Henning: Tigers' attendance likely to fall short of 2 million

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Notes, thoughts, items as the Tigers head into their final 40 days of 2018:

News: Victor Martinez is finishing his contract, with the Tigers’ blessing.

Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez likely will retire at the end of this season.

Views: There was an announcement on Nov. 14, 2014. It came from Comerica Park. The Tigers had signed their designated hitter, Martinez, to a four-year extension. He was six weeks from turning 36 and I recall not many, if any, fan protests.

This year?

You would think, to hear some of the crowd howling, the Tigers were deploying John Dillinger at DH.

 You can appreciate the carping when you glance at his numbers. Martinez is batting .244 this season with a .624 OPS. He’s 6-for-15 over his last five games, and hitting a healthier .268 for the month, but that’s not going to change reality. He has six home runs in 2018. Compared with most DHs, he is deeply subpar, especially when he is four months from 40 and for several years hasn’t been able to run.

There is loud applause for notions the Tigers either should have cut him and simply paid his 2018 salary, or that Martinez should have nobly retired rather than bring down the Tigers order.

Two thoughts:

If fans are on him now, they should have been on this deal from the outset, because the chances Martinez would be hitting much more than this at 39 were fanciful.

Remember also that this was a deal engineered principally by late Tigers owner Mike Ilitch. He wanted Martinez back. Ilitch loved his majesty, as it were, and didn’t want Martinez playing for another club. To ensure he would stick in Detroit, it was necessary to out-bid other teams and seal his signature with the Tigers.

The front office would not, of its own volition, have endorsed this extension. But they went along with it because the boss wanted it, and because, frankly, they saw that Martinez could help for at least a couple of seasons. What they would do with him and his contract down the road was always worrisome, particularly as they approached 2018.

The Tigers came to 2018 and to a rebuilding team. They could have eaten the $18 million salary and said goodbye. Martinez, though, swung reasonably well in spring camp and the Tigers hung on rather than tossing him overboard and signing a new DH, which would not necessarily have been inexpensive nor was guaranteed to be greatly effective. Not on this 2018 team.

Martinez has little power and has no mobility. He has, however, handled standard big-league pitches in 2018, including high-90s fastballs. Had he been getting beat with heat, be assured, he’d have called it a day, or the Tigers would have ended his time here.

He has been, genuinely, a terrific clubhouse presence in 2018. The kids have soaked up his professionalism and his wisdom.

He also gets to retire, with dignity, in six weeks. He will take with him a 16-season batting average of about .295 with an .800-plus OPS.

One of the best moves the Tigers have made in 2018 is to have allowed Martinez to finish his contract. To finish his career. To work for his paychecks even as age made that work increasingly difficult.

Attendance for Tigers games at Comerica Park most likely will fail to top 2 million for the first time since 2004.

News: Tigers won’t be hitting 2 million in attendance in 2018.

Views: Attendance at Comerica Park for 2018 is 1,411,464. There are 19 home games remaining for a Tigers team that this season has averaged 23,138 per date.

This means, unless football is canceled in September, Comcast stops service to all of Metro Detroit’s televisions, or the Internet dies, the Tigers will fall short of 2 million for the first time since 2004 when they drew 1.917 million.

This is a tough box-office news for a team that four times in the past 12 years has drawn 3 million. It’s not as sobering when past Tigers history is recalled and it’s remembered that only six times in Tiger Stadium history did the Tigers so much as reach 2 million — at a ballpark that had 10,000 additional seats.

But business life for the Tigers changed when Comerica Park opened in 2000 and now the Tigers are wrestling with a rebuild. It could be just as tough, if not tougher, in 2019, which shapes up as another year when the Tigers will be under reconstruction. This, in fact, could be the pattern for the next few seasons, although attendance can rise in a hurry if there’s a sudden phenom (Mark Fidrych in 1976, although good luck duplicating The Bird’s aura) or if a young team catches fire and surprises on the plus side.

Expensive free-agent investments make little sense. You’re simply saddling your team with overhead when it won’t make that much difference on the field or at the box office. That’s especially true when enticing a billboard star to play for a rebuilding team generally means you must greatly overpay for that player’s signature.

The Tigers are 21st among 30 teams in 2018 home attendance. They’ll need to put up with some slow-moving turnstiles the next couple of years. But by 2020, the roster will be more intriguing and it’s a reasonable guess that tickets will begin to take an upturn toward sales more in line with the past decade’s numbers.