I was lying on the couch Tuesday night, trying to come up with ideas to fill the next two hours of my life, when I noticed I had a new voicemail.
It was from my dad, saying that he was at the Tigers-Royal game back in Detroit. He had great seats, just a few rows behind the Royals' dugout, and he thought I might be able to see him — in his green shirt, he noted — on TV.
What the heck, I thought? Sure, I hadn't watched a Tigers' game since their devastating losses to the White Sox in early August. But what were my alternatives? Watch the "World Series of Poker?" I started up the laptop and logged onto mlb.com. One more 2008 Tigers game couldn't hurt, I figured.
Of course, I was wrong. Not only did I never spot green-shirted dad, but the Tigers played perhaps the most uninspired baseball I've seen from them in an absolutely uninspiring season of downs and more downs.
I tuned in during the fifth inning, with the Royals nursing a 4-0 lead. Kansas City quickly added a run and proceeded to shut down the "high-powered" Tigers' offense attack as if the Royals were pitching to little-leaguers. The Tigers didn't help themselves by swinging at almost every first pitch (note the mild hyperbole). It was as if (gasp!) they didn't feel like playing.
The game ended in a crisp 2 hours, 17 minutes, getting Dad home, I presume, with time to practice guitar and do some quality reading (at least he got something out of the night, I think).
But I wasn't thinking about that after a 1-2-3 ninth innings that took all of 89 seconds. Rather, I was thinking about the "T" word: Is there "tanking" in baseball, and if so are the Tigers in tanking mode right now?
It's funny. I've never, in my 24 years of following sports (yep, I started right after birth), thought of baseball teams calling it a season prematurely. NBA teams? Uh, duh. It happens every year (see: 2006-07 Boston Celtics, 2007-08 Miami Heat). It also occurs in the NFL, though it's harder to call out the tankers because of the size of football rosters.
Baseball teams tanking, though? I've never considered it. Instead, I've watched every year as teams completely out of playoff contention ruin the dreams of teams still in it. That's exactly what the Florida Marlins did to the choking Mets last season. And guess whom the Mets play this final weekend as they try to avoid a repeat? Yep, those pesky Marlins.
So in general, no doubt, my feeling for years has been spot-on. There's no quit in bad baseball teams. And this is great for September, because there are no gimme games for teams trying to sneak into October.
But still, after watching a mere five innings Tuesday, my gut tells me the Tigers have thrown in the towel on the season. And now, they're tied for last place with the lowly Royals. It's unbelievable, really.
Consider the unique circumstances around this bad baseball team. In March, many prognosticators were not only predicting the Tigers would make the playoffs ... they were saying they'd win the competitive Central Division ... and win the whole thing, you know, the World Series. Nobody was saying that about the Marlins, for instance, or the Royals. Players love to hope, but I have to think that members of both those teams thought they'd be in this position come September — playing the spoiler role.
Not the spoiled Tigers, however. After a big spending offseason, big, big things were expected. Tickets sold out at a record pace. Heck, I only made it to one game, a feat I'm not proud of.
So it's hard to imagine just how disappointed manager Jim Leyland and the players in the clubhouse are at at how the season has turned out. By mid-August, it was pretty clear that not even a great finish would propel the club into the postseason. Once September commenced, the season's story had been written.
So what did the Tigers' regulars have to play for in the final weeks? I'm not talking about the minor-league call-ups who are trying to make a positive impression. I'm referring to the regulars who have been on the big-league club all season. Leyland has already said that with a few exceptions, everyone is going to have to prove themselves all over again before the 2009 season. Starting spots will be up for grabs.
In other words, except for a few players, such as shortstop Edgar Renteria, who are trying to play their way into being retained by the team, this September's performance is meaningless. Players will be back; players will need to earn a spot in the lineup/pitching rotation.
Looking for a reason why Detroit has lost 11 of its last 12 games, almost entirely to non-playoff teams? I call it not caring that much about results. I call it tanking.
But let me be clear. While the Tigers will get a higher draft choice if they finish in fourth or fifth place compared to third, where they were for most of the season, I don't think that's a big motivating factor in baseball. It's a little different from the Heat's Pat Riley not showing up for games and resting his entire starting lineup during the home stretch of this past season so the Heat could get a chance at the No. 1 pick.
Baseball's draft is way too long. Sure-thing prospects are way too hard to nail down. Heck, teams even pass on the best players because they know their contract demands will be ludicrous.
The Tigers' lackadaisical play is more of a "let's-just-get-this-bloody-season-over-with" type of indolence. They simply don't care. Sure, they're still playing the game they love on cool, comfortable September nights, but there's no intensity on the field.
Detroit turned four double plays during the time I watched Tuesday, which was the only thing remarkable about its play. What caught my attention, too, was how unemotional the players were after each of the DPs. There were no smiles, no fist pumps, no signs of excitement. It was simply business as usual.
And another loss. Not even the thought of finishing beneath the lowly Royals can get these morbid Tigers roaring.
They've been dead for weeks now, in complete tank mode and thinking about 2009.