Detroit — Snowflakes were floating through Sunday’s 9 a.m. air. Four hours later, the Tigers played the Pirates at Comerica Park.
It was 36 degrees.
The game ended in a 1-0 conquest for Pittsburgh and lasted only 2 hours, 30 minutes, which was less than half the time it had taken the two teams to finish Friday’s 13-inning carnival that the Pirates also won.
What might have bothered the Tigers as much as beginning their 2018 season 0-2 was knowing that at 6 p.m., they had to tee it up again with the Pirates on a frosty evening destined to stick in the 30s.
This is what happens when you play baseball too early in a calendar year. Games get weathered out, as Saturday’s did, which led to Sunday’s day-night double feature. Or, if they are played, they’re often miserable for players, and for fans, 14,858 of which were rumored to have shown up Sunday afternoon, bundled in blankets.
“It’s what happens in this game,” said Ron Gardenhire, the Tigers manager, who played enough baseball in the north during his big-league years to know all about frigid games. “It goes both ways, but I think I’d rather be the pitcher.”
No easy fix
Air was raw in the first two afternoons of Detroit’s 2018 baseball season and so were the Tigers. Not much can be done about a team that will have better moments this year but too few of them to forestall a gut-the-place remodeling job now underway.
Ah, but the schedule. Now that can be amended. Simply spend the first weeks of a regular season in baseball’s Sunbelt and everyone will be happy.
If only it were doable.
The problem, no surprise, is tied to the reason owners won’t shorten a 162-game schedule. It’s all about the box office.
Sunbelt teams are no more interested in overloading their schedules with home games in April than are northern teams. Kids go to school there, as well, which is always a factor early in a season when April attendance takes a hit just about everywhere. Teams and towns soaked in sunshine aren’t interested in transferring to themselves a northern town’s April home dates.
That’s especially true if the Sunbelt team has playoff thoughts, which you can bet is the case for every one of them heading into a new schedule.
September pennant races create great stage drama. They’re particularly terrific fodder for a playoff-chasing team’s ticket office. Home fields naturally are regarded as a percentage advantage for any team hunting a ticket into October.
Thus, contenders are not keen on spending September in hotels and at distant ballparks. That’s especially true if they’re a game out of first and preparing for a heavy weekend series at home that promises certain competitive comforts and a distinct psychological edge.
Those dates are not about to be donated to an opposing club just so everyone can avoid frosty breath and seven layers of underwear in April.
A partial remedy would, again, come from shortening the season. But even if it reverted to the ancient 154-game calendar, teams would gain only 10 days or so of relief.
What made this weekend in Detroit, and the northern-tier start to the 2018 schedule so brutal, was beginning the season in March.
This wrinkle, which created an immediate cringe when the new owner-players contract was signed, isn’t going away. And it shouldn’t. The reason is tied to players insisting on a few more off-days during their 162-game marathon.
This, by the way, is good for the performers. And it’s good for the game. The simple, physiological reality is that players get worn down, particularly from the travel.
Dealing with it
You rarely hear players complain — they know they are blessed to be employed playing baseball and to be paid well. But the human body is the human body. It needs occasional rest, just as a game dependent upon precision needs players who are refreshed for that night’s game rather than groggy from getting home at 4 a.m. from a trip.
Sunday’s first contest was tough on the fans for reasons apart from Comerica’s thermometer. Michael Fulmer pitched a trophy of a game, and lost. The Tigers got two hits and did little to stress Pirates starter Trevor Williams or his follow-up arms. If you were a Tigers customer looking for a scrapbook moment separate from Fulmer’s pitches, it was Miguel Cabrera’s work at first base.
A man whose defense is dreadfully under-appreciated made three exquisite plays to help Fulmer and offer the Tigers a shot at stealing the ballgame late.
But it never came.
The Tigers instead trundled into their clubhouse to thaw out. And to prepare for Sunday’s evening tilt when fans were best-advised to arrive wearing snowmobile suits.