Lapointe: At midseason, flailing Tigers need more than players

Empty seats and frayed infrastructure at Comerica Park

Jul 3, 2023 at 4:00 am
click to enlarge These Tigers are on the injured list, along with several pitchers. - Joe Lapointe
Joe Lapointe
These Tigers are on the injured list, along with several pitchers.

For several weeks, the carousel behind the grandstand at Comerica Park has been closed for repair.

Perhaps it will spin again when the Tigers begin their next home stand on Tuesday, July 4, against the Oakland A’s, one of few teams beneath them in Major League Baseball.

Maybe, by then, the Tigers will have seen fit to fix the drinking fountains. Half of them don’t work. And the bottle-filling spouts next to them feature inconsistent water pressure plus buttons hard to find.

Heck, it’s almost easier to buy a $6 bottle of water. And, certainly, as the second half of the season begins, Comerica will have synchronized the two “pitch-clock” timers in the outfield.

That was a problem on the last home stand when Miguel Cabrera accidentally got called out with an automatic “strike three” because he was not ready to hit with eight seconds left on the clock.

Why not?

Because he was looking at the wrong clock, the one frozen at “34.”

click to enlarge For several weeks, the carousel behind the grandstand at Comerica Park has been closed for repair. - Joe Lapointe
Joe Lapointe
For several weeks, the carousel behind the grandstand at Comerica Park has been closed for repair.

Maybe Cabrera thought it was another “Miggy Milestone” celebration, this one for “Conversations with Opposing Infielders While Moving from Base to Base in a Single Series.”

Those of us who still buy Comerica Park baseball tickets can see (and concede) that the product on the field remains mired in a rebuilding cycle that is now almost one decade long.

We know Detroit fans are patient — few even boo anymore, what with the recorded noise blasting — but they are not fools with their money.

Going into this homestand, the Tigers were averaging 19,120 customers per game, 25th in the 30-team MLB and down from last season’s 19,634 for 22nd place. Overall, major league attendance is up this year by more than 2,000 per game.

But some Detroit crowds have been tiny. When the Tigers announced an afternoon count of 11,363 against the Mets on May 3, New York announcer Howie Rose on Sirius XM mocked that total and said the actual size was but a fraction of that number.

And what do the customers experience after they pay their way in?

If you stand and wait patiently at a concession stand, you might follow the game on a TV monitor that works.

Or maybe not.

click to enlarge Some of the TV monitors at Comerica Park show freeze frames filled with static. - Joe Lapointe
Joe Lapointe
Some of the TV monitors at Comerica Park show freeze frames filled with static.

Some of the screens are black and blank. Others have pictures frozen by static. Some are tuned to the scoreboard image but not to the telecast of play on the field.

If you use the restroom, you might hear a radio account of the game.

Or maybe not.

Some men’s rooms have working speakers; others don’t.

And if you really study baseball and don’t care for a carousel, you can seek information on the big, loud, Comerica scoreboard in left field.

Sorry, its video screen will avoid replays you might really want to see. (No opposing runs; no Tiger errors). But it will show you live images of fellow fans showing off for the camera.

Another thing you won’t see at Comerica is an out-of-town scoreboard. The Tigers took that away, perhaps embarrassed by the success of former Detroit players like Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Nick Castellanos, and J.D. Martinez.

But the Comerica Park scoreboard and outfield walls do have plenty of room for dozens of ads that push alcohol, gambling, pizza, and other necessities. The huge leftfield board — invisible from many seats — is divided about equally between actual baseball information and advertising.

And even the baseball numbers are not always clear.

click to enlarge The Comerica Park scoreboard has lots of ads. - Joe Lapointe
Joe Lapointe
The Comerica Park scoreboard has lots of ads.

When the board shows the batting orders and individual statistics, the final number on each player’s line is not a batting average but something else like “.623” or “.756.” But nothing at the top of this column explains what these numbers mean. Not even an abbreviation. (Best guess: “On-base, plus slugging.”)

But enough negativity. Might there be reason for optimism on the field in the second half of 2023?

It’s possible. Centerfielder Riley Greene is returning from his second, serious, leg injury in his two major-league seasons. Let’s hope that’s just a fluke. A healthy Greene is a dynamic and charismatic performer who smashes baseballs with his bat and crashes into walls in pursuit of them.

Perhaps his return will inspire Spencer Torkelson, the streaky first baseman, fellow sophomore, and close friend. He pays for his home-run power with strikeouts. His fielding is pretty good and improving.

One fellow fielder saved by Torkelson’s soft scoops is Javier Baez, the highly-compensated shortstop whose wild swings at bat are matched only by his wild throws on the field. Enough about him. Team fielding, overall, is sub-standard.

The strength of the team is pitching despite an injury pandemic that has spun the staff like wobbly horses on a damaged merry-go-round. Things should improve with the return of Eduardo Rodriguez, the best of a talented but cursed staff.

At the very least, a healthy Rodriguez might yield some return as a “rental player” in a trade with a contender late in the season as he approaches a free-agency option.

At best, he could lead a stabilized rotation and help his team sneak into a divisional title and its first playoff berth since 2014.

As of Friday morning, the Tigers (35-45) held third place in the American League Central, four games behind first-place Minnesota (40-42). That’s right: a sub-.500 team could qualify for the postseason. Why not Detroit?

But back to the bigger picture beyond this season: the future of the current ballpark. Comerica is in its 24th season. Poorly designed at its inception, it badly needs a major facelift — or more.

How much more? Consider the Atlanta Braves, who moved to a new place now called TruistPark in 2016 after only 20 years at Turner Field. Or the Texas Rangers, who moved after 26 years from the once-new Globe Life Field to the even newer Globe Life Park in 2020.

Perhaps, in Detroit, the generous and civic-minded Ilitch family that owns the Tigers (as well as the Red Wings) will spend some private money (perhaps casino money) for a new and better ballpark.

click to enlarge Some monitors at Comerica Park are just blank. - Joe Lapointe
Joe Lapointe
Some monitors at Comerica Park are just blank.

As a down payment, they could use the $32 million they won’t have to pay Cabrera next season on an expiring, 10-year deal that was among the worst ever in sports.

As of Friday, Cabrera had one home run, but he performed better in June than in the first two months to raise his average to .236 with 11 runs batted in.

He’s hit 508 home runs in his career, but just 46 since 2018. Predominantly a singles hitter now who walks from time to time, Cabrera makes the most of his chances to pat the backs of opponents and chat with them. And with coaches. And with umpires

So why does this talkative future Hall of Famer rarely speak to the local news media, not even to his TV worshippers at Bally Sports Detroit?

In lieu of interviews on his many rest days, perhaps the fun-loving “Miggy” might want to don the “Paws” mascot costume and entertain Comerica’s paying customers. No spoken lines required.

But let’s try for a happy ending here. On the positive side, when the Tigers hit a home run, their scripted dugout celebration is among the best in the game.

Bravo to that crowning of the heroic head with the Red Wings’ hockey helmet!

Hurray for that swaggering swing of the hockey stick!

It’s the perfect double-team for Ilitch Village. Perhaps — when Baez faces those sliders, low and away — he could swing that hockey stick.

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