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Civic pride

Sports success energizing Detroit and New Orleans

Posted: Tuesday October 17, 2006 10:58PM; Updated: Wednesday October 18, 2006 2:30AM
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Tigers fans have reveled in the resurgence of a team that lost 119 games three years ago.
Tigers fans have reveled in the resurgence of a team that lost 119 games three years ago.

You hear it all the time: Why should taxpayers foot the bill for a new stadium when the only one who stands to benefit is the fat-cat owner who overcharges for tickets in the first place? Daddy Warbucks wants a new stadium? Let him build it himself. Use the civic funds for schools, streets and parks that everyone can enjoy.

Every once in a while, however, along comes a team and a season that make us realize some things in sports are worth the investment, and when times are tough in a community, hometown heroes can be worth every civic cent.

It was that way with the 2001 Yankees, who lost a thrilling seven-game World Series to the Arizona Diamondbacks, but in the process of getting there helped millions of New Yorkers move on from the tragedy of 9/11. An earthquake rocked the San Francisco Bay area during the Giants-A's 1989 World Series, but the games eventually continued, helping to restore a sense of normalcy to an area that faced a monumental task to rebuild. On the national level, the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, a bunch of unheralded, fresh-faced college kids, brought the entire country together by beating the spectacularly skilled Olympians from the Soviet Union at a time when America was beset with a national malaise.

Professional sports can divide a community when players behave badly, as they so often seem to, but they can also unite, and inspire, the communities they represent. We see it over and over again. It's happening now in two hard-luck towns, Detroit and New Orleans, where the World Series-bound Tigers and the 5-1 Saints are giving hope to and restoring pride in two cities on a long and winding comeback trail. It's hard to say which success story is more unlikely. But together they're making the autumn of 2006 a memorable one.

The Tigers lost 119 games as recently as 2003. You've probably read that statistic 50 times. But that only begins to tell the story of the Tigers' ineptitude. Before 2006, they'd had 12 straight losing seasons under owner Mike Ilitch. Abandoning beloved and historic Tigers Stadium, the team moved into spanking new $300 million Comerica Park in 2000, and promptly thanked the city by going 79-83, 66-96, 55-106, 43-119, 72-90 and 71-91 -- playing a staggering 199 games under .500, the worst six-year stretch in the team's 105-year history. The uniform worn by Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg, Al Kaline, Denny McLaine and Mickey Lolich had become a perennial joke.

Meanwhile the automobile industry, which drives Detroit's economy, was going in the tank, as more fuel-efficient cars built by foreign competitors took market share from the erstwhile Big Three: General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. Workers were laid off and unemployment rates in Detroit started to climb. The downtown renaissance that had seen young professionals start to move back to the city from the suburbs began to stall. Detroit, which had a population of 1.85 million in 1950, had less than half of that (886,675) in 2005.


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