Detroit — Probably because this summer has been distressing, more distressing than any summer from my lifetime — OK, it has to do with our nation — Thursday’s game at Comerica Park was well-timed.
The Tigers aren’t going to the playoffs. But baseball has never been more important to a city, nor maybe to a country. You could sense as much on a summer day straight from Normal Rockwell as the Tigers beat the Giants, 6-2.
There was a nice turnout (27,210) for one of those games that pleases a hometown crowd, first inning through the ninth. Anibal Sanchez pitched gloriously as his Hollywood revival continues. The Tigers got some crunch from their lineup, including rookie Dixon Machado’s first big-league home run. And the bullpen blew away nine Giants hitters over the final three innings.
This was a day of pure baseball. Nothing more, nothing less. It was lovely and soulful theater affirmed during a quick, mid-innings stroll through the lower-deck concourse where everything Thursday seemed as innocent and pastoral as it does during Florida Grapefruit League afternoons.
It can’t be said, for sure, why Thursday struck someone as different from other days at Comerica Park. But this day’s game and atmosphere had about it a particularly sweet and simple grandeur.
That’s so vital, baseball’s ability to keep people involved and happy, separated from too many other concerns and realities in 2017.
New faces on horizon
A question Tigers fans can fairly ask is how long this relationship will last. This team is about to change, perhaps dramatically.
The Tigers have good players. The hang-up is they aren’t good enough, in quantity, to make this team a contender.
Therefore, these could be the final weeks in a Detroit uniform for any number of people who have made baseball in Detroit, for the most part, extraordinary during the past 11 years. Justin Verlander. J.D. Martinez. Alex Avila. Justin Wilson. Jose Iglesias. Maybe others.
The trade market is turning hot and the Tigers have stars who can help other, genuine playoff clubs play into October and maybe win a World Series this cast couldn’t quite pull off.
That will deflate some fans who can’t imagine seeing Verlander in another uniform. Or watching J.D. Martinez clout homers for a different club. Or marveling as Justin Wilson steps to the mound, say for the Nationals, and blows away batter after batter, as he has been doing wondrously since he replaced Francisco Rodriguez as Detroit’s ninth-inning fireman. In a development that might head 2017’s list of Tigers baseball ironies, Wilson is now the closer Detroit for years and years has dreamed of having.
But it’s a different time with different responsibilities in 2017. And that means moves are essential no matter how much they might sting fans.
You can’t hang onto this team forever. It had its run. Now it needs a wagon load of kids dropped into its farm system who can, in a couple of years, begin arriving at the same time, at roughly the same age and point in development, with the capacity to deliver a new, more serious contender that will excite a baseball town in ways this group can no longer match.
It doesn’t necessarily mean Dark Ages are in line for Comerica Park during the next few summers. There is no law that says the Tigers reconstruction will require one of those 1975 or 2003 ordeals where a team loses 100-plus games as it bottoms out ahead of its renaissance.
Not a total rebuild
The reason is this: Pitching should be stronger than it was during past transition periods. The Tigers’ minor leagues are a different story in 2017.
A year ago, you had to scrape and dig to find a player who had reasonable big-league potential. This summer is different. The Tigers’ farm teams are winning lots of games. And that’s because fresh blood and talent are beginning to change the minor-league landscape.
It won’t be enough to supply a big-league roster in Detroit. Not even close. The organization needs help, the kind you most directly get when you draft early in the first round as the Tigers are about to do in coming years because of their skimpier win-loss records.
And still, it won’t be enough. Trades in which Al Avila, the Tigers general manager, spins off established stars (think of Yoenis Cespedes for Michael Fulmer) for bright-light prospects are the ticket even if this month’s market isn’t shaping up as ideal. It’s one way in which the Tigers can land high-upside players who might combine with some powerful farm arms to refurbish a roster and make October playoffs in Detroit a more regular, more realistic event, as they came to be during much of the past decade.
There weren’t many playoff notions wafting through the stands and concourses Thursday at Comerica Park. But there was real, palpable joy spilling from a ballpark that, in an enduring way, overrode a team’s playoff pedigree.
What cheered a man was knowing this game will always be here. For you. For us. For a town and a region. For a country that benefits from, and is blessed by, baseball’s pure summer-day goodness.