Dying hard in Detroit

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

DETROIT – The masochists among us were actually, incredibly, held up trying to get into (not out of) Comerica Park.

The dutiful security guards were searching bags in all post-9/11 diligence, even if the idea that an international terrorist would target arguably the most obscure baseball game of the year, featuring arguably the worst team of all time, was a bit suspect.

Blue Jays-Tigers, Comerica Park, Thursday, Sept. 18. Detroit would lose its 114th game of the season; pitcher Mike Maroth would lose his 21st, and officially a crowd of 9,951 showed up.

When that number was announced 1,000 or so of us still there officially laughed at the miscount of Gary-Busey-in-a-DUI-stop proportions – just a couple beers, officer, really.

The game was a MCI Night – friends and family only. Or something close to that, maybe 3,000 total, meaning the stadium was about 93 percent empty.

Now, you could harp on such a disappointing number, or you could look at the glass as seven percent full, as in how the heck did they draw that well?

"Free tickets," said Justine Manor, who had three kids with her.

"Cold beer," said Jon Staley, who was drinking one.

"I figured it was the best chance I'd ever have to get a foul ball," said Larry Latner, who sat with a glove down the first-base line.

"It's a good question," laughed Jose Edo. "The sad thing is I came last night also."

Now, the Tigers are in the midst of their final homestand, poised to not only complete their ninth consecutive losing season but to have more losses than any team in modern major-league history, surpassing the miserable Mets (40-120) of 1962.

And some fans are still showing up.

And this is no loveable pack of losers, the Bad News Bears of the MLB. Even the Bears got it together after Morris Buttermaker made the savvy late-season acquisitions of slugger Kelly Leak and pitcher Amanda Whurlitzer.

If there were ever a franchise that deserved no fans – zero tolerance and zero attendance – this is it. Yet the Tigers have some.

Detroit will never be considered the cultural or entertainment hub of the nation, but it is the sixth-largest metropolitan area. There are other options, from restaurants to casinos, clubs to concerts, movies to lectures.

There was even, we suspect, some grass growing and paint drying somewhere around town.

Which is why there can be no denying the loyalty of these fans.

"They call this a Triple-A team, but that ain't fair," smiled fan Billy Bell. "To the other Triple-A teams."

Hey, everyone is a comic when it comes to the Tigers. Letterman, Leno, even the syndicated Tank McNamara cartoon recently joked that after breaking the futility record, the Tigers could expect a congratulatory call from Al Gore.

But that ain't fair. To Al Gore.

"The jokes bother me," said T.L. Williams, who sat just off the plate wearing a Tiger hat. "I'm still a Tiger fan. Yup, I really am. (It's) humiliating what's happened. Disgusting."

Williams, 56, says he's attended more than 40 games this year. While the futility has been fun for many, he just fumes at what Mike Ilitch, the pizza kingpin, has done to this team while spending lavishly on his other pro franchise, the NHL Red Wings.

"This was a great franchise," he said. "We deserve better."

You've got to give it up for these fans, the frighteningly devoted that make the sports world rotate. People actually waved flags and wore caps. They cheered (without mockery) at good plays. There were at least five people wearing Bobby Higginson jerseys, even though he was batting .236.

One of the most misused terms in sports is die-hard fan, as in "die-hard Yankee fan" or "die-hard Laker fan." But it works here.

"Exactly," Williams said. "(What do) Yankee fans know about dying? They always win. You want a die-hard fan? Yup, I'm it."

But not everyone was a diehard. Many were here for no particular reason.

There was a group of college kids from Eastern Michigan University. A businessman from Lawton, Okla., came just to see the ballpark. A group outing from the local Mayflower Missionary Baptist Church took up a chunk of the right-field bleachers.

Two teenagers painted their faces and made a sign in hopes of getting on TV.

There were absurd parts, too. How'd you like to be Michael Levey of Air Masters Heating and Air Conditioning, who got the honor of throwing out the first pitch of this debacle? Or the national anthem singer who never dreamed her big break would yield a pregame audience of, what, 500?

In the seventh inning, as I walked the concourse, Williams nervously flagged me down.

"I want to change my answer," he said. "I don't want to be considered a die-hard fan anymore."

What happened? Giving up on the Tigers?

"No. I'm a die-never fan."

Die never?

"Yup," he paused. "At least until I die."

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