Detroit On Sunday

In different ways, Comerica Park, the Detroit Tigers’ home ballpark since 2000, is very similar to and very different from its predecessor. Tiger Stadium, which housed the Tigers from 1912 to 1999, was a beloved old park in the mould of Fenway or Wrigley Field. It had cramped seats, only two decks, and pillars that obstructed views in the lower tier to hold up the higher one. Comerica Park kept some of the charm when the Tigers moved in. It is a poster child of the retro-classic stadium movement: its main building blocks are brick, concrete, and green painted steel.

It has all the charm of an old stadium — or at least, as much as any modern imitation can — but it also features the luxury of the turn of the millennium. Every seat in the house is a good one. The concourses are wide and comfortable, and the building is easy to navigate. The no-bag express line at the left field entrance moves quickly. The park is open all the way around: a curious fan can start in center field and walk straight, and eventually find himself back in center field again.

When Emily and I got to the stadium on a sweltering-hot Sunday afternoon in May, we didn’t have time to explore. First pitch was coming up, and we had to find our seats to watch the Tigers take on the White Sox. So we made for our section, or tried to: neither of us knew the park that well. In left field, we walked past six statues of the Tigers Hall of Fame: Al Kaline, Hal Newhouser, Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, Ty Cobb, and Willie Horton. We were empty-handed: when I’d checked the schedule earlier, I’d seen that the Tigers would distribute Nicholas Castellanos bobbleheads, but they’d run out by the time we’d arrived. Either that or I’d read the promotional schedule wrong. There was another giveaway too — they were giving out growth charts and cheering signs for all children in attendance. But evidently, the ticket-taker had decided that we were too old.

There was a broad view of the playing field from behind the seats in center, but we kept moving. Around first base, past the team store, up several stairways…after we’d secured hot dogs, lemonade, and water, we found our seats. We were behind first base, in the front row of the higher section of the upper deck. The seats weren’t great — you don’t expect great for $14 each. But they were perfectly fine. And for a weekend ballgame in May, you don’t need anything better. We sat down, hid our drinks in the shade beneath our seats, and waited for the game to begin.

***

Since there has been the American League, there have been the Detroit Tigers. Founded in 1901 as an AL charter franchise, the Tigers have played in Detroit ever since without missing a beat. They have played continuously in the same city for 117 seasons and counting, a feat few other teams have accomplished.

Something I’ve learned, watching baseball in different stadiums in different cities, is that’s it’s exceedingly difficult to judge a team’s connection with its city based on its fans. Sure, Boston has great fans and a team that’s almost synonymous with its city, but I suspect that I could find similarly committed fans in Miami, or Milwaukee, or Colorado. Fans will always be love their teams, whether a team has a hold on its city or not.

Unless, that is, I’m framing the question the wrong way. Maybe the real answer is that fans will always love their teams because of the intimate connections between people, teams, and cities, connections that cannot be logically explained but must exist. And why must they exist? Look no further than Comerica park this very afternoon.

The Tigers, as the game began, were 22-29. All indications are that the team is poised for a second consecutive losing season, and a third one in four years. They have not won a World Series since 1984. And yet, on this uncomfortably hot Sunday afternoon, more than 23,000 fans came out to watch them play. Now what reason could there be for that? There is none, except that the Tigers play baseball in Detroit, and people in Detroit, like people all over America and the World, love baseball. So they love the Tigers — their Tigers, their team. And the city of Detroit shows it. From our seats, besides several old-fashioned skyscrapers and an enormous model of a whale painted on the side of a tower, we could also see what looked like the General Motors building. The stylized orange “D” that the Tigers use as their logo was flashing on a screen near the top of the building, big enough for all of us to see what must have been at least a mile away.

On the hill for the Tigers this afternoon was Blaine Hardy, a journeyman left-hander who just this year converted from relief pitching to starting. This was Hardy’s third start of the season. Hardy is 31 years old, but did not make his major league debut until he was 27. He has not pitched for a major league team besides the Tigers.

Hardy took the hill, and Tim Anderson, the White Sox’ shortstop, led off. Anderson is young, only 25, but he has shown potential: today, less than a third of the way through the season, he already had ten home runs. The traditional shortstop is small but quick, hits line-drive singles and bunts for base hits but cannot hit for much power. Indeed, Jose Iglesias, starting at shortstop for the Tigers, fit this mold well: in seven career seasons, he has hit 18 home runs. Anderson is not this traditional shortstop. He hit 17 home runs last season alone. When Corey Seager, shortstop for the Los Angeles Dodgers, went down with an arm injury, Anderson also became an emergency addition to my fantasy baseball team. But today, fortunately or not — fortunate for me; I was rooting for the Tigers, as I make it a practice to always root for the home team unless I face a more important, contradictory influence — Anderson flied out to center. After a ground ball single to left, the next two White Sox went down in the top of the first.

It was kid’s day at the park, and after the top of the first, we met our first participant. As music from “Frozen” played, a young girl appeared on the scoreboard. She was, a scoreboard host proclaimed, our Princess of the Game, nine years old and going home with four tickets to see Disney on Ice.

“Who’s your tiger?” asked the host.

“Cabrera,” the Princess responded.

She meant, of course, Miguel Cabrera, first baseman, designated hitter, and Tiger superstar. Cabrera, at age 34, suffered through a dismal season in 2017: he hit only 16 home runs, after averaging 33 a year from 2004 to 2016, and batted .249, against a career batting average of .316. Although Cabrera, at the moment, was on the disabled list with a hamstring strain, he seemed to start the 2018 season with a resurgence: in 26 games, he batted .323/.407/.516. For his sleeper potential, Cabrera, like Tim Anderson, was part of my fantasy team.

But choosing Cabrera, I thought, was an intriguing move on the princess’ part. If we assume that the mere 26 games he has played so far this year were not enough to make Cabrera the princess’ Tiger of choice, and further, that his dismal 2017 season could not have done the job either, it seems likely that the princess of the game, all of nine years old, has been following the Tigers at least since 2016, when Cabrera had his last star-level season, and following them closely enough to understand just how good Miguel Cabrera has been, and may be again.

Again: there’s the connection. Can anyone explain why a nine-year old princess of the game would follow a sport played by strangers closely enough to recognize greatness in the sport that hasn’t been seen for two years? Of course not. But she did. Because the Tigers are her team, and we love our teams, whether it makes sense or not.

***

James Shields was pitching for the White Sox. I remembered Shields mostly for one moment, maybe the greatest moment of all time: a fence-scraping home run into the left field corner in San Diego, off the bat of aged, spherical, Bartolo Colón.

But Shields, besides the one rather embarrassing memory, has put together a strong major league career. At 36, he has a career 139-127 record; his career E.R.A. is 3.99. He had no problems in the bottom of the first: he set the Tigers down in order. In the top of the second, Hardy again retired the White Sox without allowing a run.

The game was a panoply of moments, each interesting in themselves but far more compelling when combined. We saw Tigers rookie catcher Grayson Greiner, still in his first week of MLB action, hit an RBI double, and then during the next at-bat, saw Shields pick John Hicks off third base. I thought Shields balked, but the Tigers’ dugout didn’t make much noise about it, so maybe I was wrong. We saw the White Sox tie the game at one in the top of the third, and then saw Dixon Machado make a brilliant lunging stop on a line-drive to keep the game tied. That inning ended when Jose Rondon struck out with a man on third; the ball got away from Greiner, and it seemed like a dropped third strike, but both teams left the field. The Tigers’ PA announcer later told the crowd that the home plate umpire had called batter interference, thus ending the inning. They showed the replay on the board, and sure enough, Rondon’s bat hit Greiner’s mask on the backswing.

“So you’re not allowed to hit the catcher in the head,” Emily said. I nodded my agreement.

We saw Tigers’ third baseman Jeimer Candelario (I always thought it was “Jaimer,” which explained why the PA announcer pronounced his name differently and more correctly than I did) make a fantastic spinning stop on a ground ball from Yoan Moncada. After he’d recorded the out at first, “The Candy Man Can” blared from the park’s speakers, and I said, “Oh, I get it…Candelario, the candy man.”

We saw one on-field race between people dressed as trucks — Petey the pickup won in a photo finish — and another on the scoreboard between different breakfast items. I was pulling for Biggie Bagel, but Cuppy Coffee went out to an early lead and easily cruised to victory, which you don’t see much in scoreboard races. We also saw a game of scoreboard trivia. The contestant couldn’t possibly have known what she was guessing — you should have heard her pronounce “Magglio Ordoñez” — but regardless, he was the right answer, and she won Sunoco gift cards for her entire row.

We saw several fly balls that the crowd was convinced had home run distance fall easily into the gloves of outfielders. All parks have some fans who can’t tell a home run from a can of corn, but this Tiger Stadium crowd seemed especially clueless about this particular important element of the game. Even the older fans behind me, who based on their talk seemed like grizzled veterans of Tiger fandom, got excited each time Victor Martinez got a ball in the air, even one that would fall into a glove 25 feet shy of the warning track.

We saw another young fan — this was the theme of the day — list as many animated movies as he could in 15 seconds. He listed ten; I thought I could have done better, as we all tend to think when confronted by scoreboard games that are easy when you’re not under pressure. Nicholas Castellanos, whose bobblehead I’d been hoping for, came up on the screen and tried to name more animated movies than the child; he got stuck for several seconds, but then named two just before the buzzer to come out on top, 11-10. The crowd’s reaction was decidedly unclear, a mixture of laughter, cheers, and boos.

We saw what was turning into a pitcher’s duel continue into the fifth. I finally got around to pointing out to Emily that Trayce Thompson was Klay Thompson’s brother. I didn’t mention that I only knew this because he’d hit a walkoff home run for the Dodgers against the Mets two years prior, because I didn’t want Hansel Robles’ name to sully the fun of the occasion. Thompson grounded out to start the fifth, and the next two batters made outs as well.

Before the bottom of the fifth, the crowd played “Name That Young Tiger.” A baby picture appeared on the screen; we would later learn that it was JaCoby Jones, Tigers’ left fielder. We learned various fun facts about Jones; the one that has stuck with me is that he was the Missouri High School Baseball Player of the Year in 2010, with a batting average north of .500. Jones then led off the bottom of the fifth and singled, breaking a string of seven straight Tigers retired by Shields. Gray Greiner — the nickname seems to suit him — walked, and after Jose Iglesias popped out, Dixon Machado hit an RBI single. There was another pop out, then Castellanos finally cashed in on what might have been his bobblehead day: he lined an RBI single to left.

We had plans later that afternoon; we stayed long enough to see Hardy put up a shutout inning in the top of the sixth, with the Tigers still up 2-1, then stood up and left. By the time we’d made our stops at the bathroom, fought our way through the crowd, and found our way to the field level, it was the top of the seventh. We stopped in center field, the entire ballpark visible from some deep outfielder’s perspective, and watched one last at-bat; Hardy induced Daniel Palka to ground out to first. Then we walked back to the garage and drove home.

I heard later that the Tigers had won 3-2, with Hardy going seven dominant innings. Shane Greene gave up a run for the Tigers in the top of the ninth, and the White Sox put the tying run on base, but Greene was able to close it out, and the Tigers took home the win. I’d been rooting for the Tigers, but I wasn’t so concerned about the result. I’d gotten to sit out in the May sun for a few hours on a Sunday and watch a baseball game. I was just happy thinking that the Princess of the Game had gotten to see her team win, and hoped, for the sake of all of Detroit’s children like her, that Miguel Cabrera would return soon.

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