Thursday, April 25, 2013

Celebrating 113 seasons of Tigers' baseball

On this day in 1901, the Detroit Tigers played their first game as a major league team at Bennett Park in Detroit. 10,000 fans turned out to watch their first Opening Day against the Milwaukee Brewers (who left for St. Louis to become the St. Louis Browns the following season).
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The Tigers were down 13-4 heading into the ninth inning. They went on to score 10 runs, winning 14-13. They finished the season in third place with a 74-61 record.

Since that first season in 1901, the Tigers have won four World Series titles (1935, 1945, 1968 and 1984), 11 American League Pennants (1907-1909, 1934, 1935, 1940, 1945, 1968, 1984, 2006, 2012), five Division titles (1972, 1984, 1987 in the East and 2011, 2012 in the Central) and one Wild Card berth (2006).

But most importantly during these last 113 seasons, the Tigers have created memories. They've given us some of the greatest players baseball has ever seen. In 1936, Tigers' great Ty Cobb received the most votes of any player on the inaugural ballot to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1955, Al Kaline won the American League batting title with a .340 batting average. At age 20, he remains the youngest player to do so.

Photo by Julian H. Gonzalez/Detroit Free Press
Shortstop Alan Trammell and second baseman Lou Whitaker stand as the longest continuous double-play combination in major league history, playing 19 seasons together with Detroit.

In 1968, Denny McLain became Major League Baseball's first 30-game winner since 1934 after a 5-4 victory at Tiger Stadium against the Oakland Athletics.

Virgil Trucks threw two no hitters during the 1952 season, making him the third major leaguer to do so at the time.

Beyond that, the Tigers have always meant a little something more to Detroit. Yes, our nickname is Hockeytown. I won't dispute that moniker. But I believe that no team in this city, and in this state, brings people together the way the Tigers have for 113 seasons.

In the summer of 1967, Detroit experienced one of the worst riots in American history. It was a city divided.

Down 3-1 to the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1968 World Series, the Tigers came back to win four games and took home their first title in 23 years. The '68 team was largely credited for healing a city so badly hurting from the racial violence that had burdened it.

"Those men, that team, were something. They were a close-knit bunch who cared for each other. They provided an outlet for a city that desperately needed one. And they could play. Boy, could they play." - Ernie Harwell
Oh, and let's talk about Ernie. For 42 years, Ernie Harwell was the voice of Tigers baseball. His signature phrases still hold a special place in our hearts ("He stood there like the house by the side of the road, and watched it go by." "That one is LOOOONG gone!") Everyone loved Ernie, and Ernie loved everyone. He was, and still is, Tigers baseball.

Despite a drought between the 1968 World Series title and the one that came in 1984, Tigers fans still had much reason to be excited about the team. Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, who put on a Tigers uniform from 1976-1980, quickly became one of the game's most popular personalities. He won the AL Rookie of the Year award in 1976 after finishing with a 2.34 ERA and a 19-9 record. There's no way I can describe Fidrych in words. He was so much more than that. Teams in visiting cities actually requested that Fidrych pitch because they knew it would sell more tickets. Seriously.

Unfortunately, Fidrych never won a ring with Detroit. His career was cut far too short due to injury. But in 1984, the Tigers began their season 35-5 and easily went on to win the World Series against the San Diego Padres.

My love affair with the Tigers began somewhere between 1996 and 1997. I decided to fall in love with this team during a rough time, as they were in the middle of what would become 12 consecutive losing seasons. I still remember the final game at Tiger Stadium. I locked myself in my room and cried during the post game ceremony when Brad Ausmus was putting the home plate from The Corner into its new home at Comerica Park. What can I say? I was an emotional seven year old.

In 2002, I sat through a 55-106 season. "Surely it can't get much worse, right?" I thought to myself. Number one rule as a Detroit fan: never ask if things will get worse. Because they will. And they did. The very next season, the Tigers set an American League record (and fell one short of tying the MLB record) by winning 43 games and losing 119.

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But three years later, something crazy happened. The Tigers started winning. While they didn't win the World Series that season, it will always remain my favorite year of Tigers baseball. Never in a million years did I think that they would turn it around so fast, and in such a memorable way.

Since then, winning has come to be expected. Mike Ilitch and Dave Dombrowski have created a winning culture.

In 2008, Curtis Granderson became the third player in Major League history to reach 20 doubles, 20 triples, 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases in a season (Jimmy Rollins joined the club just a few weeks later).

Miguel Cabrera became the first player since 1967 to win the Triple Crown. Justin Verlander has thrown two no-hitters, won the AL Rookie of the Year Award, was unanimously selected the AL Cy Young Award winner in 2011, and the same year became the first starting pitcher to win the AL MVP Award since 1986.

We're lucky. Even today, in 2013, we are witnessing some of the greatest baseball players of our generation.   Sure, not every season has been perfect. They've made some questionable moves. But hey, we survived the Randy Smith Era, didn't we? What can't we do?

And the greatest thing is, I haven't even begun to scratch the surface on what the Tigers franchise has given us, and the game of baseball, for the last 113 years. Hank Greenberg, Norm Cash, Willie Horton, Hal Newhouser, Charlie Gehringer and Jack Morris just to name a few more.

So happy birthday, Tigers. Thank you for being there for us all these years. And here's to many, many more.

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