In Aching City, Tigers Falling Short Again

Watching Miguel Cabrera plod toward home plate Thursday night — all but punchdrunk in pain, trundling with strains in his abdomen and legs and pretty much everywhere south of the belt buckle — triggered a sad metaphor for the city of Detroit.

What should be the best car in the world, given Cabrera’s status as the greatest right-handed hitter of all time, is in a broken-down mode now, needing a bailout.

But Prince Fielder, who is making $23 million this season, is in no position to help his wounded teammate. His continuing postseason free-fall has become a plague to the Tigers, and the home fans are booing him now in Comerica Park, in a town that needs sports success more than most to feed a lagging feel-good quotient.

Lord knows, a bleak and bankrupt city has much bigger issues than a baseball team trying to survive in the American League championship series. It weighs heavily, though, that the Tigers have been spending large sums for quite a long time and keep falling short of a World Series championship. They win the AL Central with regularity and twice have won the pennant, only to lose in five games to the Cardinals in 2006 and vaguely show up last October in a San Francisco sweep. With a world-class pitching rotation that set a major-league record for strikeouts in a regular season, this was supposed to be the year the Tigers raged.

Instead, there was Cabrera in the first inning of Game 5, trying to score instead of stopping at third with all his injuries. Third-base coach Tom Brookens at first waved him in, then signaled with both arms high for Cabrera to stop — but it was too late. He was out by 15 feet, tagged standing up, and whatever momentum the Tigers had gained in tying the series the day before was handed back to the Red Sox, who promptly took a 4-0 lead and held on for a vital 4-3 victory.

“With Miggy, you’ve got to stop him right away. (Brookens) made a mistake,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “In defense of him, the natural instinct is to wave right away — you don’t want to stop him really too quick in case something would happen in the outfield with the ball, the guy would boot it or something. It’s hard to get him going again. He just held him too late. With Cabrera right now, you’ve got to be cautious.”

This means Boston needs to triumph only once at Fenway Park to win a shot at its third World Series title in 10 seasons. It’s a run that might be worth the previous 86 years of curse-ridden agony and finally might shut up the miserable New Englanders, whose four major teams all have won championships in the early 21st century. You might like their chances, too, with closer Koji Uehara quickly reviving memories of the retired Mariano RIvera — he has not walked a batter since Aug. 3 — and tidily adding a five-out save to his extraordinary body of 2013 work. “Our guys are well aware of where we are,” manager John Farrell said. “But at the same time the beauty of them is to not get ahead of themselves, and that will be the case once that first pitch is thrown on Saturday.”

The Tigers, meanwhile, would be saddled with Buffalo Bills syndrome. They simply can’t win the big one, which is astonishing considering the elite starpower in the house — Cabrera, Fielder, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and talented supporting cast members — the first three making top dollar and Scherzer a year from cashing in as a soon-to-be Cy Young Award winner. They have a Hall of Famer manager in Leyland. They have an elite executive in Dave Dombrowski, who might be the next baseball commissioner. They are funded by pizza magnate Mike Ilitch, who has invested a fortune in the Tigers, the hockey powerhouse Red Wings and various downtown developments, trying his best to keep the city from dying emotionally and physically.

The spluge isn’t working. If it’s good to see all the Detroit franchises spending big and acting like major-market operations, the juxtaposition between sports prosperity and urban blight is awkward, to say the least. Just a few blocks from Comerica Park and Ford Field, home of the NFL Lions, you can buy property for chump change. It is that desolate in the city, though some of the suburbs are well off enough to drive a fan base that typically jams a fun, attractive ballpark.

“We definitely are aware of the situation of where we play,” catcher Alex Avila told the media. “One thing that motivates us is that we want to be able to bring a championship to Detroit, a place that has longed for one … We feel we are a big part of the reason that people are coming back downtown.”

Said Leyland, per the New York Times: “I know how hard those people work, and it’s a tough thing.”

If the Tigers stumble in Boston, this is not the way you want to see Leyland go out, But he is 68 and has managed 3,500 games. He won a World Series, once upon a time in Miami, and how many more autumn failures and dugout-tunnel cigarettes can he tolerate? Maybe a culture change would help, but probably not. The Tigers are in one of those high-class ruts, drawing well and spending big but going on 30 years without a championship — and 16 years before that. In another Detroit metaphor, there was Avila, roughed up in a home-plate collision with a rumbling David Ross and dazed after taking a hard foul to the mask, having to leave the game groggily.

“I respect the guy a lot,” Ross said, per ESPN.com. “I was just trying to make something happen. He had me out dead to rights — that’s part of the game. I hope he’s all right. I told him I didn’t have a choice. I was just going hard. He understood. We both just talked the other day about our concussions. I know what he’s been through and he knows what I’ve been through.”

You find yourself rooting for this team and this city, the Olde English “D” that has become a symbol worn proudly by locals including Kid Rock and Eminem. But then you see Boston’s Mike Napoli, he of the beard that has disproportionately shrouded his face, pounding a home run 460 feet to dead center field in misty weather. “We have to go to Fenway and we have to fight hard enough to win a game,” Cabrera said, per the Associated Press. “If we do that, we have to keep fighting and get the next one. We’ve done this before, and we’ve got great pitchers. We just have to do our jobs.”

It never is that simple in Detroit, where the disappointment often seems permanent, causing all hope to sputter on the lonely basepath between third base and elimination.

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