Dispatch from Detroit: A lost weekend for this sports fan

Detrroit's Torii Hunter leaves the field as the Boston Red Sox celebrate their stunning victory in Game Two

Detrroit’s Torii Hunter leaves the field as the Boston Red Sox celebrate their stunning victory in Game Two

I have maintained a lifelong affection, an obsession really, with the fortunes of the Detroit Tigers. Also, I have spent most of my adult years – 44 seasons to be precise – possessed by a similar devotion to the annual efforts of the University of Michigan football team.

I assume that my baseball passion owes to the examples of my father and grandfather dating back to childhood, along with the widespread devotion to the Tigers that I shared with my friends beginning with our earliest common interests in our neighborhood on Detroit’s east side in the 1950s. We didn’t care that the team stunk – we loved ‘em. We had Al Kaline, and that was enough.

My Wolverine affiliation took time, and a sense of maturing choice, to develop. As kids my friends and I generally supported both U-M and Michigan State football – with MSU usually being the dominant team of the ‘50s and ‘60s – well into our teen years. For me, that changed in 1969 when Bo Schembechler came to Michigan and personified the passion play that was to become the near half-century gridiron success story at the school.

Of course most local sports fans followed similar paths to trace their history of local team affiliations. But I found myself this past weekend, in the jam-packed sports pressure cooker of October 12 and 13, 2013 – Tigers, Lions, UM, MSU, Red Wings on TV – absorbing what I now feel were the two worst defeats in my long caring for Tigers baseball and Wolverine football. For real.

Surely that sounds melodramatic, and short-sighted. Perhaps such claims are a sign of advancing age, of a loss of perspective and reason that comes with thinning hair and a cranky prostate. Because living and dying with the Tigers since 1955 involves nearly 10,000 games – including playoffs, World Series, and Miranda recitals with Denny McLain. Michigan has suffered and soared across 500 football games since Bo took Ann Arbor by storm, installing a program that has succeeded almost by auto-pilot since he retired from the game. Still, few colleges have suffered the painful blows – embarrassing upsets, bowl losses, last-second heartbreaks – that the Wolverines have endured.

But the setback on October 12 to a lousy Penn State team in four overtimes is the absolute worst? Yup, say I – just as the Tigers incredible defeat at the hands of the Boston Red Sox the next day, a 6-5 Game Two stunner that could qualify as the worst defeat in the entire history of Major League Baseball, has laid low every true Tigers fan.

Because BOTH of the humiliating defeats came not at the hands of their opponents … not even by player miscues … but were administered by the coach of Michigan … and the manager of the Tigers. Never have I seen the teams so victimized by their own leaders.

The television sports shows absolutely gushed Sunday night over the comeback exploits of the Red Sox, the incredible courage and heroism of David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia, et al.

But the Red Sox didn’t win Game Two in Boston, rallying from a 5-0 late deficit. The Tigers lost Game Two. The Sox didn’t muster incredible character to rally to victory. They merely sat back and took advantage of the worst managing in Tigers history, as skipper Jim Leyland, who has spent most of the 2013 season chewing post-game meals with his mouth open, parlayed one horrible pitching decision after another to hand Boston their historic victory. Leyland gave the game away.

Similarly, the Michigan coaching staff fumbled the Penn State game in equally stunning fashion the day before. Coach Brady Hoke, who has … unfortunately … exposed himself as an poor game manager this season (a good recruiter perhaps, but alas maybe not a coach) let his coordinators fail to program a pass rush against a nervous freshman quarterback … a three-man rush against an amateurish Hail Mary offense throwing alley-oop passes … giving Penn State an official Wolverine escort down the field to their ten-point late comeback. His offense ran ground-losing run after ground-losing run up the middle when any kind of imaginative offense would have sealed a Michigan win. Across four overtimes, Michigan had chance after chance to secure a victory, but Hoke and his staff took an active hand in turning them away from success. And yes, that was incredibly maddening … and easily the worst coaching performance I have ever seen from the Blue. That’s what made it so painful. And shocking.

On the Tigers front, Leyland was nearly as bad in Game One, which the Tigers barely won 1-0, though the local papers and TV reporters called his performance “perfect.” Yet, in his mad rush to make personnel changes in that all-important game, he benched Jhonny Peralta (his only hot hitter) just as Peralta delivered his third hit of the tense game, a sharp double down the left-field line. Peralta had hardly caught his breath at second base when the Great Substituter sent non-hitting Ramon Santiago to take his place. WHY? Was Santiago going to speed home all by himself? (Of course he didn’t score.)

And if the Tigers had gotten tied 1-1 in that first game, they would have gone into extra innings without Peralta and Miguel Cabrera (who was also pulled for ’speed’ replacement and yet-to-be-evidenced defense) two of their most imposing hitting threats. WHY? Why handicap your best offensive possibilities?

Leyland yanked starting pitcher Max Scherzer in Game Two after his sparkling seventh inning performance, in which he struck out TWO of three Red Sox hitters as part of his two-hit effort. WHY? Leyland claimed Scherzer was exhausted (of course Max conveniently agreed after the game). Does anyone honestly think the Tigers would have let the Sox tie the game with a grand slam in the next inning if Scherzer … who did not have a very high pitch count, said to be either 103 or 105 … had returned to the mound?

No damn way.

Leyland was trying to depict himself as being in command.  His savior Benoit has been a time bomb, waiting to go off … which he finally did Sunday night. If we could see that, why didn’t Leyland?

The Tiger manager is a head case. Watch him. I suspect that his advanced years may be getting to him. How would I know that? I have inside information – the skipper is about my age.

So there you have it. The weekend that broke the back of my years of impassioned support of the Tigers, and UM. I refuse to sweat blood for them any further if they are going to short-circuit their own best efforts. Stop the bandwagon, and let me off.

That these two abominations – and that is what both games amounted to, embarrassing efforts by both local clubs – appeared on back-to-back days amounted to cruel and unusual punishment for an old goat like me.

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About Tom DeLisle

Tom DeLisle is a native Detroiter. The east side resident was a city desk reporter for the Detroit Free Press from 1967 to '71, and a member of the Free Press staff that won the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for reporting the Detroit Riot. After serving as an Executive Assistant and speechwriter to Detroit Mayor Roman Gribbs from 1971-74, he worked as a television writer and producer in New York and Los Angeles, including a variety of bad sitcoms and comedy specials. He wrote monologues for guest host Richard Dawson for "The Tonight Show" from 1978 to '81. Returning to Detroit, he worked in television and radio with Dick Purtan and Tom Ryan, winning five Emmy Awards for local documentaries and comedies, including the 1981 primetime "Dick Purtan Comedy Special" and 1990's "Sparky Anderson Special" (with guest Pres. Richard Nixon) for WDIV-TV. He wrote for a variety of Tigers and Red Wings specials for Channel 50 in the 1990s and 2000s, including the "Stanley Celebrations," while appearing as "The Nervous Person" for three years on the '"Ray (Lane) and Mickey (Redmond) On Ice" specials at WKBD. He is currently completing a novel, and generally slowing down, because he's fairly tired.