I think I'm a generally an optimistic guy. I try to look for silver linings, and I especially try to get my kids to think that way as well. The final game of the series against the Orioles was a game that severely tested my outlook. This was the big day. The day that I was finally going to take my 9-year-old son to our first Tigers game. We've been watching the games together with regularity this year, and he knows the players and their individual nuances. He was definitely excited to be taking a special father-son trip to Detroit with me to watch The Boys play live, and there were a lot of hopes and expectations riding on this outing.
Stage 1: Pre-Game
We were up and out of the house early Wednesday morning. Detroit is a good three hours away, and the plan was to get to Comerica right when the gates opened so we could watch batting practice and try to get autographs. We'd heard good things about some of the players (like Cabrera and Verlander) and their willingness to sign autographs, especially for kids. And we talked and talked for weeks on end about how awesome it was going to be to watch "the big guys" crush home run after home run into the seats in a way that only happens during batting practice. In preparation for the trip, we had gone to MC Sports and purchased two new, clean baseballs and a Sharpie - we were ready for autograph time. We were certain one baseball wouldn't be enough to contain all the signatures.
On the trip over, we talked about what we'd like to see happen in this game, what we wanted to see "live and in person." I said I wanted to see Miggy hit a bomb. Little buddy said he wanted to see AJax steal a base. Or Torii Hunter. He loves Torii Hunter.
We arrived half an hour before the park even opened, so we had time to walk around the stadium and look at the giant "prowling Tiger" sculptures, peek through the gates and admire the sprawling view of the sea of green seats, and take a few pictures near the statues of former Tiger legends. As soon as the gates opened and we were admitted, we made a beeline for the third base dugout and got a nice spot right on the rails on the outfield side.
Then I noticed: there was no one on the field. None of the batting practice equipment was set up. Strange.
We waited for half-an-hour before we finally saw Justin Verlander come out of the dugout with Jeff Kunkel to go toss some pitches in the outfield. JUSTIN VERLANDER! The 25-30 kids bunched around the rails went nuts, calling his name and holding out their various autograph paraphernalia. Nothing doing. He threw in the outfield for 20 minutes, then walked past us again on his way to the dugout. Surely now he'd sign a few baseballs, right? Nope. He kept his head down, his vision straight in front of him, and walked down into the dugout and out of sight.
Now, I get it. It's an hour before the game. He wants to get his work done and then go get suited up for the game, and maybe he doesn't have time right then to stop and sign a bunch of autographs. But he didn't even look at his crowd of young and adoring fans. Didn't even make eye contact. No wave-and-a-smile, no wink-and-a-thumbs-up. Not cool, Justin. Not cool.
It soon became apparent that they weren't going to be having batting practice. And by the time the players came out to stretch on the field, our little group of signature-seekers had been sent away to make room for the ticket-holders who wanted to take their seats. Sorry, little buddy. No batting practice. No autographs. (This is when my optimism went AWOL.)
We went back to our very, very good seats behind the Tigers dugout, and I started in with the silver linings. At least we had awesome seats. At least we were about to see a good game. At least we were going to get to see our favorite Tigers up-close-and-personal. Always look on the bright side, always stay optimistic.
And then I looked at the lineup card. Seriously, Jim Leyland? Don Kelly is starting and Torii Hunter is MIA? Talk about getting trolled hard-core. I've written posts about how Don Kelly has been playing too much and getting too many starts, and here he was, getting a start in a game that I paid money and drove a fair distance to see. Sorry, little buddy - no Torii Hunter today. (This is when my optimism went AWOL.)
The happy ending here is that after 15 minutes of playing spot-the-Tiger and watching them warm up in the field ("Look! I think that's Dirks! Oh look, there's Peralta!"), we noticed that Avisail Garcia had stopped at the rails and was signing autographs. Little buddy shot me a hopeful look. "Do you want to try to get back down there and get his autograph?" Vigorous head-nodding. Somehow we managed to worm our way down to the rails again, and we got the mini-Mig-Sig. (Personal note: that kid is way larger and more imposing than he looks on TV.)
And then, just as we were getting shooed away by Seat Security again, Drew Smyly walked down to our end of the dugout, into the camera crew pit, up onto some boxes, and signed a few more autographs for us. Very cool. He went out of his way to make sure we got signatures, when Verlander couldn't even be troubled for a wave when he was 10 feet away. Just saying: Smyly for All-Star starting pitcher this year. (Perhaps you think I am over-reacting and making a snap-judgment based on an emotional reaction rather than on solid statistical evidence; perhaps you have never taken a 9-year-old boy to a baseball game and seen his disappointment at being snubbed by his hero.)
Feeling much better for having gotten our two autographs, we returned to our seats to settle in for a great game.
(This is when my optimism went AWOL.)
Stage 2: Game On
I won't waste time here with the game details. You probably saw it on TV, heard it on the radio, or at least saw the box scores afterwards. Porcello got lit up for 6 runs in the 4th inning, the Tigers clawed back to 6-3 in the 6th, and then Downs, Reed, Valverde and Co. gift-wrapped the game and handed it back to the Orioles. Final score, 13-3.
Just a few notes on the in-the-park experience of seeing this game, though ...
When AJax got caught stealing in the 1st inning, I think everyone knew it was going to happen from the moment he started running. That break from first base was every bit as bad as it looked on the televised replay. What I didn't know, until I got home and read the game review(s), was that this was a hit-and-run gone bust. Now it makes a lot more sense, because seriously, there was a collective groan as soon as AJax took off - he was that late.
Jhonny Peralta looks even lazier in person. Seriously, I know he can snag and scoop just about anything that's hit directly to him, but watching him barely limp and half-bend/half-wave at that single by Ishikawa in the 2nd inning was an eye-roller. I try to steer clear of extreme rhetoric and universalisms, but honestly, I can't remember ever seeing Peralta ever dive after anything. And it looked really ugly from 200 feet away.
Still, it doesn't matter if Detroit is losing - Comerica is a fun place to be. There's electricity in the air every time Prince Fielder's name is announced. (And I didn't realize until that day, because it's hard to hear on the TV, that Prince's walk-up music is the "Rex Tremendae" from Mozart's Requiem Mass. The opening line, loosely translated, is "King of tremendous majesty" - is the Prince trying to tell us something?) There's the singing hot dog guy. There's over-priced (but very tasty) Polish sausages. Every Tiger base hit is more exciting. Every time the Tigers' defense gets out of an inning, there's more cheering and appreciation. It's a "group dynamic" thing, and it's very cool.
What was not cool, however, was watching the bullpen implosion from innings 7-9. When Tuiasosopo ripped that two-run double in the 6th inning, the place erupted, and that was awesome. We were on our feet, high-fiving each other, whistling and cheering and generally going nuts. It had been a very long, very hot day up to that point, and we finally had something to get excited about! Yes! And then Downs and Reed happened. (This is when my optimism went AWOL.)
Little buddy actually said he wanted to leave in the middle of the 8th inning. By now, Detroit was down 9-3, we were burning up in our seats (the scoreboard never read above 70 degrees, but in the direct sunlight for three hours, it felt like 110), and the long day was catching up with him. Still! Optimism!
"You don't want to do that, buddy, we'll probably get to see Miggy bat one more time - you don't want to miss that." And then, I swear to God this is true, I said, "Besides, maybe we'll get lucky and get to see Jose Valverde come out and give up a bunch more runs!" I was joking! What sick-and-twisted Baseball God heard me say that and decided to bring it to pass?!
Stage 3: Hell & Valverdenation
When the Tigers went quickly in the bottom of the 8th, half of Comerica stood up and left. Naturally, we got up and went scouting for better seats. We settled in two rows behind the Tigers dugout, looked up, and there he was: Papa Grande, the man himself, standing on the pitcher's mound. (This, and four more times that inning, is when my optimism went AWOL.)
I have no idea why he was handed the baseball. I probably don't really care at this point. I just know that he was given yet another opportunity to do something, please-dear-God-anything, to prove that he hasn't become completely worthless, and he took that opportunity and promptly whizzed it down his pant-leg. In person, it seemed like it all happened so fast, but it wasn't until I checked the stats that I realized why it seemed this way: it's because he literally gave up four runs on ten pitches. Ten. Freaking. Pitches.
I've seen Valverde (who I've decided, after hearing a caller on a local sports show after the game, is now officially "Mamma Mia" instead of "Papa Grande," because all he does is serve up meatballs) do the melt-down thing on TV. I've heard it on the radio. But seeing it in person? Let me tell you what's missing from the Mamma Mia Meltdown experience on TV or radio: the palpable, red-faced, spittle-flecked and screaming anger of the fans in the stands. Most of the people around me were actively rooting for Valverde to fail. When he gave those first two singles to Machado and Markakis, a substantial number of people in my section were cheering and yelling, "That's it, Valverde, show us how it's done, you [expletive]!"
But when Jones came up next and promptly hit the bases-clearing double, the boos were deafening. Then came the steady stream of jeers and cat-calls.
"You suck, Valverde!"
"Valverde, you'd pitch better with a beach ball!"
"OH MY GOD he threw a strike! Someone call the president! He actually threw a strike!"
And when he next served up Chris Davis' second home run of the game (and dear God, did that ball travel a long way), one fan actually ran to the edge of the dugout and began screaming, "Go back to Lakeland and take your lover Leyland with you!" Over and over again. People were standing up in their seats, flipping Valverde the bird. People were screaming and cursing. It was not a pretty sight.
But, optimism! Little buddy and I got to see batting practice after all!
Stage 4: Aftermath
So Detroit got routed, 13-3. We didn't get to see the Tigers take batting practice. Justin Verlander didn't even acknowledge our existence. We only got two autographs. Miggy didn't hit a home run, Hunter didn't play, and Jackson got caught stealing instead of stealing a base.
And we had a great time.
We talked on the long drive home about how fun and unique it is to see these guys play, live and in-the-flesh. We talked about how cool it was to see Miggy get two hits, how fun it was to see Tuiasosopo hit that big double, and how we got lots of great pictures. And we talked about how special it is when fathers and sons get to spend one-on-one time going to a baseball game. I told him how I remember so many details of the first game my dad took me to when I was a kid, and how my dad remembers the details of when his dad took him to his first Tigers game. We talked about how we'll always remember this special outing, and how, in a way, seeing Valverde implode was the best part of the game - we got to be part of history on that one. We may very well have been part of the crowd that witnessed Valverde's Last Stand.
I said, "Buddy, I know it would have been more fun to see the Tigers win, but if someone had come to me three days ago and said, 'I'm from the future, and Detroit is going to lose 13-3 on Wednesday, do you still want to go to the game?', I would have said yes." He smiled and said, "Me too." Because baseball is always going to be bigger than winning or losing.
As for my optimism? Well, after Wednesday's debacle, I promptly bought us two more tickets for a mid-September game. This time it's a night game. This time it's a weekend. This time we're going to see batting practice. And I'm optimistic that this time, we're going to see Detroit win.