The second-place baseball team opened a seven-game homestand in early August. The first four of those games would be against the first-place team—the team that was 3.5 games in front. It was a marvelous opportunity to gain ground. Some good, old-fashioned, post-All-Star-break baseball tinged with pennant fever.
Four home games against a cross-lake rival, with first place within full view.
Had this above scenario occurred in Detroit, with the Tigers as the second-place team and the Cleveland Indians as the division leaders, Comerica Park would be the place to be.
The crowds would arrive early and in droves. The bistros and watering holes up and down Woodward Avenue in the Fox Theatre district near the ballpark would be overfilled with baseball-mad patrons.
Inside the stadium, the buzz would be palpable. There wouldn’t be an empty seat. The standing-room-only folks would be rubbing elbows with each other. The place would be packed to the gills.
That’s not what happened at Cleveland’s Progressive Field last month.
The Tigers came to town, and the mood in the ballpark was almost funereal. The place was half-filled, for one. The sea of green, empty seats, caught in the background by the FSD cameras, was impossible to ignore.
If the Indians hoped to gain some sort of home-field advantage for their crucial series against the Tigers, those hopes were dashed on the first night.
The geographic location of the game meant that Tigers fans were plentiful. And in the mausoleum that was Progressive Field, Tigers faithful frequently drowned out the Indians fans.
The Tigers swept the four games in Cleveland, each night whittling away at the Indians’ psyche as the green, empty seats yawned at the action.
I felt compelled to ask one of my Cleveland-area friends (on Facebook), what was up with a half-empty Progressive Field, during a crucial August series, when the hometown team had been playing some pretty damn good baseball of late.
“No one believes in the Indians,” is what my friend told me.
Not even when they are winning with consistency after the All-Star game?
My friend said the Indians have fooled the fans before, but then have gone into second-half slumbers rivaling Rip Van Winkle.
My, how jaded some fanbases can be!
The Indians haven’t won a World Series since 1948. They haven’t appeared in one since 1997. The past two Indians teams have come out of the gate like they were shot out of a cannon, then faded in the second half. So maybe the fans’ distrust is somewhat understandable. Maybe.
But this year’s Indians team is sticking around, playing for a wild-card spot. Yet they could only muster a half-filled ballpark for the most crucial series of the season to that point, when the Tigers visited in early August.
If the Indians fans think that not appearing in a World Series in 16 years is cause for trust issues, what would they say about a pro football team that is pushing 60 years since their last appearance in the Big Game?
I invoke the Indians fans’ shameful turnout for the Tigers series in August to show the almost 180 degrees difference between the Cleveland baseball fan and the Detroit football fan.
On Sunday, they’ll throw open the doors at Ford Field to start another NFL season. Just about every fan that walks in will have no recollection of the Lions’ last championship in 1957; in many cases because they weren’t even close to being born.
One playoff appearance since 1999. One playoff victory in 56 years. That is the Lions' permanent record, for all to see. It’s a history that cannot be revised, not by even the best PR department in the world.
It is also a record that, despite its stunning futility, has failed to keep the seats from being filled on a weekly basis.
The Detroit football fan can’t get enough of the Lions. Glutton for punishment is something that comes to mind.
The Lions even sell out preseason games, which surely must be some sort of record for blind faith.
So the doors will be thrown open Sunday morning, and by kickoff, there won’t be an empty seat in the house.
Maybe this will be the year, the Detroit football fan thinks. Maybe this will be the year the Lions manage to put it together. Maybe the playoffs are just past the horizon.
The Detroit football fan isn’t jaded by 56 years of failure. He might say he is, when he calls into talk radio or bangs out an angry comment on the Internet. He might threaten to never watch the team ever again. He will boycott!
The Lions fanbase has been both praised for their blind faith and skewered for it.
In a “blame the victim” approach, the Lions fans have been told that as long as they keep lining the Ford family’s pockets, then ownership has no real incentive to field a winning team.
It’s a theory that has been run up the flagpole countless times over the years, but it’s never really been saluted.
It’s also a bunch of hogwash.
I have never doubted Bill Ford’s desire to win. I believe he badly wants to make it to a Super Bowl before he passes away. I don’t think he wants Ralph Wilson of the Buffalo Bills to be the only Detroit-based owner in the NFL to make it to the Big One.
I think Bill Ford wants to win, but he just doesn’t know how. There’s a big difference between not knowing how, and not wanting to.
Ford has tried a lot of different things, but he has yet to try anything that’s worked. That much is obvious. But it’s not because he doesn’t want to win. He’s not the P.T. Barnum of pro football.
The Lions haven’t won because they have been cheap when they should have been spenders, and they’ve been spenders when they should have restrained themselves. This goes for players and coaches alike.
For whatever reason, the Lions haven’t been able to come up with the proper formula for success. Mostly, that means they have drafted poorly and spent money on free agents unwisely.
A dissertation on why the Lions can’t win would fill up a college-sized textbook.
But that is irrelevant to the Lions fans, who will stuff themselves into Ford Field eight times this season, as they do every season, and hope for the best and expect the worst.
Maybe this is the year!