Hold That Tiger

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When I enter my Long Island barbershop these days, Vinnie and his customers interrupt their chatter about last night's Yankee game, fall silent and greet me with embarrassed looks. They know all too well, from previous conversations, that people in my category are to be pitied, not ridiculed. You see, I'm a Detroit Tiger fan

      How can anyone be a Tiger fan, you ask. After all, the Tigers began the 2002 season with eleven, yes eleven, straight losses. And this year they lost their first nine games, before eking out their first victory, and then lost seven more in a row. News about the Tigers has been so dispiriting  that when Detroit's tenth game was postponed because of a snowstorm, I called my oldest son, Peter (who apparently has inherited my Tiger gene) and asked, "Have you heard the good news? The Tigers didn't lose today!"

       My baseball madness began on a fall day many decades ago, when I was a little tyke.  When my father and I left a movie theater on Woodward Avenue, Detroit's main drag, late one afternoon, we were confronted by a large, uncontrollable crowd rocking a streetcar and jumping on the hoods of parked cars. Frightened, I grabbed my father's pant leg and asked, "Daddy, what's happening?" Dad, an immigrant who didn't read the sports pages, replied, "I'm not sure, son. I think it has something to do with baseball." It sure did.

        It was 1934, and the Tigers had won their first pennant in 25 years! I was most impressed. Baseball, I thought, must be very important. My impression morphed into  fanaticism the next year, when the Tigers won the World Series. Like other kids, I memorized (and still can recite) the 1935 Tiger lineup, which in those days was loaded with stars: Charlie Geringher, Mickey Cochran, Hank Greenberg, Schoolboy Rowe, Tommy Bridges, to name a few. Detroit was baseball crazy. A couple of years later, in the middle of a movie I was watching, the screen darkened, the houselights went on, the theater manager walked on the stage. "Hank Green berg has just hit his 42nd and 43rd home runs," he announced. Everyone stood up and cheered, the houselights were dimmed, and the movie resumed. See why I'm a Tiger fan?

        There were other good years. 1940, 1945, 1968 . . . and then came 1984, that miracle year when the Tigers monopolized first place in their division from opening day until the playoffs. Totally out of control, I persuaded my wife to accompany me to Detroit to see her first major league baseball game. Staying overnight in a hotel, we awoke to a stormy day and torrential rainfall. Over my wife's objections, we departed for Tiger Stadium in a downpour, bought umbrellas from a street vendor, and sat in the stands opposite first base, our umbrellas deployed.

       But, as I mentioned, 1984 was a miracle year. The rain stopped a half hour before game time, the clouds parted, the tarpaulin was rolled up, and the Tigers went on to win. (The highlight of that day, however, was a remark by my wife that caused general hilarity among nearby fans. Staring at the mask, chest protector and other padding on the Oakland A's catcher, she remarked, rather loudly, "Look at the equipment on that man!").

       When the Tigers made the playoffs that year against the Kansas City Royals, I called son Peter and suggested that we meet in Detroit to see a game. He flew from Philadelphia, where he's a TV producer, and I traveled from New York. Meeting at the Detroit airport, we drove to Tiger Stadium, where our team clobbered the Padres to win the fourth and deciding playoff game. Overjoyed, we left the stadium, only to run into a mob scene. Enthusiastic fans were rocking a bus, jumping on the hoods of cars and cheering. Suddenly, I had a flashback. It was a half century ago, nearly to the day, I realized, when I had turned to my father in panic in the riotous aftermath of that 1934 Tiger victory. Sort of mystical, wouldn't you say?

         The Tigers went on to beat the San Diego Padres in the World Series, but it's been largely downhill ever since. This year, when Peter took his 16-year old son to a Tiger spring training game in Lakeland, Florida, the Tigers lost. But hope springs eternal in diehard Tiger fans, and Peter is convinced that someday, somehow, he and his son will see Detroit clinch a championship, emerge from what is now Detroit's Comerica Stadium and face a madding throng. I can only hope that I'll be along for the fun.