The fans were loud, proud, obnoxious and rooting hard against
the home team. They weren't all wearing hip new Cleveland
Indians hats and jackets--some were dressed in familiar Browns
apparel. They had stormed across the Ohio border by the busload
to watch their beloved Tribe, and they were delighted that there
wouldn't be much competition. When you drive three hours and
spend a holiday weekend in Detroit, it's always nice to see a
victory, and when the 1996 Tigers are your hosts, there is
little chance of seeing anything else.
More than 20,000 Cleveland fans made the trip around Lake Erie
to witness last weekend's three-game sweep of Detroit, and they
couldn't help remembering the old Cleveland Stadium days, when
the Tribe was as bad as these Tigers and the fans could buy
tickets to home games. Those days are gone. Now the mistake is
on the other side of the lake. Jacobs Field was sold out for
this season before it started, the Indians are trendier than
tornadoes, and Tigers fans have seen their worst nightmare come
true: Detroit has become Cleveland. The Tigers faithful have
been shouted down in their own old ballpark and forced to endure
a painstaking rebuilding process. Their team has become the cure
for any opposing player's slump, the subject of inevitable Leno
Did you hear about the time all the Tigers were sent to Triple A
Toledo? They lost 14-1.
When the Indians were through with the Tigers, winning 5-0 on
Sunday, Detroit had dropped 11 games in a row and an astounding
31 of their last 35, not including the blowout to their top farm
team. On the weekend before their trip to Toledo, the Tigers
gave up 41 runs and were swept by the Chicago White Sox at home.
Even before they made it to Memorial Day, the Tigers were deader
than Andy Sipowicz Jr.
"We have hit rock bottom," says Detroit outfielder Chad Curtis.
"It's reached the point where we can't get any worse."
At week's end in the American League East, the Tigers were 17
games behind the first-place New York Yankees. If the Tigers are
not careful, Don King will sign them to fight Mike Tyson. If
they were a college team, the school would drop baseball.
Detroit has lost 11 straight at home, not that anyone has
noticed. Average attendance at Tiger Stadium before last
weekend's Cleveland invasion was 13,618.
"We're embarrassed by the way we're playing, but not by what
we're doing," says Detroit general manager Randy Smith, who came
to the Tigers last October after 2 1/2 years as the San Diego
Padres' G.M. "We're staying with young players and we're
building. I feel bad for the fans, and I certainly don't like
being laughed at, but I think we're doing the right thing."
Last weekend, at least, the Tigers weren't humiliated. On Friday
night the game was tied 3-3 in the eighth inning when Cleveland
slugger Albert Belle launched his second solo home run of the
game en route to a 6-3 Indians win. The next afternoon the
Tigers led 5-4 in the seventh, but the bullpen allowed three
runs, and Cleveland won 7-6. Then on Sunday the Indians were
holding on to a 2-0 lead in the eighth when Belle blasted a
three-run homer--his major league-leading 20th of the season--to
break the game open.
While Tigers fans are showing patience with their rebuilding
club, they are finding it easier to be patient at home than at
the ballpark. It's hard to blame them. What fun is losing if you
can't seethe? There seems to be nobody's head to call for. The
general manager and the manager, Buddy Bell, are new this
season, and for the most part, the players are either respected
veterans or eager young guys. You don't have to love these
woeful Tigers, but they're hard to hate. "The chemistry on this
team is good, and everyone is hanging together," says catcher
John Flaherty, who's in his fifth major league season. "It's
become a mental thing. We're wondering how we're going to lose
when we should be thinking how we're going to win."
Detroit is on pace to challenge the modern-day record for losses
in a season (120), which was set by the 1962 New York Mets. But
unlike the Mets, the toothless Tigers probably won't inspire any
best-selling books. They are a quiet, colorless, even-tempered
bunch who seem to be losing games while giving an honest effort.
Firstbaseman Cecil Fielder, 32, and shortstop Alan Trammell, 38,
are still around, which means the clubhouse has more class than
most, but the veterans have just about run out of things to say
behind closed doors.
"We had a good spring training and then started off 8-7," says
Trammell, "then we just hit a wall and didn't know how to handle
it. It's a matter of confidence. Guys get down on themselves,
and it just spreads to the next guy."
As of yet, no one has accused the Detroit players of packing it
in, which leaves one glaring problem: talent. The Tigers simply
don't have enough of it, particularly on the pitching staff.
Detroit may not break the record for losses, but it is on track
to set the major league mark for the worst team ERA (6.70, by
the 1930 Philadelphia Phillies). At week's end the Tigers' staff
ERA was 7.13, more than a run higher than the majors'
second-worst ERA (5.99), which belonged to the Colorado Rockies.
Of the 17 pitchers who had taken the mound for Detroit this
season, only three had ERAs under 5.40. Even more amazing, the
opposition was hitting .306 against Tigers pitching--59 points
higher than Detroit's own team average. For anyone who hopes to
see Baltimore Orioles second baseman Roberto Alomar (who was
batting .401 through Sunday) hit .400 this season, here is the
good news: Alomar has yet to face the Tigers' staff.
Says Fielder, "I think we have to find some good arms if we're
going to win."
After last season Fielder said that if the Tigers were committed
to rebuilding, he wouldn't mind being traded to a contender.
Smith would probably like to accommodate him, but he would have
an easier time dealing the rights to Hank Greenberg. Fielder can
still go deep--he had 12 homers and 31 RBIs through Sunday--but
he is virtually untradable because he is signed for $7.2 million
per year through the 1997 season. "My phone's not ringing off
the hook," says Smith.
For years the Tigers thought they could make a trade, sign a
free agent and leave it to former manager Sparky Anderson to put
a competitive team on the field. The farm system wasn't
productive. The last homegrown starting pitcher to have a
significant impact for the Tigers was Dan Petry, who last
pitched for Detroit in 1991. The most recent first-round pick to
make a difference in Detroit was Kirk Gibson, who was drafted in
1978 and whose most memorable moment in baseball was hitting a
pinch-hit home run for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1988 World
Of course, he's not the only Detroit prospect to make a name for
himself elsewhere. John Smoltz was signed by the Tigers in 1985
and traded to the Atlanta Braves for 37-year-old pitcher Doyle
Alexander in August 1987. Alexander went 9-0 for Detroit the
rest of that season, helped the Tigers win a division title and
was out of baseball two years later. But the bill on that deal
has come due. At week's end Smoltz was 10-1 for the Braves this
season. The nine pitchers who have started for the Tigers this
year are a combined 7-27.
"I've had friends leave messages telling me to stay away from
sharp objects or to stay on a low floor," says Jon Matlack,
Detroit's first-year pitching coach. "In spring training I was
pleased with the effort and thought we'd be O.K. But then when
we cut down from 31 to 11 pitchers there was this collective
sigh of relief. A lot of guys were, like, 'Hey, I made it.' They
were just happy to be in the big leagues."
Some did not stay in the big leagues for long. Last Friday,
Detroit shipped out three pitchers, sending Jose Lima (0-4, 7.82
ERA) to Toledo while designating John Farrell (0-2, 14.21 ERA)
and Scott Aldred (0-4, 9.35 ERA) for assignment. "We'll probably
go with Lolich on Thursday," Bell said jokingly, when asked to
run down his rotation. "And if we can get McLain, which I don't
think is possible, he'll pitch on Friday." Justin Thompson, a
23-year-old lefthanded phenom who was dominating in Toledo, was
called up on Sunday.
While he would rather not make a run at the '62 Mets, Smith
makes no apologies for the direction in which the Tigers are
moving. He knew he faced a formidable task when he was hired by
Detroit owner Mike Ilitch and team president John McHale. Ilitch
said the team had lost $20 million in each of the previous two
years while finishing a combined 33 games below .500. Smith was
enlisted to revamp the neglected farm system and forgo the
quick-fix, big-money, free-agency route. Bell, the former major
league third baseman who spent the last two seasons as the
Indians' infield coach, brought a reputation for patience and an
ability to work with young players. Smith insists that nothing
has happened in the first 50 games of the season to alter the
organization's long-term plans.
"Hey, I was in San Diego in '94, and we started out 10-32," says
Smith. "Everyone was laughing at us. Now two years later that
team is poised to win its division. When you try to win every
year, you never win. You have to go back to basics and build a
club the right way, which means scouting and development and
sticking with young players."
Cleveland, for instance, went from 105 losses in 1991 to 100
wins four years later and now serves as the prototype for
optimistic Detroit fans. Indians manager Mike Hargrove replaced
John McNamara halfway through the '91 season, and the team
suffered through two more dismal years before opening the doors
to a new ballpark and a new era. Now when the Indians go on the
road, they bring more than just busloads of fans--they bring an
attitude. When the game is close, they know they are going to
win. When they're playing the Tigers, both teams know Cleveland
is going to win.
"Believe me, I understand what the Tigers are going through,"
says Hargrove. "But you have to stick with your plan and not let
the grumbling of the fans and media get to you."
As Hargrove spoke, Cleveland designated hitter Eddie Murray
stepped into the cage for batting practice, and the crowd
chanted, "Ed-die! Ed-die!" With each line drive the fans
screeched like schoolgirls at a Coolio concert. Chief Wahoo was
everywhere. The baseball world had come full circle. The Tigers
had become the Indians, and Cleveland was right there at the
corner of Michigan and Trumbull.
"I look over at those guys," says Fielder, standing on the
dugout steps and nodding at the Cleveland players, "and I just
envy the whole thing. I envy the way they take the field. I envy
the atmosphere around them. What can you say? They're having a
lot more fun than we are."