By: Will Burchfield
It almost felt like a tip of the cap, a grateful goodbye.
After the first game of the Tigers’ final homestand of the season — a dour 17-7 loss to the White Sox — Brad Ausmus commended the heart of baseball fans in Detroit.
“This is one of the best baseball towns I’ve ever been in, might be the best that I’ve been in,” said Ausmus, who also spent time in San Diego, Houston and Los Angeles as a player. “There’s an underlying pulse in this city that, unless you’ve lived here, people outside of Detroit or Michigan just don’t get it.”
The fourth-place Tigers played before a near-empty ballpark on Thursday. The paid attendance was 26,743, but hardly even half that number shuffled through the turnstiles. By the ninth inning, the stadium was still, a peaceful sea of green but for a few fans whose cat-calls pierced the air.
This is the cost of a rebuild. (It’s also the cost of hosting a midweek matinee when school’s back in session.) Presented with a ragtag roster and a losing ballclub, the fans lose interest. They stop showing up.
“They love baseball but they want winners, and I don’t blame them,” Ausmus said. “So do I. When you’re not winning, it’s not that they’re not fans of the Tigers. It’s just not as much fun to come watch a team lose, so they don’t as frequently. That’s pretty standard.”
Ausmus experienced the same thing in Detroit during his years as a player. But even then, he said, “There was always that underlying pulse.”
“It was there, it was just waiting to bubble over and we just weren’t winning. And then starting in 2006, really, through last year, it’s pretty much been winning the vast majority of the time and there were always butts in the seats. Even on the road we were getting good turnouts from people from Michigan,” he said.
16 games remain in the Tigers’ season. Ausmus may be down to the same number as the team’s manager. His contract expires after this year and general manager Al Avila hasn’t endorsed the idea of bringing him back other than to say, earlier this month, “I can’t say that’s out of the question.”
On Thursday, Ausmus spoke fondly of Detroit, almost as someone who’s prepared to move on. If he’s aware of the renaissance, he also seems to be aware that he may not watch it come to fruition.
“People outside of Michigan don’t really get it. They think, ‘Ohh, Detroit, how’s that?’ And I go, ‘Actually, it’s pretty damn good.’ With the way that downtown’s coming along, this rebuild could turn around in a few years and this city could be buzzing in this area. It could be tremendous for Michigan, really, and certainly for Detroit.”
Comerica Park was eerie on Thursday. Sitting in the upper deck amid scores of empty seats, seats once filled by hopeful fans, an era that just recently ended felt much more distant.
“That’s how it is in baseball,” Ausmus said. “I mean, the Indians are just really starting to get fans back and they’re the best team in baseball, at least recently, and they went to the World Series last year. It takes a little bit of time. But I think Detroit will bounce back. You start winning in Detroit, I think the (fans will) come back.”
Whether Ausmus comes with them is a less-sure bet.