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Baseball Gives `Tiger Town' a Rare Excuse for Celebration

As Detroit hosts the World Series opener this weekend, fans savor the chance to forget the city's economic woes.

October 18, 2006|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

DETROIT — Squeezing his way through the crowded Tigers gift shop, Martin Connolly reached a table covered with post-season souvenirs.

The 56-year-old is on a tight budget, having taken early retirement from his General Motors assembly-line job in the summer. Still, the pink sweat shirts trumpeting the team's American League championship and the stacks of foam tiger claws and "World Series '06" stickers beckoned.

The chance to celebrate doesn't come that often in Detroit.

"This city has had so many disappointments, so many failures, so many promises that have been broken by the auto industry and politicians," Connolly said. "The Tigers are one of the last things here that are good and pure and hopeful. It's about all we have left to hang on to."

When the Boston Red Sox won the 2004 World Series, the victory lifted a curse. Last year, when the White Sox won it all, it was vindication for Chicago's South Side team, long overshadowed by the Cubs.

Now for Tigers fans, the chance to be major league baseball's World Series champs has provided a reason to forget their city's woes -- if only for a moment.

The decline of the automotive industry -- with the accompanying plant closures and layoffs -- has left the Motor City, and Michigan, in tatters.

Tens of thousands of residents have fled the state in the last two decades, desperate to find work.

For many of those still here, life often is grim.

Nearly one-third of Detroit's estimated 886,000 residents live below the poverty line. And Wayne County -- which encompasses Detroit and numerous surrounding cities -- reported the highest number of foreclosed homes in the nation in September, according to RealtyTrac Inc., an Irvine real estate database firm.

So the Tigers' success has unleashed an unfamiliar emotion in hometown fans: hope.

"The fact that the team even won the pennant, considering how bad they'd done in recent years, is a huge psychological boost for this town," said Mickey Briggs, 70, an attorney whose family owned the Tigers from the 1930s until 1956.

The local news media have started calling Detroit "Tiger Town." Drivers have been seen waving brooms out of their cars, in honor of the team's American League Championship Series sweep of the Oakland A's. The marquee at the State Theatre -- just a short walk from Comerica Park, the team's home field -- reads: "Let's Party Like It's 1984," a nod to the last time the Tigers won the series.

Paul Swensen, who owns Swensen's Video in the northern Detroit suburb of Sterling Heights, said he has been fielding calls from anxious brides and grooms. They want to turn their receptions Saturday, when the Tigers are scheduled to host the World Series opener against either the St. Louis Cardinals or New York Mets, into quasi-sports bars.

"One couple wants me to bring projectors and screens ... so they can show the game," said Swensen, 37. "Another wants the DJ to announce the game scores, and figured I'd know some of the cameramen working the game. I'm happy to help, as long as it's not Sunday."

He's going to be busy that day. He's got a ticket to the game.

So does Father Steven J. Kelly. A Detroit native and lifelong Tigers fan, Kelly, 40, heads the parish at St. John's Episcopal Church. The massive stone structure is next to Comerica Park.

Several years ago, hoping to attract the faithful and seeking help from a higher power for his beloved team, Kelly hoisted a banner outside St. John's that read "Pray Here for the Tigers." The Lions' name was added when the NFL team's home, Ford Field, opened in 2002.

Kelly holds a prayer service for the Tigers at the beginning of each season. Neither he nor his parishioners expected the team to do so well this year, considering they lost 119 games just three years ago -- one of the worst seasons in baseball history.

But the Tigers have seen Detroit through tough times before: The team won the World Series in the midst of the Great Depression. After race riots tore apart this blue-collar town in 1967, the Tigers helped unify the community with a series win the next year. And amid the '80s auto industry slump, they won again in 1984.

This is undeniably a sports town. Hockey's Detroit Red Wings and basketball's Pistons finished their regular seasons last spring with the best records in their leagues.

"We've learned to be cautiously optimistic," Detroit Mayor Kwame M. Kilpatrick said Tuesday. "You learn to cheer for the success, and roll with the failures."

Connolly wanted to do something to embrace the moment and show his support for a team his family has followed for three generations.

He picked up a T-shirt, eyed the $30 price tag and dropped it back onto the table.

Many of his friends have lost their jobs in recent months. His son expects to be laid off by a GM parts supplier by next fall.

With a sigh, he turned around and walked outside.

This weekend, Connolly said, he and his family will watch the games at home -- and hope for the best.

*

p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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