In September 2006, the Detroit Tigers made the playoffs for the first time in almost a quarter of a century, and that season is fondly remembered by Tiger fans among the best seasons of their lives. Despite the fact that the Tigers collapsed in September and blew a five-game lead, losing the division to the Twins, getting swept by the lowly Royals to finish the regular season (sound familiar?), the team made the playoffs, and that made it a good year.
Of course, it helped that the 2006 Tigers went on to beat the Yankees in four games in the division series, and sweep the A’s in the league championship series, capped off by Magglio Ordonez's walk off homer that sent the Tigers into the World Series. But what made 2006 such a magical year for Tiger fans, was that their success was largely unexpected, even by the most optimistic Tiger fan.
2009 was another solid season that will go down in Tiger folklore, although the Tigers again threw away a late season lead, giving the division title to the Twins in game 163 and missing out on the post season. That season followed a year when there were high expectations, yet the Tigers finished last in the division, after acquiring Miguel Cabrera, and being picked to win the division, if not the World championship.
The problem with this season, it seems, is that expectations were so high at the start of the season, that anything but winning the division in a cake walk is a letdown to many Tiger fans. Just about every "expert", every pundit, and 50 out of 50 writers at ESPN, for example, had the Tigers picked to win their division. Many had them going farther than that, but struggling to win the lowly central division was not in the cards, or so everyone thought. I have been as confident as anyone about the Tigers' chances this season.
Against those lofty expectations, this has been a disappointing baseball season for the Tigers. Sure, if you listen to Jim Leyland, or the players, they will tell you that they expect to be good, but they expect to be in a tight race. Those comments are dismissed as perfunctory lines for the media. But that’s where we are. In the middle of a pennant race, three games out of first place and two games out of a playoff spot, with just over a month left in the regular season. So, why do we have to talk ourselves down off the ledge after every loss, these days?
Ask yourself; if you were given the chance to be in this position at the start of the season, would you have taken it? For many Tiger fans, the answer is no. We expected better. But how many other teams would trade places with the Tigers today? Most of them would. Half of all teams have lost more games than they’ve won and are double digit games out of a playoff spot. Should we feel fortunate? Probably, but we don't.
Let’s be honest with ourselves. Most of us thought that the Tigers would walk away with the division because no other team was good enough to compete. The fact that Chicago has been as good as they’ve been is a complete surprise to us. Maybe we thought that the Tigers would be better than they are. OK we did think they’d be better, at least relative to the competition. Is that a fair expectation? Or were we spoiled last summer.
That’s where it started. The expecations. Last summer. It’s easy to forget that the Tigers struggled in their own division last year, until August when they went on a tear and blew away their division opponents, at one point sweeping each of them in succession to run away with the division, finishing 15 games ahead of everyone. Starting this season, we expected more of the same. Same rotation was back and healthy. Same lineup, except Prince Fielder replaces Victor Martinez. Same bullpen that was almost perfect last year when given a lead after the seventh inning. Just do the same again, and the division is a done deal. Right?
It’s not that easy, as we’re learning, if we didn’t already know from seasons past. There are supposed to be pennant races in baseball. There are supposed to be teams winning that weren’t expected to win. There are supposed to be injuries, and players that don’t hit as well as they did the year before. The Tigers were 74- 61 on this date last season. Now, they're 69- 61. This is normal. So, why the long faces? Why the suicide watch?
Does a season have to be like 1984, where the team starts out on fire and goes wire to wire, never really being challenged for the division title all summer, before we can enjoy it? I would hope not. This is how baseball is supposed to be.
If you don’t like this, then maybe you’re just not cut out to be a baseball fan. The Tigers are in a pennant race, right where they are supposed to be! There will be good times and bad times along the way. But make no mistake that there is no quit in this team- the 2012 Tigers, and there should be no quit among their fans, either. The team controls their own destiny. For better or worse, they’re in the race. That’s as much as we have a right to expect. Try to enjoy it.
Expectations be damned.