Tigers enjoying rare air of playoff contention

Wednesday, September 6th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DETROIT – Anyone heard a Tigers score yet?

A peculiar inquiry for September, but even stranger when considering where the question was often asked Sunday – the Superdome press box during the Detroit Lions' game against New Orleans.

"Really?" a stunned Randy Smith, Tigers general manager, wondered Monday. "That's unusual to hear. Man, that probably excites me more than anything else the last few days because that means there's interest. There's talk. People are paying attention to Tiger baseball in September. That says a lot about from where we've come."

Labor Day is when presidential campaigns and baseball seasons get down to business, signaling the official start of the pennant race. The clock ticks, the nerves tingle, creating a sensation Detroit hasn't experienced for the past 12 years – meaningful September baseball.

But the talk could soon wither to a whisper. The Tigers opened what amounts to a four-game contention elimination series with another wild-card pursuer, Anaheim, in a Labor Day twilight special.

A 1-3 series might remove the loser from the serious contention by week's end.

Serious contention? The Tigers?

The crowd (26,364 tickets sold) Monday was disappointing considering what's at stake. But it shouldn't surprise because the '90s programmed many to dismiss the Tigers by the summer's final holiday. If it's Labor Day, then it's time to get off the Tigers' back and onto the Lions'.

"There's still a little bit of a shock value to all this," Smith said. "It really didn't hit me until after we cut it to four games over the weekend and my wife and I talked about it for the first time. And she kept telling me that whether I wanted to admit it or not, we were in it."

Smith left Comerica Park Sunday following the Tigers' 4-1 series-concluding loss to Texas certain the Indians stretched their wild-card lead by another game because they had a big lead late against Baltimore.

Smith gets into his car and hears the game has gone to extra innings. After a mad dash home to his satellite dish, Smith turns on the game just in time to see Kenny Lofton end the game in the bottom of the 11th inning with a solo homer.

And Smith must have felt like driving his foot through the television screen.

But isn't it nice that, for a change, anger is directed more toward the disappointment of not getting any closer to the playoffs rather than toward the disgust of not even having a prayer by September's arrival.

"It officially becomes a pennant chase when you get to Labor Day," said Phil Garner, "but you try not to make a big deal of it with the guys. You just want them to stay focused and keep doing the little things that helped get us to this point.

"And you want them to enjoy what playing important September games are supposed to be about."

Sure, it's supposed to be fun. But it's also supposed to be educational.

The Tiger veterans who grew up within the system, like Bobby Higginson and Tony Clark, have never enjoyed any reasonable competitive success at any level of the organization. These are unchartered waters. And their response to the challenge of the ensuing days will have a profound effect on the younger guys who lean on the aged for advice.

Clark's response to the final month might be the most revealing aspect of this late-season revival. September is historically his best month statistically, but expectations were low because the Tigers were usually 20 games out of the wild card chase so who really paid attention?

But if Clark stays true to form, helping carry this team a little further along this most unexpected journey from oblivion, he emerges as a more valuable component next year rather than merely serving as off-season trade bait.

And that's what this final month is really about – laying the foundation for next year.

Granted, the American League's undernourished this season. That's the only logical explanation for the Tigers' rise from the basement to mid-level mediocrity in the last three months. And, realistically, the Tigers have two chances of reaching the playoffs – slim and none.

But that still can't diminish the old-fashioned giddiness of scoreboard watching. It's been a long time coming and may not last too much longer so enjoy while you can.