Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Outside the Aviary: "Hate It Or Love It..."

Detroit's success in the postseason has been a limited affair for one reason or another since the Sparky Anderson days, but they handled their two series victories with the grace and effectiveness that ALL underdogs seem to. Their quotes were boring hat tips to their opponents and accreditation of their pitching staff. Emotion and pride were left to shots of the celebration and the typical managerial humility. The players acted surprised. This is the burden of the modern athlete. When is one supposed to be brash and confident? When are the rules of humility and civility to change? When are emotions too affected to matter?

Why, then, does this have to be labeled, "an emotional win" at all? When Detroit got into the playoffs, they exhibited the same amount of emotive behavior and choked up "hardships" than they did after the Yankee/Oakland collapses. As the playoffs began, the front page of, Jim Leyland stood in an "arms crossed" manner with a banner advertising his toughness and implausible upbringing in the same breath as his managerial style. So, his familial situation affects whether or not he decides to pinch-hit when a lefty comes in? His father's "hardassery" affects when he gives speeches to his team? Aren't all managers "impossible to please?"

In fact, the one storyline laid bare in all this is Detroit's complete collapse down the stretch, and everyone writing them off. Most experts had them going out in four—at BEST. Full disclosure, I had them out in five simply due to the Yankee pleasure in breaking hearts (and the home field advantage). I knew, however, that the Yankees had no chance to sweep with Jaret Wright or Kyle Farnsworth having ANYTHING to do with the outcome. How is it, then, that Detroit went from media darling of the playoffs—baseball fans cheering them against the "evil empire"—to the underdogs with no chance, to the victor and commander of their own destinies? Moreover, how did they become darlings in the first place? In effect, their pitching—the best staff in the league—should have affronted them at least one HUGE weapon in a series marked by a Yankee team that hasn't been successful in signing a front-line starter since Mussina, Clemens or Wells in the nineties. Clearly, the pundits aren't blind enough to write off their own media blitz are they? They are when it involves the one word that strikes fear into sportswriters and gamblers alike: parity.

Thus is the nature of the sports writing conundrum. What makes the Tigers a phenomenon is their complete lack of appeal. Leyland’s “harsh” upbringing is hardly a story, the team is humble and unspectacular, their leaders are no-nonsense anti-Bonds types with emotional outbursts at all the right times, and their demeanor is one of self-effacing candor in the face of victory and defeat. In effect, they are my father’s baseball heroes. Of course their manager is a hardass, of course they follow the old school rules of civility, and their answer to emotional outburst timing is simple: after something dramatic happens.

Example: earlier in the year, they stormed out of the gates. Then they stumbled. Whether it was overconfidence or underwhelming play, Leyland had the all-too-typical “closed door yell-fest” and said afterward that he wasn’t going to watch his team screw up the season (paraphrasing). Unlike some players who would reveal certain details, I remember the players essentially repeating their manager’s Orwellian mantra: “we will work harder.” This is the reason it should not have been so amazing that they beat the Yanks. Their work ethic was, as far as we know, indestructible. We don’t know because they projected their workmanship and ignored their individual efforts.

Detroit’s mantra is also the reason they were so boring. “We will work harder” is the ultimate way to fly under the radar. Downplaying the drama of the clubhouse and counteracting their own problems by concentrating on the game made Detroit the antithesis of their two opponents—the Yankees being a collection of assholes and the A’s being the baby Beanes. From players to media to ownership (whose names I never knew and still don’t), theirs is a completely unknown circle. They lack star power (minus Pudge). They don’t quote well. They’re young in a lot of key positions. They were completely futile recently. In retrospect, they are the parity that baseball has searched for—the Marlins, Diamondbacks, Red Sox, and White Sox not being built for the long run—a young team with staying power in a city that clamors for a chance to cheer.

As the underdogs continue to come up the conundrums continue to topple. The bloated payrolls and big media targets fall to the wayside year after year. The steroid era players are retiring and re-injuring themselves and the other rabid fan bases are getting their turns at the helm. The other half of New York City, Detroit, St. Louis and to a lesser extent Minnesota and Oakland are terrific sports cities, and with big name free agents becoming more risk than reward (read: Gary Sheffield, Matt Clement, Carl Pavano, Adrian Beltre, etc.) these cities forcibly made gambles on smaller or “washed-up” names and minor leaguers with something to prove (read: Joe Mauer, Frank Thomas, Jermaine Dye, Magglio Ordonez, etc.). Now, the major forces are re-upping in their own respective ways. This, friends, is parity, and it’s awesome.

It’s going to make the sports writing and team ethics of the future one boring misstep following another, but it will make for a fantastic series of chases and bi-lines. Cities will cheer—hopefully droning out the talking heads and talking points of the media conglomerates. Detroit is another in the long list of benefactors. They may not say it, but they have a chance to become a mainstay in our collective subconscious—the new “watch out for” team on a yearly basis. I’m sure Leyland and the boys would downplay that. Perhaps their humbleness makes them that much more boring. I say it makes them innately more interesting. No, their players aren’t high profile, imprisoned, or brash and outspoken, but they did make the World Series. I say they’ll probably win it, and still, “they will work harder.”

Oh, and in case you’re interested: and are also stupid enough to have me aboard.

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