I had occasion to go to Comerica Park in Detroit over the weekend, and as I watched the Tigers employ eight pitchers in blowing a 4-0 lead and losing to the Twins 8-4, I wondered why anyone would pay good money to do what I was doing. I thought the Tigers should have paid us all to show up.
I'd coughed up good money to be there and I had my reasons. I was in town visiting friends, I like to go to ballgames when I travel and the Toledo Mud Hens were on the road. Also, there were children involved, and first-ever trips to the ballpark, with all the attendant sweetness, excitement and memory-making.
And I think that one shouldn't pass up a chance to be in the presence of epochal athletic awfulness. I'll never be able to say that I saw the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers or the 1981 Northwestern football team in person, but I was right there at ground zero as the 2003 Detroit Tigers wheezed their way toward 120 losses, something only the 1962 New York Mets have done before them.
I don't think many people share my sense of twisted history, though, and the story of baseball in Montreal, Miami, the Bay Area, the Twin Cities and Seattle, among many other towns that at one time or another have had horrendous attendance, shows us that in any given big city, there are just a few thousand hard-core fans who will come to games no matter what incentives there are to stay away.
And yet 19,199 of us found our way to the ballpark in Detroit Saturday night, about 1,000 more than the average that has the Tigers 13th out of 14 American League teams in attendance. We watched a team that did what it does better than anyone else, you have to give them that. They jumped on Brad Radke of the Twins for four runs by the third inning, and then after they gave up two in the fourth, they started looking around for a way to lose. It took them a while, 10 innings, and along the way they managed to have the go-ahead run caught stealing at second on a 3-2 pitch that was Ball 4. I mean, you've gotta get up pretty early in the morning to be as bad as the Tigers.
It was an exceedingly pleasant night, soft and warm with a fat-cheeked moon lazing around above the flagpole in center. Comerica Park is nice enough, in that way that a shopping mall can be nice. There's nothing remarkable about it and the seats are a long way from the field, but it's clean and reverent to the game and the view is appealing, lush greenery and water fountains beyond the outfield fence, with some downtown buildings in the background. It stays light late in Detroit in the summer, so that glowing, lazy feeling lasts into the middle innings.
But unless you're on board with my see-the-worst ambitions, there's very little to recommend paying top-dollar to see the Tigers. Not only do they lose all the time, they do so in the most dreary way, by failing to score. In any sport, lack of offense makes it look like you're just not trying hard enough. Listen to talk radio after your local football or hockey team gets shut down by a stifling defense: "They just seemed to be going through the motions!" The Texas Rangers, a lousy team that's not nearly as lousy as the Tigers, give up more than six runs a game, but they score more than five. Stuff happens in their games. The Tigers allow just five runs a game, but they only score three. Watching the Tabbies is a gas if you like outs.
The Tigers also have no stars. To use Texas as an example again, you pay your hard-earned to watch the Rangers lose, but at least you get to see Alex Rodriguez and (until he goes to the Cubs) Rafael Palmeiro play. In Detroit the big star is Dmitri Young. Thirty bucks to sit at field level, 20 to sit upstairs, miles away from the action, is a lot to ask when the only time you get to see a good baseball player in home whites is when Alan Trammell trudges to the mound to replace a pitcher. And that's before you've even sipped a $7 beer.
Variable ticket pricing is all the rage in the big leagues these days, with several teams charging more for weekend games and those against marquee opponents. There's a greater demand for Saturday night tickets when the Giants are the visiting team than for Tuesday afternoon when it's the Brewers in town. People want to see Barry Bonds play, they get to pay for the privilege, which is only right -- except that if Bonds decides to take the day off nobody gets a refund.
The Tigers ought to take variable pricing to the extreme. They ought to say, "OK, rest of the year, every unsold seat in the house is free." It would be a show of goodwill to the fans. Come on out, it would say, cheer these kids on. They're trying, they're hoping to avoid that embarrassing 120th loss, and with a raucous home crowd behind them -- one with money in its pockets to actually afford a couple of those brews -- maybe they can do it.
I confess I don't know if the economics would work out. It seems to me that if you get an extra 10,000 folks in there every night, paying those inflated parking and concession prices, you're going to make more money even after you've given the visiting team its share and paid the extra vendors and ushers and security. And I saw this firsthand the other night: You get a kid in that ballpark for the first time, you've got yourself a new fan. Those little ones grow up and buy tickets someday, if the home team is halfway decent.
But if the economics don't work, so what? There are only 25 home dates left, and the Tigers are good at giving away money anyway. They're in this mess because they gave millions upon millions of dollars to people like Damion Easley and Bobby Higginson. They ought to give a few bucks to their long-suffering fans, who actually deserve it for putting up with such a rotten team for so long.