Today is Tuesday, February 6th, 2018. Philadelphia Eagles fans are entering Stage 2 of their hangovers, following their dramatic Super Bowl victory over the Evil Empire. Stage 2 is the point where the physical agony of overindulgence succumbs to the grouchy, tired reality that your desk job is still there waiting for you. There is a lull that fills the month of February with clouds and misery that even a mild gambling addiction and some European soccer can’t fully cure.
Miserable Februaries are familiar to me. Every February of my life has been spent in the bitter cold. My parents are high school sweethearts from Kingston, New York, a charming city with a rich history located 100 miles north of Yankee Stadium on the Hudson River. At age 7, we relocated to Enfield, Connecticut – just north of Hartford. When I was 13, as Cecil Fielder mashed his way to 44 home runs and Bill Gullickson was wrapping up the only 20-win season of his career, my folks packed up the old family station wagon, Griswold-style, and made the permanent trek to Hilliard, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. Having originated in upstate New York where the Yankees and Mets are king; then migrating to Red Sox territory just a few minutes south of the Massachusetts border; finally landing in Columbus, OH, smack dab in the middle of the I-71 corridor between Cleveland and Cincinnati, naturally I grew up as a diehard…DETROIT TIGERS fan.
Why am I a Detroit Tigers fan? Well, that part is simple. My dad was a Detroit Tigers fan and he was the coolest guy on my planet. I wanted to be just like him. Why is my dad a Detroit Tigers fan? That part is more complicated, full of intrigue, and riddled with legends that have been passed down to me over the years. Some of it I might have made up myself, or just dreamt up over the years. One contention is that Dad’s Little League team was named the Tigers, and so the Big League version became his team by extension. I also heard that he went to spend a summer with an uncle who lived in Detroit, and he developed his affinity then. I have a vague remembrance of him telling me that he could get Tigers games on the radio, even in New York, and listened to Ernie Harwell’s calls as a kid.
The most interesting rendition has less to do with the Tigers and more to do with the Yankees. If there was anything that took precedence over loving the Tigers in my household, it was our complete and utter disdain for the Yankees. The legend goes that my father attended a Yankees game as a boy when the great Mickey Mantle walked by on the warning track near the stands. My grandfather said to the Mick, "Hey, Mick! Sign an autograph for my son Johnny?" The greatest switch hitter of all-time turned and sneered, "I ain’t got time."
Listen, I don’t know how much of any of that is true. And I really don’t care. I like to think that Mickey Mantle was rude to my father when Dad was just a wide-eyed youth looking to get an autograph from the hero of every 1950’s kid in New York. It supports my narrative. I could ask my Dad to explain it to me again, as he probably has dozens of times over the years (generally after I’ve had one too many beers and the fog between reality and mythology further complicates my ability to sort fact from fiction). We hate the Yankees and love the Tigers in my family. I don’t feel the need to legitimize it. That’s just the way it is.
In 1974, my parents were in their early twenties, and 39-year old, rightfielder Al Kaline was on his farewell tour with the Tigers. The rocket-armed "Mr. Tiger", having never played a day in the minor leagues, was relegated to a full season at designated hitter and turned in a pedestrian but respectable line of .262-13-64 in his final Major League campaign. On June 19th of that season, the Tigers wrapped up a 3-game set in Texas against the Rangers. Joe Coleman scattered five hits over six innings of work, allowing only a single run. John Hiller blew the save in the eighth, but held on to win it in the 11th on a double by shortstop Ed Brinkman, who plated Mickey Stanley. The following day, June 20th, 1974, while the Tigers were en route to the Bronx for an upcoming set with the Pinstripers, my mom gave birth to her first son, Kaline John Carter.
Fortunately for my brother, he never developed a love for America’s pastime. Let’s face it, you wouldn’t want to be a kid named "Zuckerberg" who loved entrepreneurship above all else. That’s an uphill battle. I came along on Thanksgiving Day in 1978, and despite Dad’s serious attempts to convince Mom to name me "Detroit" (yes, DETROIT), which to this day causes me to question my father’s sanity, my mother’s reasons for staying married to him, and the overall state of the universe in the 1970’s, rational heads prevailed and I was named after a semi-famous actor, the late Keenan Wynn. Of course, my parents were not interested in making life easy for their children. So they tweaked the spelling into something nobody would ever be able to pronounce correctly on the first attempt, and I became the only Kenon John Carter to ever grace this planet.
In 1983, my sister Lauren joined the clan and became the first Carter kid with a justifiable name. By this time, I had pretty much taught myself to read by way of the "Topps Baseball Card" method. Every day, seemingly, Dad would bring me home a pack of baseball cards. I would sort them, learn them, and cherish them. The ’83 set featured the rookie cards of future Hall of Famers Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn, and Ryne Sandberg. I would sort my cards and mimic the batting stances and pitching windups of every player on TV. I quickly became known around the family circle – which is pretty much the only circle you run in when you’re four years old – as a baseball "whiz kid." I knew the roster of every team, along with stats and jersey numbers. I was quite an entertaining party favor.
In 1984, Sparky Anderson’s Tigers rattled off 104 regular season wins, spanked the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championship Series, and easily dispatched of the San Diego Padres in five games to hoist the World Series trophy for the first and only time in my life. At six years old, I have no recollection of this magical ’84 season, and cannot draw on it to bring any joy to my life today. Morris, Petry, Hernandez, Gibson, Trammell, Parrish; and my all-time favorite player, Louis Rodman Whitaker, led the Tigers to the promised land probably one season too early for me to participate in the celebration.
In 1987, two years after the final Carter kid, my sister Lindsay, was born, the same nucleus of players once again topped all of their AL East foes, but ran into a Kirby Puckett-led Minnesota Twins team that broke my heart in the ALCS. As Trammell’s & Whitaker’s careers came to an end, the Travis Fryman & Bobby Higginson era was ushered in, followed by the Jeff Weaver/Mike Maroth phase, collectively known as "Fifteen Years of Ineptitude."
Fast forward to 2006, when Jim Leyland took the reins and finally got the Tigers back to the postseason. Detroit promptly smashed the Yankees in the Division Series and took a 2-0 lead on Oakland in the ALCS, and we started thinking, "Maybe this is the year!" I left work on October 13th and headed to Comerica to see Game 3 of the ALCS. My wife and I watched Kenny Rogers flip 7-1/3 innings of 2-hit ball. Series MVP Placido Polanco laced a single up the middle off Rich Harden to score Curtis Granderson in the bottom of the first and Craig Monroe blasted a solo shot in the fifth to cement the victory. Magglio Ordonez’s 3-run, walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth off Huston Street in Game 4 sent the Tigers back to the Series for the first time since 1984, and the first time in my appreciable life.
Tony LaRussa’s St. Louis Cardinals, the same franchise the Tigers edged out in the legendary 1968 Bob Gibson World Series, were representing the National Leaguers. Detroit sent rookie phenom Justin Verlander out to start Game 1, where he struck out eight, but fell victim to the long ball against Scott Rolen and Albert Pujols. Nonetheless, we still felt like this Tigers squad was the team to beat, and Dad and I made our way to the Motor City on October 22nd, 2006, to sit among our fellow Tiger fans in Comerica Park for Game 2 of the WORLD SERIES!
Just as in Game 2 of the ALDS, the Tigers jumped out to an early 2-0 lead on a solo shot from Monroe followed by Carlos Guillen doubling in Maggs. This was the game where Kenny Rogers, who at 41-years old had become a finesse pitcher, was accused of having a substance on his hand in the first inning. It turned out to be a clump of dirt mixed with rosin, Rogers stayed in the game, and went on to toss eight innings of 2-hit, shutout ball. Sean Casey followed up a Guillen triple with a laser to right field to give the Tigers a 3-run lead, as the ball was passed to Todd Jones while 42,533 Tiger fans held their collective breaths through what would inevitably be a tumultuous ninth. After two quick outs, Scott Rolen roped a single to right, Juan Encarnacion reached on an error by Jones, and Jim Edmonds scorched a double to left, making it 3-1. "Here we go again." Jones plunked Preston Wilson with a pitch, loading the bases for Yadier Molina. Jones finally induced a grounder to Guillen, who flipped to Polanco, and a classic Todd Jones "save" was in the books. Dad and I had just witnessed the Tigers win a World Series game.
The Cards pitching staff shut us down for the rest of the Series, yielding just six runs in the final three games, and another Tigers season was behind us with no victory parade to succeed it. Leyland would take Detroit back to the playoffs three more times in 2011-’13, including a World Series appearance in 2012 where the Tigers bats once again went silent against the San Francisco Giants. Brad Ausmus was able to keep up the winning way for his first season, winning 90 games in 2014 to top the AL Central Division, only to get blanked 3-0 in the ALDS by Baltimore. Three years of frustration followed, culminating with an embarrassing 64-98 "effort" in 2017 that resulted in Ausmus’s dismissal and the hiring of former long-time rival, Ron Gardenhire – whose 1983 Topps baseball card appeared in just about every other pack, I might add.
So here we are, February 6, 2018. I’m in Columbus, OH, as usual, where we are expecting 1-3" of snow mixed with some sleet tonight. One week from today, however, in Lakeland, FL, the forecast shows 84 degrees and the Detroit Tigers’ pitchers and catchers will be reporting for Spring Training. Spring is the time of renewed hope when you’re a Tigers fan, a time when I can wipe away the sorrows that linger from the torturous experience I left behind in 2017, and every other year of my life as a baseball fan for that matter. Is this the year the Tigers finally bring home the hardware? I have no tenable prognosis for this club that suggests it will be. It doesn’t really matter though, because the journey of Father & Son navigating the undulation of emotions in a single baseball season supersedes the significance of wins and losses. Baseball season has arrived.