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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Bad Mets a Good Example for Tigers

October 05, 2003|Dave Kindred | The Sporting News

Shane Halter's walk-off home run in the 11th inning gave the Tigers a third straight victory and delayed, for that night, their long march toward 120 defeats. Grown men rushed up the dugout steps and skipped to home plate. There they bounced up and down like kindergartners excited by something wonderful, perhaps the Easter Bunny.

Only this was better than that. The Tigers have been forlorn for a long time. They might have come to believe the world no longer held any possibility of joy. So bleak was their outlook that they felt a need to deny it, as when outfielder Dmitri Young described what the Tigers' clubhouse isn't:

"This isn't a psychiatric ward. Nobody's going to commit suicide. Nobody's beating their wives."

We can celebrate another baseball season even before we reach what Tommy Lasorda called, "THE FALL CLASSIC," in capital letters. The game's commissioner, Bud Selig, insists, "We are in the Golden Age of baseball right now."

More fans in the seats, more championship contenders, shiny new playpens in a dozen cities -- all that, and Barry Bonds alongside Willie Mays, Sammy Sosa in front of Mickey Mantle.

But let's not forget the Tigers.

Not everyone can win.

Even in a Golden Age, somebody has to be the Tin Man.

These poor Tigers. They've been in baseball forever. Ty Cobb made them ferocious. They were graced by Hank Greenberg and Al Kaline, Charlie Gehringer, Mickey Lolich and Sparky Anderson. They won a World Series as recently as 1984, an achievement that moved several local citizens to celebratory actions known to law enforcement officials as "riot," "arson" and "public endangerment."

Because the partying trapped hundreds of media types inside Tiger Stadium, a helicopter came thumping in over the upside-down-on-fire police car and landed by second base.

From there, minions of the Tigers' owner delivered midnight pizzas to the weary scribblers.

Domino's, then, became the favored pizza of stranded sportswriters. And, strange the way these things happen, the Tigers' owner now is another man made rich by tomato sauce, pepperoni and sausage -- though one wonders whether any baseball fan in Detroit has a taste for Little Caesars after these last 10 years.

For today's Tigers, unlike the 1962 Mets, are not suddenly bad. They're the result of years of neglect. Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom says the Little Caesars emperor, Mike Ilitch, has allowed underlings to put together a team of the "cheapest, youngest or most untradeable" players. Detroit News columnist Rob Parker says that after Ilitch kicked in his share of pizza dough to build Comerica Park -- a good thing -- there was no money left for players -- a bad thing.

In the seven seasons preceding this one, the Tigers lost at least 92 games five times, once reaching 106, once 109. So this season's numbers are a surprise only in that they're so catastrophic as to remind folks of the `62 Mets, widely considered to be the worst baseball team of the 20th century.

Casey Stengel managed those Mets. Warming up for that job, he'd managed the Yankees to 10 American League pennants and seven World Series championships.

One day with the Mets he saw a wild pitch followed by a passed ball, declared himself dizzy from watching the Dodgers run and said, "Makes a man think. You look up and down the bench and you have to say to yourself, 'Can't anybody here play this game?' `'

Seven seasons later, the Mets were in the World Series. By then, Stengel had retired and been elected to the Hall of Fame. Late one night during the `69 Series, he conducted another of his famous lobby seminars on baseball.

He explained what happened in 1962: "I had old-timers, guys who couldn't play, and I paid $100,000 for each of them and couldn't give them away on the street, and they were racing horses, and I remember one day when their horses won races in New York and Chicago, and they won $125,000 in both places, and they just used the Mets' name to fill the seats, and I asked them, `Why not spend that money for players who can play?' `'

A translation: The expansion Mets were a melange of aching veterans and unproven kids. The horse racing people were the Mets' owners, who, in Stengel's opinion, believed it wasn't really necessary to have good players, that the very newness of the team sold tickets.

"We were no good at the start," Stengel went on. "And how could we be with guys who couldn't play no more except for Ashburn, who hit .300 for us, but the only guy he threw out was the one that ran backward that time."

Richie Ashburn, that would be. As for Ashburn's throwing out the runner who ran backward that time, Stengel offered no other information. But then, who needed more? After all, strange things happened. The Mets were so esoterically bad that they once gave up four runs on four straight potential double-play ground balls, and in a doubleheader four of their runners were thrown out at home.

Soon enough, those esoteric Mets were gone, replaced by Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman, Cleon Jones and Tommie Agee.

Only two of the `62 Mets played for the `69 Mets. Dear Tigers, there's a clue.

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