By David Roth
It's appropriate, baseball being what it is and contradictory beliefs being what they are, that Detroit's revolutionary approach to its roster seems at the same time to be the fulfillment of a baseball homily. "Give me a centerfielder who can go get it, a couple of big bats and some great starting pitching and I'll win you a World Series," some crusty old baseball dude might've said, and probably has said. Now owner Mike Ilitch and GM Dave Dombrowski have actually built that team, and have given their own resident crusty old baseball dude -- Jim Leyland, who's not actually as old as he looks, but is about as crusty as he looks -- the opportunity to make good on it. How precisely the Tigers are that team is what makes the Tigers so fascinating, and so weird, and so understatedly revolutionary in the way they lay siege to baseball's collectivist sentimentalities.
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Even for those of us who grew up in color and HD, there is a tendency to see baseball in sepia, or scratchy black and white. There is the whole Ken Burns thing, which doesn't necessarily help, and those goofy, waddling Babe Ruth home run reels; even the gaudily saturated rec-room colors of 1960s and '70s baseball footage de-colorize themselves in the memory. And there's the persistent strain McCarverian conservatism in the way we talk and think about the game: the cult of the Productive Out; the roadside temples to the clutch gamers who pitch to the score; the icons in dirty uniforms; the weepy rosaries of intangibles. There are our own sentimentalities, too, our own vanished teammates from whenever we last played the game, the remembered transcendence of disappearing into team play, or into some surge of fans. There is a reason these things die hard, these old and virtuous baseball home truths. It's because we love them.
Which is reasonable. These old-timey sentimentalities represent the finer, more generous part of the game, the part anyone who plays or watches it long enough can enjoy. Only a few people on earth ever get to hit even one towering home run, after all, but everyone who plays baseball for even a little bit gets to experience the thrill of being suddenly, vitally and unconsciously a part of a bigger thing with its own gravity and momentum. It’s the same watching it. We watch home runs or triple-digit fastballs with late movement in awe, passive as people at a fireworks show, but we experience the intricacies of a double play or multi-part putout more intimately.
Here is the collectivist secret about the American Pastime: The fun of it, watching or playing or otherwise, is in the subsuming of individual will and agency and capacity within something bigger. This is the last thing we want to give up, and the last thing we should give up -- the idea that all those individuals poised and impatient in space are also somehow working together as equals, that all those individuals with their personalized gloves and bats win or lose as one greater thing. We are made stronger and more generous and more manifestly ourselves by experiencing things together, be they music or art or a 4-6-3 double play, which is a little of both.
But if the idea of baseball as a collaborative enterprise -- nine shoulders to the wheel, a bench of happy hopefuls eager to put their backs into it if only coach will give them the chance and a grateful nation cheering their shared effort -- must die, it might as well die in Detroit. Detroit, the city defined by the mechanization of the assembly line and the superhumanization of the labor union, which is also the same city pulled apart by the collapse of the communitarian and collective, the wronged city that landed itself in a burn ward, fragile and patched and in pain, with self-inflicted injuries. Detroit, the home of the Tigers -- baseball's most unequal and possibly best team, maybe the sport's future and definitely its present, and certainly the end of something or other.
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Not every World Series team can be the 1927 Yankees, of course. There aren't enough stars to go around for teams to stockpile Hall of Famers like that, and erstwhile fantasy teams stuffed with recognizable names -- like the 2012 Boston Red Sox, who are now the 2013 Los Angeles Dodgers -- are not necessarily better for it. But if World Series teams have on balance become top-heavier in recent years -- a superstar hitter in a corner of the infield, another in the outfield, a couple more atop the rotation, and competent players filling in the spaces between -- none has been quite as unbalanced as the Tigers. It's tempting to remember the 2011 World Champion Cardinals as Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Other Dudes, Some Of Whom Had Beards; and the 2010 Champion Giants as Tim Lincecum and Oh Lord What Is Brian Wilson Even Doing, Ugh. But the Cardinals had six players who were worth at least two Wins Above Replacement – generally considered league average -- in their starting lineup; the AL Champion Rangers also had six. The Giants had four, and got positive contributions from every spot on the diamond; that year's runner-up Rangers also had four, three of them worth at least 3.8 WAR.
These Tigers have five players at that level: Miguel Cabrera (6.9), Prince Fielder (4.4), Austin Jackson (5.2), Alex Avila (2.2) and Andy Dirks (2.0). What sets the Tigers apart is that they also received negative WAR -- that is, worse production than they might have from a notional minor league lifer -- for the season at DH (where Delmon Young Reginald VelJohnson'ed his way to a -1.2 WAR), right field (a team effort, led by Brennan Boesch's -1.4 WAR) and second base (another collaboration, here, with only Omar Infante providing positive value on the season). But WAR is just a metric, albeit a good one, and Delmon Young also VelJohnson'ed himself an ALCS Most Valuable Player Award, which is something that seems worth mentioning. So let's put the SABR away.
Do that, and look again at the Tigers -- the lineup built around two sluggers, Austin Jackson and a crew of broadly below-average others; the strictly slapstick defense and appalling baserunning; the not-unjustified impression of the lineup as a pair of plump homer-hitting lords with 10-figure paychecks being escorted through the postseason by a security detail of inexpensive and eminently replaceable anonymities. Dazzling starting pitching and Miguel Cabrera's Miguel Cabrera-ness has helped a great deal to make up for that, too. And there is, with the Tigers, the same indescribable thing at work as there is with other great teams -- whether we write this sense of inexorability onto contenders after the fact or not, the Tigers have it. To anyone who has watched them thus far, there would be nothing surprising about this Tigers team winning the World Series. Nothing except for how they've done it.
Which, in the end, is both fine and good -- things change, they should and they always do. Tigers owner Mike Ilitch bet hundreds of millions of his dollars on the idea that a team could win with good pitchers (and one great one), two sluggers, a strong centerfielder and virtually nothing else, and that bet may pay off. There is the tendency, which springs from that innate and sentimental baseball conservatism, to feel that this isn't the right or virtuous way to win, that the team should have been built a certain way, play a certain way, be balanced in a certain way.
But there isn't necessarily a right way to win, and there certainly isn't just one way to do it. And maybe Detroit is the right place for this, too: the tearing down of a strict and restrictive sentimentality about How The Game Is Played, and the construction -- which looks strange and a little gaudy, as new things tend to -- of some great new edifice atop those ashes. Detroit has always been where we made things, and that it would make something strange matters less than that the strange thing rolling off the assembly line works. It works.
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Roth is a co-founder and editor of The Classical, the co-author of the Wall Street Journal's “Daily Fix” blog-column, the sole author of Vice's "Mercy Rule" column and a writer of things at GQ, New York Magazine, The Awl and some other places when there's time. He lives in New York, and is on Twitter.