Detroit is a baseball town. Has been for a long, long time. Even in their worst season (2003), the Tigers at Comerica Park still managed to record an average attendance 50 percent of capacity. (For reference, the Indians only posted 50 percent attendance last year, and they actually made it to the postseason.)
This is a double-edged sword. On the plus side, it means that players like David Price can join the team mid-season and be blown away by how much fan support is already built in. On the other side of the coin, it means that when players regularly soil their pants, this fanbase that takes its baseball so seriously it absolutely is going to let that player know just how unimpressed they are.
Prince Fielder made a major misstep last year when he followed up a dismal postseason performance by shrugging off the feelings and emotions of the Tigers fan base. "It isn't really tough, man, for me [to move on] ... it's over, bro," said Fielder, before the postseason tears on the fans' cheeks were even dry. And then, to add insult to injury, when it was pointed out that the fans might not take kindly to his easy-come-easy-go attitude, Fielder drove in the final nail: "They don't play."
Joe Nathan blew his sixth save of the season on Saturday, right on the heels of nearly blowing a save just the night before. He had already set much of the fanbase on edge earlier in the season, when his comments immediately following a blown save seemed like he was blaming other players for his failure on the mound. His comments after Saturday's meltdown combined more (perceived) finger-pointing with a very Fielder-esque critique of the fanbase.
On Miggy's role in the blown save, Nathan said: "I just put myself in a tough spot where Miggy has to play ... he's covering the runner at first ... if he doesn't have to cover first, I get a ground ball right to him and we got a chance."
On Ausmus' decision to intentionally walk Bautista, Nathan opined: "[W]e end up walking Bautista and so I'm in a spot where you have to be a little more fine, can't just 'let's just throw strikes,' not that easy."
To some, that may sound like blame-shifting. To others, it may sound like a realistic explanation of how Nathan perceived his situation. It's neither here nor there, perhaps, but that's not where the comments stopped.
Blue Jays 3, Tigers 2
Blue Jays 3, Tigers 2
On the fans, Nathan had this to say: "This is not going to ruin my day. It's not going to do anything like that. I'm going to still go get some dinner, go to sleep, wake up and do it again ... I know the fans sometimes make it seem like if we're not perfect as bullpen guys, we're not doing our job. ... It's not that easy, and we're not robots. And I'm not going to go home and hang my head because of one game."
Is Nathan right? Yes, in a sense. It's one game, players aren't robots, no sense lighting everything on fire after a blown save in August.
Is Nathan dead wrong? Yes, in even more senses. It's not just one game, it's his sixth such game, at least officially and as far as the save stat column will allow. In reality, he's had several more games where he nearly blew the lead and came within 90 to 180 baserunning feet of handing the Tigers another loss.
But more importantly, Nathan took a page out of Prince's playbook and suggested that the fans just don't get it. "They don't play," was Prince's version. Nathan's? "The fans make it seem like if we're not perfect, we're not doing our job."
It doesn't matter if those statements are true or not. It matters if they were appropriate, given the context.
Phil Coke was terrible for almost the entirety of last season, and got himself booed off the mound multiple times. His comments after one of those games? "They are frustrated with me, I'm just as frustrated with myself ... I feel like I'm not contributing in a positive way and that's a tough pill for me to swallow."
Justin Verlander has also struggled this year, and Tigers fans finally booed him off the mound earlier this season. His comments? "Fans are frustrated, and so am I ... They have a right to boo if they're frustrated ... If I was in the stands, I’d probably boo myself."
And let's not forget the way Jim Leyland handled last year's ALCS loss, by addressing the disappointment of the fans in a positive way: "This one hurts bad because I thought we let it get away ... I'm very sorry we didn't get it done for you."
Pay attention, Joe. This is how you deal with a disappointed and (rightfully?) frustrated fanbase. You show some humility. You acknowledge that you haven't lived up to expectations (your own, or those of others). You apologize. You empathize.
What you do not do, if you want to ever hear another cheer from the stands in Detroit, is imply that these die-hard baseball fans are ignorant and just don't get it. You don't imply that you are superior to the fans because of your insider knowledge and status.
Joe Nathan may actually improve his mechanics and stats before the year is over. But he may have just burned his last bridge with the fans.
(Edited Nathan's quote)
(Special thanks to Catherine Slonksnis for Nathan's post-game quote transcriptions.)