Henning: Pride prevents Tigers from tossing in towel
Denver — Already, you can hear a faint chorus that figures to gain volume in September.
The Tigers are playing out the string.
With each passing game, the Tigers supposedly are writing “X” on that day’s calendar date as they fixate on Oct. 1 and their season finale at Minnesota. Only then will they be free to savor a four-month vacation and forget about a 2017 campaign that for the third consecutive year will see Detroit blocked from baseball’s playoffs.
Except it really doesn’t work that way.
Not all fans will agree, of course. Assuming the Tigers get regularly popped in their remaining 38 games, there will be suspicions the team has quit, although that was pure nonsense Monday as battle-bruised Jordan Zimmermann hung on and helped the Tigers to a 4-3 conquest at that launch-pad known as Coors Field.
But the big-leaguers who draw Tigers paychecks say they play baseball for reasons that transcend a postseason tournament.
Ian Kinsler spoke about this Monday in a visitor’s clubhouse at Coors Field that, in terms of atmosphere, was no different from any other pregame Tigers scene in 2017.
Down to business
Anibal Sanchez, who is trying to make it back from a bad hamstring, was pedaling an exercise bike that had been stationed inside the dressing room. Justin Upton and Mikie Mahtook were sitting a few feet away at a table working jointly on Mahtook’s crossword puzzle.
Alex Presley stood over the table, playfully goading and teasing as Mahtook wrestled with a couple of particularly exasperating clues.
This could have been Opening Day’s clubhouse ambiance. It was a perfect composite of how players during a six-month regular season alternatingly take pregame business seriously — meetings and batting practice were ahead — but balance it with change-of-pace moments shared with teammates.
That last point, Kinsler said Monday, was what box-seat and sofa-cushion analysts probably miss in assuming no playoffs means no intensity during those waning games.
“There’s a respect factor among your teammates,” said Kinsler, who three times tasted playoff baseball with the Rangers, and only once, in 2014, got there with the Tigers.
That would be the worst manner of betrayal for a big-leaguer, Kinsler said. Quitting on your shipmates would be like battlefield desertion. Just as much, it would be a forfeiture of everything baseball players, as athletes, had embraced from the day they put their names on a professional contract.
“This is our job and we love what we do,” Kinsler. “It doesn’t mean that because of a little disappointment you stop preparing, or working, or trying.”
He had another thought. It was something, he said, not everyone might appreciate.
It had to do with adversity — with the need to compete even if any chance at winning a sport’s grand prize, in this case a World Series, hadn’t been part of this team’s reality for weeks or perhaps months.
“We’ve been trained since we were young to handle adversity,” Kinsler said.
Brad Ausmus, the Tigers manager who supervises a team that looks as if it might win, at most, 70 games in 2017, nodded at all the points Kinsler made. Absolutely, he said, it’s about players’ commitments to each other, about pride in one’s craft, about the stubborn flame that makes a big-leaguer approach every at-bat, or pitch, or fielding chance, with an innate need to execute and perform. Meaningfully.
Ausmus said you could see in a season’s closing weeks, and particularly through September, another way in which games are energized.
“Young players want to show they belong in the big leagues,” the skipper said.
This need to stoke a competitive campfire in a sour season’s final 40 games isn’t a challenge, or triumph, unique to players. Dan Dickerson, who owns the Tigers’ steady play-by-play radio voice, was talking Monday about a broadcaster’s surprisingly easy challenge to stay crisp as a team’s calendar, and its audience, dwindled.
“What’s interesting about this team?” Dickerson asked, repeating a question he asks himself continually. “What makes this particular day or game interesting?
“If you love the game, you’ll learn something that you can pass on to other people.”
It’s a corollary to the philosophy players, in all big-league towns, adopt as the sun sets on a year that rewards only the elite. And the Tigers haven’t been close to elite since their heyday hit its expiration date in 2015.
But it is not the nature of professional athletes to bag a season and quit on their colleagues. Emotions might be low-gear. Competitive natures, however, and competitive ethics, tend to erase any credible thoughts that a team has given up.
Fans might walk away, and no one will blame them there as football season begins and a new sports focus is desperately needed in Detroit. But a bad team doesn’t mean there are bad souls or psyches at work.
It tends to have more to do with skills. Or lack thereof. Which might have been deduced as a rebuilding project approaches full-throttle at Comerica Park.