That’s the question that keeps turning in my head. Perhaps it really is just me, but I have noticed a number of other readers and commenters here weighing in with some degree of discomfort on the signing of Prince Fielder. And I’m forced to wonder why. Most concerns are well thought out and articulate, but some mirror my own in their vagueness. My own discomfort has little or nothing to do with the fact that I’m a stickler for solid defense in the major leagues. I’m not. Anyone who knows baseball knows that if a guy can hit, management will find a place for him in the field. And that goes for both leagues; the defensively-challenged run-producer can be found across the spectrum in many guises. Besides, the largest part of defense is great pitching, and we’ve got that. See, it’s just that something doesn’t sit right with me about this deal. Is it that I’m afraid Cabrera will no longer be as effective at the plate as he has been? No. Is it that I’m terribly afraid of what will happen to our lineup without the likes of Brandon Inge? A thousand times no. Is it that I’m wringing my hands about someone else’s money or that I believe this deal will hogtie the Tigers financially? Nope. So what is it that seems to have stuck in my craw about the situation?
I should, after all, be thrilled about this deal. I am, in large part, a Tigers fan today because of Prince’s dad. I adore the idea of watching my favorite player (Miggy) tee off on pitches because of the fact that in that dark warm wet place that pitchers don’t talk about, they’re honestly and rightfully afraid of the batter behind him in the lineup. Comerica Park’s right field line will be friendly to a powerhitting lefty that we’ve not had in our lineup. So what on earth is it that has me filled with trepidation? Why am I looking this particular gift horse so deeply in the mouth?
After much confused thought and after oscillating between elation and the unscratchable itch of my own doubt, I think I’ve come up with it. And the answer has to do with how I’ve seen myself as a fan and the Tigers as a baseball team throughout my life. It is this: I don’t want to be a fan of the New York Yankees.
I also don’t want to be so reductive here that I equate big spending with the Yankees. Heck, I don’t even really care how much a team spends and I recognize fully that funding plays a large role in any franchise’s ongoing success. My issue with the Yankees and their fans (at least some I know) has always had more to do with the attitude that I’ve always assumed annual big spending creates. You see, Yankees fans by and large live in a kind of bizarro baseball world where failure is not acknowledged as a possibility even in a sport where failure is most probable. Ours is a sport where a man is ensconced in the hall of fame if he only fails seven out of ten times. Ours is a sport where errors are counted and held against players. A sport where we count blown saves; where until recently a pitcher’s worth was measured primarily in how many runs he allowed, how many times he failed to stop the other team from scoring; a sport where Bill Buckner is more famous as a Red Sox player than Babe Ruth. The season itself is built into a series of series, acknowledging that even the best teams lose a lot of games. If a team wins ten three-game series in a row, they’re playing very good baseball even though they’re only winning two thirds of their games.
But some Yankee fans, because of their team’s spending (perhaps) and past success (perhaps), have been largely roped into a loveless, hopeless realm of baseball where it’s all or nothing, where there’s no such thing as a great non-World Series-winning season. Being a perennial favorite can do that to a team. There’s nothing left but to win it all without satisfaction because it’s what’s expected, or to fall dismally and abjectly short of everyone’s expectations. And this may be what the Fielder signing makes me fear for my team.
The joy of baseball has always been in its impossibility. The World Series has been won by 22 different teams in the 107 times it’s been played. That includes the 27 championships won by the Yankees. That kind of parity indicates that it’s mathematically possible for a team to win it all in any given year. But eight teams have never won it, and nine more have only won it once or twice. Yet we carry on, hoping for our next 1935, 1945, 1968, or 1984.
As a Tiger fan, I've always hoped (often against all odds) that “this year will be our year.” And yet, in my lifetime, it’s only been “our year” once. But I wouldn't trade last year, for instance, for anything—even, dare I say it, a World Series championship. If I had to trade the win over the Yankees in the ALDS, the win streak that clinched the Central, the year that Verlander had, or Valverde’s win streak for a title, I wouldn’t. Because that would be a joyless, empty win. A win of expectation rather than an overcoming of expectation.
I know this has been somewhat long-winded, but I guess the point I’m making is this: I love the Tigers for the same reason I love baseball. There is joy to be found in failure punctuated by success. Those terribly lean years in the too-recent past were a slump. That happens. Baseball teaches us this. Paradoxically, it’s only when we begin to assume success that we fail.
I’m not saying the Tigers are the Yankees. And for the record, I’m not trying to paint every Yankee fan with the same brush. Many I've met (including dear relatives) are knowledgeable baseball fans who see their team’s weaknesses clearly. I’m mostly discussing the huge number of Yankee fans for whom “you’re just jealous” is the go-to response to any critique of their team. Regardless, the point here is that I’m merely trying to put my finger on the foolish and niggling discomfort I have at seeing one of the finest hitters in the game added to our roster at such a great financial cost. I’m getting over it, though, because I remember those heady days before spring training in 2008. And I’m still filled with more hope than confidence, more “what-if” than “we’d-better…” Moreover, I’m starting to believe that no payroll of any size can change that. (Until we win our 27th World Series, of course.) For now, I’ve got my fingers crossed just as tightly as they should be in February of each and every year. Go Tigers.