The Detroit Tigers have a rich history. The franchise has claimed 11 American League pennants and four World Series titles since being established in 1901. An “Olde English D” has emblazoned the jerseys and caps of numerous all-time greats.
The fan base is reliably loyal. The club is coming off a pair of 98-loss seasons, and there hasn’t been a championship to celebrate since 1984, but people in Detroit, and throughout the state of Michigan, continue to show their support. They love their Tigers.
In celebration of the iconic franchise, I asked a cross section of people within the game if they could share their thoughts — and perhaps a few anecdotes — on baseball in Detroit.
Michael Fulmer, Tigers pitcher: “With the new renovations and Little Caesars Arena, it’s cool to have all four major sports teams in a four-block radius. And I feel that Detroit is a diehard baseball city. Michigan as a whole. The fans are unbelievable. They’ll let you know when you’re doing good, and they’ll also let you know when you’re not doing so good. That’s OK. You can’t blame them for that. They want us to win, and we’re doing everything we can for them. But they are sticking with this team through thick and thin. They’re excited about the younger players. The feedback we’ve gotten, and the high energy we’ve gotten from this team, is cool to watch.
“Mr. Kaline and Alan Trammell bring a lot of history. Willie Horton. Those guys are around the clubhouse quite a bit, and it’s really cool to be able to talk those guys. They’re legends. I grew up hearing those names, so to be able meet them in person and talk baseball with them… it’s really cool.
“Jack Morris isn’t around as much as some of the other guys, but I have talked to him a few times. They’re obviously retiring his number this year, and last year I got to catch a first pitch he threw out. That was pretty cool, too.”
Dave Dombrowski, former Tigers GM: “It’s a great baseball city. It’s a historic franchise — Detroit is one of the original baseball cities — with a lot of great players in different eras. Detroit supports all sports, including baseball. The fans are very passionate. They love their Tigers.
“I remember when I first took the job. They weren’t drawing very well, but people who had known the city for a long time were telling me what a sleeping giant it was. That’s because of the love people had for the team. And that’s what it turned out to be.
“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to win a championship while I was there. We won everything short of that a couple of times. But again, the fans are very supportive. You see Tigers memorabilia items everywhere. They welcome the old-timers, the guys who were part of the franchise in the past.”
Mario Impemba, former Tigers broadcaster: “I came here in 2002 after seven years with the Angels. The opportunity to come back and broadcast in my hometown, where we’ve had so many great announcers over the years — Ernie Harwell, Paul Carey, George Kell — it was a great honor for me. I remember my first day in spring camp, in Lakeland, Florida. Ernie welcomed me with open arms.
“The year I leave the Angels they win the World Series, and I come to Detroit and one year later we lose 119 games. The timing wasn’t all that good for me, but I was back home doing Tigers baseball. For me, that was the ultimate prize. I always wanted to be a big-league announcer and to do it in my hometown, in a town as special as Detroit is in terms of baseball, was great.”
Rick Porcello, former Tigers pitcher: “Playing in that division when I did, the fans were really into our team. We were selling out. This was at a time just after the recession, especially in the Midwest. It was tough for a lot of people to come to games, to spend the money on tickets. But that didn’t happen in Detroit. You could see how much all the sports teams, especially the Tigers, meant to everyone in the state of Michigan.
“They came out and supported us. It was awesome to be a part of that organization and mean something to those people, to hopefully make a positive impact on their lives in tough financial times.
“And there’s the history. It’s one of the original organizations. To be a part of that history… it was cool coming to the ballpark and seeing Al Kaline every day. Interacting with guys like him, Jack Morris, Willie Horton, Alan Trammell. If you’re a fan of the history of the game, that’s pretty cool.”
Miguel Cabrera, Tigers first baseman: “It means a lot to play here. Detroit loves the sport. It’s a nice city to play in, because the fans support all of the teams. This has been one of the best things about my career. Before I got traded from Miami, I didn’t know much about Detroit. But I’ve learned that people here love sports. That’s what’s big in Detroit: sports and cars.”
Paul Molitor, former Twins player and manager: “I always enjoyed hitting in Tiger Stadium, although it was tough to hit the ball through the infield there. Not only did they have great defenders, it was one of the slowest grass infields we would play on. And Sparky liked to have that dirt in front of home plate really soft, so you didn’t get the ball coming off the bat particularly well.
“As far as the environment, especially when we would get good crowds, and as their teams got really good in the early to mid-80s, that was just a great environment. And you knew the history. You knew the people who played there. Walking down that tunnel from the visiting clubhouse to the dugout, I often times thought of how it was the same tunnel Babe Ruth walked down. There was just something about the history, and the uniqueness of that park, that made it fun.”
Tom Hamilton, Indians announcer: “Felix Fermin had had a big day against Frank Tanana. I don’t remember how many hits he had — maybe three — but as Fermin was coming to the plate, you could hear Tanana hollering to the catcher, ‘Just tell him what’s coming; we couldn’t do any worse.’ Fermin laughed. Tanana laughed. Those were the types of things you got at old Tiger Stadium that you can’t get in any broadcast booths today. We were so close to the field that it almost felt like you could reach out and touch the guys.
“To me, Tiger Stadium was the most fun ballpark to go to. You never knew what you might see. Albert Belle hit one on the roof. Cecil Fielder cleared the roof. You don’t have that very much in the game where you anticipate every at-bat because you might see something that you’ve never seen before. That’s what made that place special.
“One Opening Day there — I don’t remember which year; you’d have to check the archives — folks were fairly well lubricated. We were just pounding them. The fans started throwing seats and whatnot out of center field. On Opening Day. Kenny Lofton was in center field. He thought the game might get forfeited, because they were so completely out of control. They were chucking anything they could. It was like, ‘Well, this is going to be a long year for Detroit.’
Nicholas Castellanos, Tigers outfielder: “It’s a lot of fun. There’s a lot of history, a lot of passionate fans. It’s also all I know. The Tigers are the team that drafted me. The history is something I didn’t really know about when I signed — I didn’t watch a lot of baseball growing up — but I did know that there’s a lot of love for the Olde English D.”
Steve Sparks, former Tigers pitcher: “In 2002, when I was playing in Detroit, our strength coach, Denny Taft, came out to lead us through our stretch. This was in front of our dugout, along the third-base line at Comerica Park. When Denny came out, his car was right there. Much to his dismay, there was graffiti paint, a cracked windshield, some dents from bats. He was in shock. He was upset, wondering what in the world was going on. Some of the reporters caught his reaction and started asking him questions.
“While this is happening, out of the right-field corner comes a new Ford SUV. It drives around the warning track and parks right behind his old jalopy. Denny is distracted by the reporters, and when he turns around and sees it, Bobby Higginson, our left fielder, threw him the keys. Bobby appreciated all the things he did for us, so he bought him a new SUV to replace his old, beat-up car.
“Denny was choked up, crying. Couldn’t believe it. He was worried when he first came out, seeing all the graffiti on his car and wondering how he was going to take his daughter to elementary school the next day. Some of the graffiti wasn’t very nice. There were some quotes about that in the paper the next day. It was an emotional moment for him. He got a new SUV. He couldn’t have been happier, all thanks to Bobby.”
Joe Castiglione, Red Sox broadcaster: “Ernie Harwell was always a mentor, in so many ways. I remember going to him when the Wade Boggs thing with Margo Adams happened. I asked, ‘How do we handle this?’ Ernie said, ‘Does it have to do with the game?’ Boggs was hitting .370, and it didn’t affect the game, so we didn’t get into it.
“When my son [Duke] was about to make his debut on New York TV, he was really nervous and uptight. So we called Ernie, and Ernie settled him down. He was always great to his interns, too. He’d always bring them in and talk to them, buy them lunch. Ernie was like that with anybody, but especially kids who were just getting started and needed mentoring. And he was a spiritual mentor. He was heavily involved in Baseball Chapel when it got started. It was founded by Watson Spoelstra, a writer in Detroit, but Ernie was right there on the ground floor.
“Ernie would tell stories. He liked to tell Willie Mays stories. He wasn’t a Leo Durocher fan, because Leo came up to him once and slapped a newspaper in his face. Ernie stood up to him, though. Leo was a bully. I don’t know what prompted it, but they were on a train. They traveled by train back then.
“When he got fired… he certainly wasn’t happy. He actually called to tell me the job was open if I wanted to apply. I wouldn’t have wanted to be the guy who replaced Ernie. I could maybe be the guy who replaced the guy who replaced Ernie. It wasn’t good for the guys who did replace him. They made it hard on Rick Rizzs.
“But Ernie was doing the Game of the Week on CBS, so we still got to see him. And they eventually brought him back, once the ownership changed. I think he handled it as well as he could have. I know he was really good to Dan Dickerson when he retired on his own, and Dan followed him.”
Carl Willis, former Tigers pitcher: “I was a young kid at the time I was called up [in June of 1984]. I was a 23-year-old rookie on a veteran club. Jack Morris, Dan Petry. There were veterans all over the field, and they all welcomed me. They encouraged me. Alan Trammell. Sparky Anderson. I grew up a Reds fan and was in awe of the fact that I was playing for Sparky Anderson.
“I joined the Tigers in Baltimore — I’d been a non-roster invitee in spring training — and I remember walking into the hotel. I was scared to death, with no idea of what I was doing. Alan Trammell and Tom Brookens happened to be in the lobby. They came over and congratulated me. I asked Tram if there was a bus to the ballpark. He said there was, and that it would be leaving around 4 o’clock.
“I was sitting in my hotel room, nervous, when my phone rang around 3 o’clock. The voice on other end said, ‘Carl, it’s Alan Trammell. I’m getting ready to take a cab to the yard. Do you want a ride?’ I said, ‘I’ll meet you in the lobby.’ That was Day One. It was unbelievable.
“We had roommates back then, and Glenn Abbott was my roommate when I first got there. They asked him to go down to Triple-A to get some things ironed out. I felt like, ‘Boy, that’s tough.’ He was a veteran of 10 years. Even though he was a starter, and I was a reliever, it was kind of like I was taking his spot.
“Glenn took his wife and family with him, to Evansville, Indiana. He asked me to live in his home while he was in Triple-A. I refused, he was adamant, and that’s what I did. I lived in his home, drove his vehicle to and from the ballpark. He never accepted a dime.
“Those are the types of teammates I had. They were good people. Not only that, at the end of the year they were World Series champions. I ended up getting traded [to the Cincinnati Reds on September 1], so I didn’t get a ring, but I was still lucky enough to have been a small part of that club. I’m proud to say that I was on one of the best teams ever.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.