To describe the Detroit Tigers 2014 regular season as an emotional rollercoaster would be an understatement. But it would also be obnoxious, because the phrase “emotional rollercoaster” is super annoying, and I wish that whoever had thought it up in the first place would never have burdened us with it. And while the regular season certainly had its ups and downs, there weren’t even any loop-dee-loops or tunnels, and what kind of rollercoaster even is that if it doesn’t have those things? It’s just some fancy-ass carnival ride at that point. But, I digress.
This has been the dawn of a new era for Tigers baseball, and for me, the 2014 Detroit Tigers have somehow seemed like a collection of unfamiliar faces for the duration of the regular season. There were notable departures, new arrivals, injury replacements, and mid-season trades that made this Tigers team feel brand new to me, which was both exciting and unsettling — exciting because they were playing a style of baseball that hadn’t been played in Detroit in quite some time; unsettling because when the chips were down there was often no telling how the team would react. I distinctly remember watching the first game of the season and feeling like I didn’t know who these Tigers were. Maybe it was the fact that the old skipper was no longer out there, instilling faith that even though some of the shipmates were new, the captain was still the same and the sailing would be smooth. Maybe it was the fact that 4 of the 9 starting offensive players wore different uniforms last season. I’m not sure. But I can tell you I forget Nick Castellanos even exists half the time, and I sometimes find myself wishing the Tigers would just please, for the love of God, put Benoit into the game already. It’s been a strange, stressful 162 games, and in some ways that feeling I had on game 1 has never completely gone away.
I, like so many other fans, crowned the Tigers the Central division champs very early in the season. They started the season with two walk-off wins, and roared out to 27-12 start, punctuated by a sweep of the Red Sox in Boston. And then the magic wore off. The Tigers lost 8 of their next 10 games and limped through the rest of the first half. They played right around .500 baseball for the rest of the season: after jumping out to 15 games over .500 by May 2, the Tigers finished the regular season 18 games over .500 on September 28. When the Royals got hot in August, I, like so many other fans, wondered if they Tigers would even make the playoffs.
My wavering faith had some company, too. Over the past few seasons my oldest son has blossomed into a Tigers fan. This is one of my proudest accomplishments as a father, instilling a love for the Tigers in him. But as the Tigers continued to falter semi-regularly, my son’s interest began to diminish. I can’t say I blame him. It isn’t his fault. He isn’t old enough of or mature enough yet to understand the concept of being a fairweather fan, and even if he were, I wouldn’t accuse him of being one. He still cares about the Tigers, still roots for them, still wants them to do well. But he doesn’t always want to watch them anymore. He went to bed angry too many times this summer after staying up to watch the game, only to watch the Tigers get shut out, or see them take a lead into the 9th before watching Joe Nathan piss it away. Now that I think about it, he might actually be smarter than I am: when the Tigers are hurting him, he at least has enough sense to look the other way.
It’s strange to talk about the 2014 regular season in terms of disappointment when your team has just won its fourth straight division crown. I feel guilty and selfish. I feel like I’m acting entitled, and it upsets me. They did win 90 games, after all — only three fewer than they won last year. The Tigers haven’t been this consistently good in my entire life. Still, it’s hard not to feel like this regular season has been marked by letdowns. Perhaps not in the final result, but in many of the steps along the way. In some ways this season has been like a botched road trip — one where you miss your exit, take a wrong turn, get a flat tire, and run out of gas along the way. Sure, you wound up where you were headed in the end, but the entire trip fucking sucked.
Nevertheless, they’ve arrived at their destination. The Tigers are back in the postseason, and are ready to set their sights on the World Series championship that has eluded them since before I was born. And as arduous as the journey here may have been, there exists a sense of relief at having made it, a sense of optimism about what happens next. Playoff baseball invariably comes down to starting pitching, and the Tigers have plenty of it. Not only that, but Miguel Cabrera seems to have finally hit his stride. Over the last month, he has looked once again like the greatest hitter in baseball. He’s peaking at precisely the right moment, which is certainly a great sign. The Tigers face the Orioles in the ALDS, against whom they own a 5-1 record on the year. But most of all, the playoffs are a fresh start. It’s called the second season for a reason, and now that the Tigers have arrived, anything can happen.
That’s why I feel good today: because anything can happen.
Perhaps the uncertainty I’ve felt about these Tigers all season is due in part to the fact that this group has yet to make any dramatic, lasting impressions. But one thing is for certain: these Tigers are battle tested, an adversity has a way of preparing teams for the most significant challenges.
The Tigers’ biggest challenge begins Thursday. This team, which looks much different than it did last season — and even different than it did in April — will try to maneuver its way through the postseason in the race for the World Series. If they fail, this will go down as a disappointing season, one where the Tigers failed to meet some admittedly lofty expectations.
But if they succeed, the faces on this team will imprint themselves on the memories of Tiger fans for a long, long time. Once they’re imprinted, the faces will suddenly seem much more familiar. And that’s all I’ve ever wanted, really.