Sports Nut

Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head!

Can the Tigers’ success boost the spirits of a downtrodden city?

The Detroit Tigers celebrate

With the National League Championship Series going the distance, this whole week has been something of a victory lap for the Detroit Tigers. Save for the truly heartless—those who kick puppies and bust picket lines and root for the Cardinals—the whole world is cracking an icy Stroh’s and raising it high, not merely to cheer the Tigers’ surprising bid for the World Series, but to root on the once-great city as well.

This all started when the Tigers beat the New York Yankees, a matchup that Newsday called “a metaphor for the fortunes of the two cities … Wall Street versus the working class.” It crescendoed after Detroit dismantled the Oakland A’s in four games. “Tigers’ Big Season Revives Hopes for Detroit Rebound,” the New York Times cheered. The Washington Post blew similar sunshine: “Tigers Give City a Reason to Roar—Detroit’s Stunning March to World Series Lifts Beleaguered Residents.” CBS’ grandfatherly Bob Schieffer offered the most thinly veiled condescension. “[F]or now,” he offered in his televised commentary, “let’s not bother Detroit’s good people with any [bad news]. After auto industry problems and layoffs, this is the first good news they’ve had in a while. They’re enjoying it while they can.”

All of a sudden journalists were offering the sentiments of a hard-drivin’ Seger chorus. That cold, mean little town on the ass-end of the Midwest might have been gutted by white flight, bled dry by the auto industry, and shamed as one of America’s most violent, economically barren cities—but hey, at least they’ve got a good, young starting rotation. Can’t we keep a bit of perspective here? A World Series victory would be great, but it won’t make someone smile if he doesn’t have a job.

Besides, haven’t we heard all this before? Wasn’t that other new stadium—the squat football shoebox built downtown to attract last year’s Super Bowl—supposed to boost Detroit’s spirits and economy? What about the 2004 Pistons championship? Or 2002, when Tiger Town was Hockeytown and the Wings won the Stanley Cup? How about the WNBA team, the Shock? Shit, they win championships all the time. Seems to me that this city has had more than its share of recent sports success, without much civic healing. If this place’s psychic wounds were going to get healed by championships, stadiums, and the glory of its teams, shouldn’t we have seen a sign of it by now?

The Tigers have already been credited with fixing the city’s problems once before. Many folks believe that the 1968 world championship team helped lead the city back from the depths of the 1967 riots. But did they? I’d hate to imagine what Detroit would have been had they lost, especially compared to the city that lies a block or two away from Comerica Park, lined with boarded-up drug houses. Or the block surrounding the corner of Trumbull and Michigan Avenue, where the old Tiger Stadium awaits demolition.

Tiger Stadium is where I saw the Tigers in 1984, the last year they won the World Series. The city was in the clutches of Reaganomics, and most of the professionals had fled to developing suburbs above 20 Mile Road. We would lock the car and hurry inside the fortressed stadium, and rush back to the comfortable safety of our home after the game. Which, regardless of whether the Tigers win or lose, is what the world outside of Detroit will be doing soon enough, too.

Since World Series tickets are now fetching thousands of dollars, these games seem unlikely to have much practical effect on the Detroiters I knew. I returned to Detroit last month for the first long stay since moving away four years ago—before the baseball team was winning. Since I left, I’ve thought a lot about what it was like to live here. The streetlamps are dark because someone figured they contain copper wire that can be resold for $3 a pound. Carbonated soda is “pop,” but there’s no civic program to recycle the can. When it snows, the city doesn’t have the budget to plow, so even adults get snow days. The guys who would hustle change at the party store would call me Austin Powers or Harry Potter, because I was white and wore glasses. In three years, my car was broken into five times (once for a dollar’s worth of nickels and a blank cassette tape). I was mugged three times, most memorably by a group of teens who kept calling me Bill Gates (again, probably the glasses).

The situation in Detroit won’t magically remedy itself no matter how well the Tigers play next week. But since everyone’s been playing badminton with the word “miracle” lately, why not let the miracles rain? Let the 2006 Tigers, with their shiny new downtown ballpark, resuscitate the failing heart of Motown. And let Detroit have its fun while it lasts, and from our high perch over here in the rest of the country, we can look on, beaming.