There are three questions that universally permeate all of us this summer.
1. How much did you fork over for a gallon of gas most recently?
2. Is it hot/wet enough for ya?
3. Are the Tigers for real?
The answers, respectively, of course, are: $3.07, No comment, and Have you been paying any attention whatsoever?
The question now, as we rapidly hurdle toward the middle of the baseball regular season's penultimate month, should be not if they are for real, but which team is going to stop them from winning it all.
Detroit opened up an even 10-game lead in the AL Central last night over the Chicago White Sox with its win over an aching Francisco Liriano and the Twins. They are now 76-36, by far the best mark in baseball, a status they have maintained since April, when doubters from the Cape to Baja wondered when they would falter.
It's not happening.
This month, as it is for many teams in the game, is pivotal for the Tigers. But while teams like the Twins, Red Sox (Murray Chass calls them a poor excuse for a good baseball team today), Angels, and White Sox fight for their playoff lives against the cream of the crop the AL has to offer, it is instead for the Tigers their final hurdle in stating their overall worth for autumn. A year ago on this date, the Chicago White Sox were 72-38, with a 12-game lead on the Cleveland Indians. Yet there was a general consensus, widely instituted by their slump down the stretch, that the Sox were winning with smoke and mirrors, a theory that has stretched to the Tigers in 2006.
Well, yeah, they get to play the Royals 19 times. OK, granted. Take away their 11-1 record against KC and Detroit is still 61-38. Just to make a comparison, take away Boston's 16-2 slate against the NL, and the Red Sox are 49-43.
Of course, the Tigers did themselves no favors when they dropped five of seven against the Yankees and Red Sox in early June. But this month, Detroit has another shot, arriving in Boston for three games next week, and three in the Bronx at the end of the month, one they've started 6-1 with series wins over Tampa and Cleveland, teams the Red Sox managed to go just 3-4 against over the last week.
Red Sox fans should take notice of these Tigers for a variety of reasons, least of which is the matter that Detroit's coming out of nowhere this season could be the reason the Red Sox are staying home come October, particularly if the White Sox continue their rebound, the Twins keep up their winning ways (although the Liriano soreness has to be a major concern), and the Red Sox can't recover from the injuries that have decimated them this season.
Another reason to pay attention? This is why Theo Epstein didn't make a deal last week.
The Red Sox have made it known that they want to be the Atlanta Braves of the American League, perennial contenders with a system that was born out of their farm system. But perhaps Detroit has already beaten them to this distinction. That's not to say the Tigers are going to whip off AL Central titles until 2020, but the Tigers are winning thanks to sticking to their guns and committing to a core group that they believed would be a building block for the future.
There's a lot about this Tigers team that is reminiscent of the 1991 Braves team, a squad that made it to the World Series in a worst-to-first scenario thanks to a strong pitching staff that finally matured and figured out how to win all at the same time. Twenty-five-year-old Tom Glavine was coming off a 10-12 season in 1990, and was the subject of plenty a trade rumor, as Lou Gorman tried more than once to pry him from the organization. But the Braves stuck with him, and in '91, Glavine turned into a Cy Young Award winner. John Smoltz came from the Tigers in a deal for Doyle Alexander three years earlier. Charlie Leibrandt played the part of grizzled veteran.
In Detroit, 15 years later, Justin Verlander (14-4) is likely going to win either the Cy Young or Rookie of the Year. Jeremy Bonderman, who was 6-19 three years ago, has like Glavine, put it all together. Kenny Rogers is Leibrandt. Ivan Rodriguez is Terry Pendleton. Jim Leyland is Bobby Cox, with a team that feels like the one that prematurely ended his seasons with the Pirates two straight Octobers.
Of course, that was 15 years ago, and it's anyone's guess in this day and age of $15 million salaries for pitchers if the Tigers can keep this core nucleus together for any extended period of time. And nobody is saying that Bonderman is bound for a career as flashy as Glavine's, just that they seemed to take off at about the same age.
In Boston meanwhile, there is a hesitance among the fans, and to be fair, a good number in the front office, over the Red Sox' intention to go young for the long-term. It is a fear perhaps not based so much on the present state of affairs, nor the losses of team icons such as Johnny Damon and Pedro Martinez, yet the past failed promises of young stars that never materialized. Lester may be 5-1 on the season, but to some Bostonians, he's still Tim Van Egmond, with plenty to prove.
Who's to say Craig Hansen isn't Jeff Sellers, Manny Delcarmen no better than Brian Rose, another local kid who never quite put it all together for the hometown team? What if Dustin Pedroia is nothing but Wilton Veras? This Jacoby Ellsbury no more impressive than Jeff McNeely or Greg Blosser? A long, recent history of potential down the drain.
But look at the Tigers. As Mitch Albom points out in today's Detroit Free Press, the pitching trio of Zach Miner, Verlander, and Joel Zumaya is 27-7. All three, by the way, rookies. If Jonathan Papelbon is moved back into the rotation in 2007, along with Lester, it conceivable that the two of them alone could put up similar numbers at this stage of the season. Epstein made it known he wanted the team to take a step back before the long-range plan took fruition. As it turns out, injuries and bullpen inadequacy made it necessary to get some of the guys up here now, a blessing for their development perhaps.
Watching the growing pains of Hansen and Delcarmen won't be easy, just as Josh Beckett has made his adjustment to the AL painful at times. And while Lester has shown more good than bad, he's still a 22-year-old learning on the job. But if they're as good as Epstein hopes they can be (and if the Tigers had faith in their system, why shouldn't the Red Sox GM?), isn't it worth taking a step back, even dare I say, missing the playoffs one season, with the knowledge that the Red Sox, in one year's time, could be sailing atop the AL East, much like the Tigers.
The Tigers need to go only 24-26 in their last 50 games to win 100 this season, one year after winning a mere 71 in 2005. They are the best story in baseball, and it could only get better.