The fans were loud, proud, obnoxious and rooting hard against the home team. They weren't all wearing hip new Cleveland Indians hats and jackets—some were dressed in familiar Browns apparel. They had stormed across the Ohio border by the busload to watch their beloved Tribe, and they were delighted that there wouldn't be much competition. When you drive three hours and spend a holiday weekend in Detroit, it's always nice to see a victory, and when the 1996 Tigers are your hosts, there is little chance of seeing anything else.
More than 20,000 Cleveland fans made the trip around Lake Erie to witness last weekend's three-game sweep of Detroit, and they couldn't help remembering the old Cleveland Stadium days, when the Tribe was as bad as these Tigers and the fans could buy tickets to home games. Those days are gone. Now the mistake is on the other side of the lake. Jacobs Field was sold out for this season before it started, the Indians are trencher than tornadoes, and Tigers fans have seen their worst nightmare come true: Detroit has become Cleveland. The Tigers faithful have been shouted down in their own old ballpark and forced to endure a painstaking rebuilding process. Their team has become the cure for any opposing player's slump, the subject of inevitable Leno jokes.
Did you hear about the time all the Tigers were sent to Triple A Toledo? They lost 14-1.
When the Indians were through with the Tigers, winning 5-0 on Sunday. Detroit had dropped 11 games in a row and an astounding 31 of their last 35, not including the blowout to their top farm team. On the weekend before their trip to Toledo, the Tigers gave up 41 runs and were swept by the Chicago White Sox at home. Even before they made it to Memorial Day, the Tigers were deader than Andy Sipowicz Jr.
"We have hit rock bottom," says Detroit outfielder Chad Curtis. "It's reached the point where we can't get any worse."
At week's end in the American League East, the Tigers were 17 games behind the first-place New York Yankees. If the Tigers are not careful, Don King will sign them to light Mike Tyson. If they were a college team, the school would drop baseball. Detroit has lost 11 straight at home, not that anyone has noticed. Average attendance at Tiger Stadium before last weekend's Cleveland invasion was 13,618.
"We're embarrassed by the way we're playing, but not by what we're doing," says Detroit general manager Randy Smith, who came to the Tigers last October after 2½ years as the San Diego Padres' G.M. "We're staying with young players and we're building. I feel bad for the fans, and I certainly don't like being laughed at, but I think we're doing the right thing."
Last weekend, at least, the Tigers weren't humiliated. On Friday night the game was tied 3-3 in the eighth inning when Cleveland slugger Albert Belle launched his second solo home run of the game en route to a 6-3 Indians win. The next afternoon the Tigers led 5-4 in the seventh, but the bullpen allowed three runs, and Cleveland won 7-6. Then on Sunday the Indians were holding on to a 2-0 lead in the eighth when Belle blasted a three-run homer—his major league-leading 20th of the season—to break the game open.
While Tigers fans are showing patience with their rebuilding club, they are finding it easier to be patient at home than at the ballpark. It's hard to blame them. What fun is losing if you can't seethe? There seems to be nobody's head to call for. The general manager and the manager, Buddy Bell, are new this season, and for the most part, the players are either respected veterans or eager young guys. You don't have to love these woeful Tigers, but they're hard to hate. "The chemistry on this team is good, and everyone is hanging together," says catcher John Flaherty, who's in his fifth major league season. "It's become a mental thing. We're wondering how we're going to lose when we should be thinking how we're going to win."
Detroit is on pace to challenge the modern-day record for losses in a season (120), which was set by the 1962 New York Mets. But unlike the Mets, the toothless Tigers probably won't inspire any best-selling books. They are a quiet, colorless, even-tempered bunch who seem to be losing games while giving an honest effort. Firstbaseman Cecil Fielder, 32, and shortstop Alan Trammell, 38, are still around, which means the clubhouse has more class than most, but the veterans have just about run out of things to say behind closed doors.