-field Gatorade bath celebration led by the great Dmitri Young. Things were low for so long with the Tigers, it seemed that they lost any sense of what high really was.

A mere three seasons later, the Tigers won the AL Pennant. Over the next decade they would win four more AL Central titles and another pennant. They wouldn’t always make the playoffs during this stretch — they missed them quite often, in fact — but they were always considered contenders and were always, seemingly, one or two tweaks away from being among the better if not the best teams in the game.

Even if you dispute that, you cannot dispute the team’s star power. Win or lose, Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Prince Fielder, Austin Jackson Victor Martinez, Curtis Granderson, Magglio Ordonez, Ivan Rodriguez and many others who passed through from time to time made the Tigers roster interesting. Comerica Park was filled with no fewer than 2.4 million fans in any season between 2006 and 2016, all of whom could, quite defensibly, say that it was the Tigers year or could be if they made just one trade or went on one hot streak at the right time. Such hope is often irrational, of course, but it is also the hope upon which fandom is built.

Baseball teams themselves, though, have a responsibility to be a bit more hard-headed. To note that just because there is MVP talent at the top of the roster doesn’t mean that the club is as sound and as competitive as it could be. To be aware of the state of the minor league system. The aging curves and contract status of the key players and where the competition sits in that respect as well. A front office has to know when to fish and when to cut bait.

The Tigers front office wasn’t particularly good at that in recent years. A lot of that had to do with the team’s owner, Mike Ilitch, who was in his 90s, as rich as Croesus and wanted his team to, always, win now. A part of it, though, was general managers looking at the team on the field, imagining that it was just a tweak or two away from greatness and ignoring all of those underlying dynamics to which front offices are supposed to pay attention. In some ways it was the polar opposite of that Dmitri Young Gatorade celebration: things were high for so long with the Tigers it seemed that they lost any sense of what low really was.

Reality struck hard in 2017. Mike Ilitch passed away just before pitchers and catchers reported back in February. Miguel Cabrera, whose durability has only been surpassed by his greatness for most of his career, finally saw his performance suffer due to nagging injuries. Other, older player such as Ian Kinsler and Victor Martinez showed their age and fragility. Younger players such as Jose Iglesias and Nicholas Castellanos did not progress the way it was hoped they would. The bullpen, as always, was terrible, but unlike in seasons past, there wasn’t any other part of the Tigers attack that could compensate for it, even a little bit. The end result: 98 losses, a last place finish and the Tigers decision let manager Brad Ausmus go.

The larger result: the beginning of the first wholesale rebuild of the Tigers in a decade and a half.

Star slugger J.D. Martinez, who mashed in 2017 but who missed much of the early season with an injury, was traded to the Diamondbacks on July 18. On July 31 General Manager Al Avila traded his son Alex and reliever Justin Wilson to the Chicago Cubs. On August 31 he traded Justin Upton to the Angels. And, on the same day, they made the biggest trade he’ll ever make, sending Justin Verlander — the last man standing from that 2006 pennant-winning team — to the Houston Astros. Verlander would pitch amazingly down the stretch and help the Astros to the World Series title that had eluded him and the Tigers for thirteen seasons.  As the offseason wears the Tigers continue to tear things down. Just two weeks ago they traded Kinsler to Anaheim, where he’ll join Upton.

A total teardown is new territory for a generation of Tigers fans, but older Tigers fans still remember the one from the early 2000s and know that things can go from bleak to wonderful more quickly than one might imagine. Tigers fans older than that remember the aging Al Kaline Tigers teams, likewise seemingly only a tweak or two away — and hey, only a couple of years removed from the 1972 division title — cratering in the mid-70s. In 1975 they lost 102 games. The next year they drafted Alan Trammell, Jack Morris and Dan Petry. They would soon be competitive again, with it all culminating in a World Series championship eight years later.

There are few guarantees in baseball and fewer still with teardown rebuilds, but for the first time in a long time, the Tigers are giving it a go.

How long do you stay a fan of a team that left town?

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File this under “not a really deep thought, but there isn’t much going on this morning, so why not?”

I was catching up with the latest, and final, season of “The Americans” over the weekend. I will give no spoilers and ask that you do the same, but I want to talk about something that came up in the second episode.

The episode takes place in October 1987 and a character is listening to a Twins playoff game on the radio. He later talks about baseball and the Twins with some other characters. The context is not important, but the guy — probably in his mid-late 40s, living in the Washington D.C. area — makes a point to say that he has been a Twins fan since the beginning, and then says he was, in fact, a fan of the franchise back when they were still the Washington Senators.

In case you are unaware, the original Washington Senators moved to Minnesota following the 1960 season and became the Twins. At the same time an expansion team, also called the Senators, was placed in D.C. to replace them. That franchise would stay in D.C. for 11 seasons before moving to Texas in 1972 to become the Rangers.

In light if that, am I the only one who has a hard time buying that such a man actually existed? How would the character, who was a kid when the original Senators moved, be a Twins fan some 26 years later?

There were relatively few televised baseball games back then. Just a game of the week and some out of town coverage of local teams. There was obviously no internet. Outside of the 1965 World Series, it’d be a shock if more than a couple of Twins games were broadcast to the D.C. area during the rest of the guy’s childhood. Maybe he kept up with the Senators players like Harmon Killebrew and Bob Allison via box scores, baseball cards and The Sporting News, but I couldn’t imagine a D.C. guy raised on the Senators keeping up with the Twins through the 1970s and 1980s. Would he not become a new Senators fan or, eventually, a Rangers fan? Maybe, like so many people on the D.C. area, he picked up the Orioles as his team due to their 1960s-70s dominance? Any number of things could happen, but I’m struggling to imagine the existence of a Senators guy who becomes a hardcore Twins fans up to and including 1987.

All of that got me thinking about other relocated teams.

The Dodgers are the most famous example, of course, with the narrative being that Dodgers fans in Brooklyn felt betrayed by Walter O’Malley and thus turned their back on the club, later adopting the Mets as their rooting interest. The betrayal narrative is less pronounced with the Giants, but that’s the same general story with them too. I mean, there’s a reason the Mets picked orange and blue as their colors. They wanted to, and largely did, co-opt the old NL New York fans.

I’m sure a lot more Dodgers and Giants fans continued to follow their teams in California than would let on, given that many of the same players starred out there in the ensuing years, but that likely died out as those players retired. Bob Aspromonte was the last Brooklyn Dodger to play in the bigs, retiring after the 1971 season. Willie Mays played through 1973. I assume NL fans in New York kept some nice thoughts for them — particularly because the Mets picked both of them up for the tail end of their careers — but I can’t see those guys rooting for, say, Steve Garvey and John Montefusco in 1979.

Others:

  • There likely aren’t many St. Louis Browns fans left — they last played in Missouri 65 years ago — but even if the ones they had in 1953 felt like rooting for the Cardinals was impossible, I bet most of their kids and grandkids became Cards fans;
  • The A’s fans in Philly — and later Kansas City — probably have a similar story. I mean, there’s a reason that franchise skipped town twice, so to expect undying love over the decades, with the Phillies and Royals around, is a bit much. The Philadelphia A’s glory years were like 90s years ago now anyway, and all of those fans are dead. The A’s modern glory years have all come in Oakland. No one in Philadelphia or Kansas City is looking to the California with an aching in their heart;
  • I could imagine someone’s grandfather in Milwaukee still thinking that the Braves are his team, but not many other people. The Braves won a World Series and two pennants in Milwaukee, but that was an awful long time ago and they moved to Atlanta before the A’s moved to Oakland. Don’t even get me started about Boston Braves fans. They all have to either be dead or have long since moved on. Following a team to a new city is a big ask, but following them to two new cities over 66 years seems pathological. UPDATE: OK, there are some pathological people out there.
  • I have some Nationals fan friends and they tell me that there is a small, weird contingent of Expos fans who root for Washington now. I get that since it wasn’t terribly long ago, but was Brad Wilkerson really a good enough reason to carry a torch? I’d like to talk to some of those people and ask them about their value system;
  • The only other team to move was the Seattle Pilots. They played one season in Seattle and no one would remember that if it wasn’t for Jim Bouton’s book, “Ball Four.” If you find someone claiming to be a Pilots fan in Seattle, you’ve found yourself a hipster peddling revisionist b.s.

Anyway, that’s a lot of words wasted on a couple of lines from a TV show, but as always, your thoughts are appreciated.