Baseball Season Preview: Detroit Tigers

You might remember, from back at the beginning of the NFL season, when we previewed each team by having a writer we liked write about their favorite team.

Well, we're less than a month away from the start of baseball — spring training is here! — so it's time to do the same thing in the baseball world. Every weekday until the start of the season, a different writer will preview his/her team. We asked a gaggle of writers, from the Web, from print, from books, to tell us, in as many or as little words as they need, Where Their Team Stands. This is not meant to be factual, or dispassionate, or even logical: We just asked them to riff on why they love their team so much, or what their team means to them, or whatever.

Today: The Detroit Tigers. Your author is Ben Mathis-Lilley.

Ben Mathis-Lilley is an editor at New York Magazine. He was raised in Midland, Michigan, which as of next month will be the home of a Dodgers Single-A affiliate. He welcomes contact from any publication interested in a feature story about a city slicker who returns to his hometown after a long absence to spend a long weekend watching baseball, catching up with old flames and learning valuable life lessons. His words are after the jump.

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These days, there is no way to be a well-informed fan of most teams and get through the spring without having a cold bucket of calculus-based pessimism poured on your baseball fever. The rise of sabermetrics allows you to know with 98.7 percent certainty in February the number of times Todd Jones will ruin your day in September.

There are a few ways to deal with this:

• Retain a sentimental attachment to your lousy team while bandwagoning on to, say, the Red Sox or Mets, much in the way many grads of non-football-powerhouse colleges will support a team less likely to finish 2-11. (For example, I was educated at Oxford and the Sorbonne, but I root for Princeton.) This can work out well, but leaves one feeling a little guilty.

• Just root against the Yankees. A surprisingly effective tactic in their recent choke-filled years. However, the most annoying people in the organization are play-by-play man Michael Kay and George Steinbrenner. No matter how many times the team craps itself in October, those dudes are still back the next spring. It seems unfair, and it gets frustrating after a while.

• Embrace the slim mathematical possibility that middling veterans will have freak career years, the young prospects will not only meet but exceed expectations, the gruff old-hand manager will keep veteran egos in check, the gimpy but talented Venezuelan right fielder and shortstop will stay healthy enough to be captured in a humorous-when-out-of-context picture with Miss Monroe County after the season (above, left), the aging left-handed veteran pitcher will surprise everyone by blatantly cheating gutting his way to an undefeated October ... that kind of stuff.

And last year that one worked!

Yes, it was a strangely un-Tigers-like season; even Todd Jones came through. The team's been so bad since 1989 that it doesn't have one of those twice-shy fan bases — the kind that tries to keep its hopes in check lest they just be disappointed again, etc. — since the disappointment usually comes immediately in April, and is later punctuated by a sexual harassment scandal involving airplanes. Still, that didn't make it less of an infuriating disaster to fumble away the division to the Twins. (After this became official on the last day of the season, I sulked for a while, then headed out to see a concert, where the first thing the lead singer said, seriously, was, "you're going to hear a lot about the Twins tonight".)

The playoffs began no better. I attended the first game of the ALDS in person and, hey, funny story! I ended up getting shown on national television. I didn't know I was on camera while it was happening, but five seconds later I got a text message from a friend — who I knew was thousands of miles away — that said something along the lines of "how's that Bud Light in your left hand?" Then my parents called, which never happens after 10; I didn't answer, because the game was going on, but I had started to put the pieces together. (The wheels were turning pretty slowly. It wasn't the first Bud Light that had been in my left hand that night.) Then I got a very irate voicemail from someone who I probably should have invited to the game instead of the young lady I had just been shown with. Then we lost.

Needless to say, the experience of seeing my favorite team make the playoffs for the first time in 20 years had turned out to be significantly more disappointing, unnerving and destructive of my personal relationships than I had expected. Still, even a playoff flameout would've been tolerable. It had been a fun year for once, with a lot of memorable wins, promise for the future, etc.

But lo! The old squad turned things around, busting off eight straight wins. And then, as Magglio Ordonez' game-winning home run against Oakland sailed into the crowd, setting off jubilation across the metro area, the season ended in triumph.

Yep, that was it!

The Tigers enter this year's defense of their American League title with high hopes, and a first baseman that looks like Paul Bunyan. The two notable offseason acquisitions have a combined age of 79. Gary Sheffield contributes 38 of those, which isn't terrible if the shoulder heals up. I don't really care to research the likelihood of that happening for fear of what I might find out, but GM Dave Dombrowski has a good record with the aforementioned gimpy veterans, so I think it's entirely fair if we pencil Sheffield in for 45 homers and 130 RBIs, and then go nuts on him in the press if he doesn't produce. The other pickup was Jose Mesa, who has been guaranteed a spot in the bullpen. God knows why. I bet Steve Phillips and John Kruk are behind it though. As for the returning players, chemistry doesn't seem to be a problem, but that's the kind of thing which doesn't ever seem to be a problem until you're having problems beating the fucking Cavs in the playoffs, to mix a Detroit sports metaphor. On the skill side, the Tigers need: solidly middle-of-the-road contributions from their middle-of-the-roaders (Sean Casey, Brandon Inge, Craig Monroe, Nate Robertson et al); minimal declines from the aforementioned veteran stars; and the anticipated leaps forward from Jeremy Bonderman, Curtis Granderson and the rest. I'm not going to pretend I have any personal idea whether those things will happen, but it does seem like smart Web obsessives (here are some good examples ) and mainstream types are both optimistic. So I guess we just have to be nice to strangers and hope that the karmic wheel will not deal us some sort of cruel, White Sox-like, getting-better-but-not-making-the-playoffs fate.

Also, if some random Triple A dude could come out of the slice and hit 40 home runs in April again, that would be nice.

In closing, I would like to use this forum for three quick notes.

• "My Tiger" is Brandon Inge.

• In 1901, a first baseman named Davey Crockett played in 28 games for Detroit. His name is carved in a stone outside Comerica Park. If you would like to take a .jpg of this and help me transform it into a very-limited-edition t-shirt for me and my friends, please contact me at ben_mathis-lilley (at) nymag (dot) com, I will buy you two box seats to a Tigers home game. Swear to God.

• The popular Detroit blogger (and Deadspin commenter!) Uncle Grambo wrote the following because he didn't like a Slate column I wrote about the Pistons:

...Suck a dick. What kind of pussy puts a dash in his last name...you effing cum stain.

Ahem.

Mr. Graham,

It disturbed some people in my family when they Googled my name and found you calling me a cumstain. It upset them. Frankly, only they have that right. And on that note, I hope the following crawls its way up your search results:

Mark Graham, Uncle Grambo, good-looking, terrific writer, loyal friend, daring volunteer lifeguard, generous philanthropist, guy who knows a lot about fine food and wine but is really informative and down-to-earth about it.

Cheers!

Ben

I call it "turning the other cheek, Internet-style." May we all follow the teachings of the eJesus, and may he reward my good behavior by blessing the Tigers. Play ball!