2010s or 1970s: Which Detroit sports fans had it worse?
As bleak as the 2010s were for Detroit sports fans, it’s easy to forget there were some successes this decade.
The Tigers made the World Series in 2012, with Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander both assuming the mantle of Best Baseball Player Alive at points while wearing the Olde English D.
The Lions made the playoffs three times, which is a successful decade for them, and the Red Wings stubbornly kept the 25-season playoff streak alive for its final seven years, winning three playoff rounds this decade.
And the Pistons? Well, it was truly a lost decade for the Pistons.
But, man, is it ever bleak right now. If you had added up the losing streaks for all four teams during Christmas dinner, it was at 18 games. That’s two more than the 2008 Lions, who went 0-16. The skid was broken by the Pistons, who beat Washington on Dec. 26.
It’s bad, it truly is, and it's probably made worse that we’ve been spending time with families, friends and fellow sports fans during the holidays, commiserating about just how sorry the scene is.
But let’s go back in the saddest time machine of all-time — maybe your beat-up high school Pinto or Vega — to the 1970s, when disco ruled and our relationship with Russia wasn’t so cozy. Then, we can answer the question: Are we truly living in the worst of times for Detroit sports fans?
Here's a torturous tale of the tape, with an edge for which decade was actually better.
By the numbers
There’s a little apples and oranges here when talking about postseason appearances and playoff series wins.
In 1970, 36.8% of the total teams across all four major sports made the playoffs, and in 1979, it was 36.6%. Nowadays, 43.9% of teams make the postseason, with baseball’s expanded playoffs the biggest reason for the increase.
But it’s not just the Tigers' success in the 2010s that lifts the number, as the Red Wings were pretty good for a while into this decade.
While Detroit made just eight playoff appearances and won two series in the 1970s, our teams made 16 playoff appearances this decade, advancing 10 times.
Amazingly, the looks for the Red Wings, Lions and Tigers have hardly changed since the late Gov. William Milliken took office in 1969.
That’s OK, we like the classics.
But the NBA’s Pistons have experimented with different looks over time.
While some younger fans have been clamoring for a return of the teal jerseys of the 1990s — I think it’s because they’re so bad that contrarians think they’re good? — I say bring back the lightning bolt streaks from the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Both outside-the-box jersey designs were during forgettable eras of Pistons hoops, so there’s some stigma indeed.
But either way, this is a franchise that could use a little flair, and not just with a couple racing stripes down the middle of the uniforms.
While the teams were losing, at least we had some laughs.
Alex Karras parlayed his near-Hall of Fame Lions career into a notable run in Hollywood.
In 1974, Karras played Mongo in “Blazing Saddles,” punching out a horse in the Mel Brooks tour de force of satire — then a classic to some, now cringe-worthy.
Similarly, Pistons star Blake Griffin has been using his offseasons to boost his Q rating on the comedy scene, including racy jokes about Caitlyn Jenner at a recent celebrity roast.
Blake is funny, but we'll see if his post-playing career lives up to the high bar of Webster's dad.
The lows weren’t that low in the 1970s and the highs weren’t that high either.
The Red Wings actually won a 2-0 playoff series sweep against something called the Atlanta Flames in 1978, but the high point is the Pistons taking down Milwaukee in 1976, although the Bucks had lost Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson in the previous couple offseasons.
Hey, we’ll take it.
But this one is easy.
As much as we bag on the Detroit sports scene — for good reason — these last few years, seeing Mike Ilitch get the American League championship trophy in 2012 after sweeping the Yankees was special.
At that time, Tigers fans knew full well the dominant Detroit pitching staff would dominate San Francisco or St. Louis in the World Series.
Fister, Sanchez, Scherzer and Verlander looked unhittable in the playoffs. How could they lose?
With the pleasure comes the pain.
Since Detroit teams had some success this decade, but nobody was able to win a title, there are more stinging losses that come to mind to dwell on what might’ve been.
The referees picking up the pass interference flag against Dallas in the 2014 playoffs, and the Red Wings blowing a 3-1 series lead against eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago in 2013 were gut punches.
But the biggest is no doubt the grand slam by David Ortiz in Game 2 of the 2013 ALCS off Joaquin Benoit to square up what was a 5-1 Detroit lead with two outs in the eighth.
You know the rest.
The stings left by the Dead Wings and Dick Vitale’s Pistons can’t compete with the sight of Torii Hunter’s legs juxtaposed by that cheering security guard in Fenway Park.
These decades each have strange moments we still hear about regularly today.
It was barely in this decade, but we’ll never forget umpire Jim Joyce blowing the call at first base in the ninth, robbing Armando Galarraga of his perfect game on June 2, 2010.
It was truly a “Where were you when…” moment for Detroit sports fans. (I had recently moved away from Michigan for the first time and was waiting out a rainstorm at the Missouri high school state baseball finals in my new home of Springfield, thanks for asking.) While that turned out to be a nice human story in the end, there’s nothing redeeming and wistful about Chuck Hughes collapsing on the Tiger Stadium field while playing for the Lions against the Chicago Bears on Oct. 24, 1971.
The nearby Dick Butkus, who saw Hughes collapse after a play, motioned frantically for help, but Hughes later was pronounced dead at Henry Ford Hospital, a dark note for the franchise and the city.
Fun flash in the pan
Well just this year, David Blough made Thanksgiving actually entertaining for an hour or two, there’s been a couple fun Robby Fabbri games, and the Christian Wood Experience has helped turn a bad Pistons’ season up to a 2 or 2.5 for enjoyment.
But nothing was quite like “The Bird.”
Mark Fidrych legitimately gripped the baseball world for a summer in winning Rookie of the Year and finishing second in the 1976 American League Cy Young Award voting.
His career was short-lived — his 31 appearances that season were more than half of his five-year career total — but what a magical ride.
Talking to the ball, pacing around and manicuring the mound, and his wild curly hair were trademarks that older Tigers fans will never forget as attendance soared at Tiger Stadium on The Bird’s start days.
The Pistons, Lions and Red Wings all moved in the 1970s, with the Pistons and Lions headed to the Pontiac Silverdome in the suburbs and the Red Wings opening Joe Louis Arena on Dec. 27, 1979, beating the 1980 buzzer.
There’s nostalgia and a lot of amazing memories in those venues, but the teams belong downtown — and not because now I can just walk to all the games.
The Lions moved back to the city in the previous decade, but the Pistons followed their lead in 2017 as the Red Wings left the riverfront for new digs along Woodward.
There hasn’t been a playoff win in Little Caesars Arena yet, but if the teams ever get going, they will have a suitable setting for some new memories.
Did you know that Marvin Gaye tried out for the Lions?
The Motown legend was close friends with Lem Barney and Mel Farr, and convinced coach Joe Schmidt to give him a shot, which Schmidt granted during an early 1970s summer workout with the team in Ann Arbor.
That was in exchange for his football friends Farr and Barney singing background on “What’s Going On,” a revolutionary song that could also double as the Lions’ anthem.
This decade, Eminem was memed when he gave an exasperated look in the TV booth at a Michigan football game, and Kid Rock’s restaurant was kicked out of Little Caesars Arena because of his problematic behavior.
On the horizon
We may have not known it then, but as 1980 approached, there were already some homegrown stars blooming in Detroit, and others were on the way. As 1980 began, Tram and Lou were already the Tigers keystone combo, and Billy Sims was months away from becoming an NFL phenom.
A year later, Isiah Thomas was drafted, and three years down the road, Steve Yzerman would find his new home in Detroit.
Are tomorrow’s heroes to lift us out of the doldrums already in-house — Manning and Mize, Larkin and Zadina, Kerryon and Hock, or Sekou and Luke?
Or are they still teenagers, honing their prodigious talent on Latin American dirt, Canadian ice, a Southern gridiron, or a hardwood floor somewhere across the globe?
We know they’re out there.
We gotta believe.
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.