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Tigers, A's Don't Pack Slingshots

ALCS between Detroit and Oakland is not David vs. Goliath, but it could make up with compelling play what it lacks in luster.

October 10, 2006|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

OAKLAND — So here we are, at the American League Championship Series, Game 1 between the Detroit Tigers and Oakland Athletics tonight in McAfee Coliseum, and what's a network television executive with an eye for ratings to do?

There is no David, no Goliath, no Cinderella, no A-Rod. There are no antiquated stadiums for broadcasters to wax nostalgic about, no long-suffering fans who have endured centuries without a championship, no bombastic owners in white turtlenecks lording over the proceedings.

There are no curses to exorcise, no shelves at Borders set aside for the dozens of books about the Tigers-A's rivalry, no big markets, no astronomical payrolls, no local tabloids with screaming headlines.

"We're not the sexy teams -- I wouldn't be surprised if we played some day games in this series," Tigers closer Todd Jones said Monday. "Heck, with Terrell Owens and North Korea, I'm surprised we're even on TV."

Good luck finding a villain in this ALCS. Tigers pitcher Kenny Rogers was a leading candidate for his unprovoked attack on a cameraman while he played for the Texas Rangers last season.

But that was before Rogers, who was so pumped he looked like the second coming of Mark Fidrych, shut out New York in Game 3 of the division series Friday, galvanizing legions of Yankees haters across the country and pushing New York to the brink of elimination.

To find any discernible bad blood between these combatants, you have to go back 34 years, to Game 2 of the 1972 ALCS, when A's shortstop Bert Campaneris flung his bat at reliever Lerrin LaGrow after being hit by a pitch.

Of course, all but eight of the players in this series weren't even born then.

But what this series may lack in easy story lines, it should make up for in compelling action, because in the A's and Tigers -- working-class teams from blue-collar cities -- baseball has two pitching-rich clubs that belong here, that play top-notch defense and so far have come up with the big playoff hits.

And if that's not enough to attract an audience from a national fan base that seems to get jittery without its pinstripes or panoramic shots of Fenway Park in October, well, don't blame the Tigers and A's, who offer no apologies.

"There's going to be some pretty good baseball, I know that," Oakland third baseman Eric Chavez said. "The Tigers, to me, were the biggest story in baseball this year, and to play them is as good as it gets.

"They're a lot like us, but they have guys who throw 100 mph, who have won 12 Gold Gloves ... they have a little more of what we have, a little more talent."

Which makes Detroit, which last won the World Series in 1984 and lost 119 games only three years ago, a slight favorite, but hardly a lock.

The A's, remember, overcame injuries to key players to fend off the Angels in the AL West and did what no team had done this season in the first game of the division series -- beat Minnesota ace Johan Santana in the Metrodome, en route to a three-game sweep of the Twins.

So, as hard as Detroit starter Justin Verlander and reliever Joel Zumaya throw -- both surpass the 100-mph mark with regularity -- the A's aren't going into this feeling like underdogs.

"The Tigers have come a long way in a couple of years, and we're a small-market club, so both teams are kind of perceived as underdogs," Oakland General Manager Billy Beane said. "I think you're going to see a lot of energy from both cities, you have two franchises that have had a lot of success but haven't been here in a while.

"The only thing missing is there's no one to love or hate, like the Yankees. When Goliath is there, there's always a segment of people who root for or against them."

But who needs Goliath when you have the Big Hurt, A's designated hitter Frank Thomas, all 6 feet 4 and 295 pounds of him, the heart of the Oakland lineup who accounted for 39 home runs and 114 runs batted in.

And a Tigers rotation that dominated a lineup that some touted as the best in baseball history, limiting the Yankees' collection of All-Stars and multimillionaires to six runs and 19 hits in the last three games of the division series.

And an A's lineup whose sum is far greater than its parts, a group of players that ranked 13th in the AL in batting, 13th in slugging percentage and last in average with runners in scoring position but somehow comes up with the right hit at the right time.

And a Tigers lineup that has just as much power at the bottom of the order -- Craig Monroe, Marcus Thames and Brandon Inge, the seventh, eighth and ninth hitters, who have combined for 81 homers and 235 RBIs -- as it does through the middle.

"These are two really good baseball teams, man," Detroit first baseman Sean Casey said. "The Yankees have the mystique, Boston has Red Sox Nation, but these are two good teams that people will find a lot of players who they can relate to."

Even if most of America, at least going into Game 1, doesn't know who most of them are.

"We kind of ruined the Subway Series," Jones said, referring to a much-anticipated rematch of the Yankees and New York Mets in the World Series. "They sold that for six weeks or so; now they've got to sell different angles.

"But people who know and respect baseball can appreciate both of these teams, and I know that whoever wins this series is going to represent the American League in the World Series well."

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

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