By Ron Pesch
My latest acquisition from eBay is Jane Leavy’s biography, “The Big Fella” – a most fitting book to read as we finally head toward Major League Baseball’s opening day. The subject of the book, of course, is George Herman ‘Babe’ Ruth.
Amusingly, at least to me, the title of the book matches the nickname assigned to me by my kids some years ago.
Of course, the parallels between the careers of us two “Big Fella’s” are slim. “The Babe” was a pitcher and outfielder. I played the hot corner on a team sponsored by my employer in a co-ed summer softball league. “The Great Bambino” had a playing career that spanned 22 years. My playing career lasted one season. “The Home Run King” smashed 714 round-trippers during that span. Me? I racked up a couple of singles … perhaps. “The King of Swing’s” jersey hangs in Cooperstown, mine hangs in my closet. My 5-foot-7 frame falls about seven inches shy of “The Sultan of Swat’s” scaffold, while that “Big Fella” also had me by a pound or two.
Ruth, of course, is indelibly tied to the Yankees – a team I despise like any good Michigander. I’m, of course, a Tigers guy – with fond memories of falling asleep listening to AM radio broadcasts of games with Ernie Harwell and Paul Carey as a kid. Weekly broadcasts of “This Week in Baseball,” narrated by Mel Allen, brought the game and its superstars to life. Being the only baseball fan in a household of five kids and two adults, there were only occasional games broadcast on the single television attached to the TV antenna. WKZO – TV’s Channel 3 – was based in Kalamazoo and was home to Tiger baseball in West Michigan. Without that connection, the signal was tough to pull in with just rabbit ears on a portable set.
Back then, the majority of the seasons were lived through neighborhood games, baseball cards, Kessler Baseball Fans Guides (a challenge for a kid to acquire), and newsprint accounts of Major League matchups. The glorious – and now extinct – “agate” page was packed with standings, schedules, box scores, statistics, and transactions, adding timely knowledge to be shared.
Road trips with friends to Tiger Stadium, old Comiskey Park, Milwaukee County Stadium, and Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, still flood my memory bank and remain a regular source for laughter when gathering with those guys. Visits to modern-day baseball cathedrals still serve as the building blocks of vacations with my sons.
But the last several years have been a true challenge for this Tiger fan.
Between a COVID-19 shortened season in 2020, the addition of 7-inning doubleheaders and extra-inning “free-runners,” much to the disappointment of purists like me, and a 99-day lockout throwing the 2022 season into question, Major League Baseball has faced its recent setbacks.
Unfortunately, much of the challenge has come not from baseball, but the team itself.
I suffered through the 1990s and early 2000s. Between 1990 and 2005, the Tigers finished, on average, 23.5 games back of the division leader. Only once did they end the year above third place in the division. In 2002, they finished in last place in the division with an excruciating 55 wins against 106 defeats. Unbelievably, it got worse a year later with an incredible 119 losses. At least they managed to climb out of the cellar in both 2004 and 2005, finishing fourth among five teams.
So, while the postseasons didn’t end as hoped, the Jim Leyland years, spanning the years 2006 through 2013, were glorious in my eyes. The heroics of Curtis Granderson, Kenny Rogers, and Magglio Ordóñez in the 2006 playoffs will always remain amongst my favorite baseball moments. For this guy, Leyland’s no-nonsense style was a delight.
The 2014 season returned a stellar lineup, but a new skipper in Brad Ausmus. The three-game sweep by the Baltimore Orioles in that season’s American League Division Series brought forth for me a dreadful feeling that the end was near.
I began to explore options. And with a salute to Curt Flood, I became a “free agent” fan. There comes a point in time when a sports fan realizes he doesn’t have time for rebuilds and bad baseball.
A Lesson from Max Scherzer
My pending free agency began with Scherzer’s departure from the Tigers following the 2014 season. It was sealed with the Justin Verlander trade to the Houston Astros seconds before the trade deadline at the end of August, 2017.
While I rooted for the Cleveland Indians – AL Central Division rivals – in the 2016 World Series, it was nice to see the Chicago Cubs end their 106-year World Championship drought. I was happy to see Verlander get a World Series ring in 2017 and Scherzer get his in 2019 with the Washington Nationals.
My signing with another team took me just 90 miles away. No, I’m not in Lansing watching the Lugnuts. Rather, I landed across the lake in Milwaukee with the Brewers.
I’m now a member of the Brew Crew.
Thanks to the miracles of modern-day broadcasting, streaming services, and subscriptions, I can follow along game-by-game as if I were a resident of Cream City. The intra-division battles in the NL Central between the Cubs, the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Brewers have been classic over the last few years.
The Brewers’ pitching staff is among the best in baseball. Corbin Burnes stands as the reigning NL Cy Young winner, while teammate Brandon Woodruff finished fifth in the voting for the award in 2021. This past season also saw Josh Hader win his third National League top reliever award.
Last season’s May acquisition of Willy Adames provided an immediate spark to the club. My current favorite outfielder, Lorenzo Cain, has the best smile in baseball, and his Golden Glove defense in center is a highlight reel waiting to happen. And I love Milwaukee’s free agent signing of Andrew McCutchen and Hunter Renfroe. Just imagine if Christian Yelich’s bat returns to form. Mix in a little entertainment in the form of game-day Sausage Races, and I’m a happy guy!
Don’t get me wrong, I still pay attention to Detroit. Miggy’s chase for 500 home runs and now, 3,000 hits, has been exciting. The Akil Baddoo story, of course, turned my head. The drafting of Spencer Torkelson and his debut in Motown intrigues me. Signing Javier Baez to shore up shortstop was wise (although I still can’t wrap my head around $140 million contracts). The days-before-opening-day acquisition of Austin Meadows, at least on paper, is a shrewd move.
Still, the season will come down to Tiger pitching. The slow arrival of arms from the farm continues to offer hope. Can the staff and the bullpen stay healthy? While I hope I’m wrong, I still don’t see the Tigers, despite, off-season moves, winning the division or becoming a wild card. No matter, come season’s end, AL Central teams are still no match for the AL East.
Even though I have the highest hopes that the Tigers’ rebuild is close to completion, and that my return to the bandwagon arrives soon, I’m still following Scherzer’s lead. On July 30 – last year’s trade deadline – in the last year of his contract with Washington, he was sent to the West Coast version of the Yankees: the Dodgers.
In December, he signed a record deal as a free agent with the New York Mets. Three seasons, with an opt-out option after two.
Who knows, he could be back in a Tigers uniform by then? Just like me.
That’s a great cover photo. Slugo