From the moment that Dick McAuliffe hit into that season-ending double play, the Tigers wanted spring training to start immediately, if not sooner.
If they could have waved a magic wand, those broken-hearted 1967 Detroit Tigers would have found themselves in Lakeland, ready to get on with the ’68 campaign.
There was no playoff tier in ’67. You won the league, or you didn’t. Nothing in between. No LDS, no LCS. Either in the World Series, or out.
The Tigers, after second baseman McAuliffe hit into the only double play he’d hit into all season, thus ending the final game against the California Angels at Tiger Stadium, were on the outside looking in after a frenetic, legendary four-team race to the finish line.
The Boston Red Sox, who’d finished ninth in 1966, ended up as AL champs, while the Tigers, who were forced to play consecutive doubleheaders on the season’s final two days, finished a measly one game out of first place.
They arrived in Lakeland in 1968 as perhaps the angriest, most focused Tigers team that ever slipped on the creamy whites and Old English Ds.
The 1967 pennant belonged to them, they believed. They weren’t disappointed, they were pissed.
The feeling was mutual: we were the best team in the American League in 1967, and we sure as hell are the best team in 1968. So let’s get it on.
Those ’68 Tigers burst out of the gate 9-1, took over first place in early May, and were never headed off.
Ah, taking over first place in early May. We know something about that around here.
Like, nine months ago?
The 2009 Tigers will go down as one of the all-time great choke artists in modern baseball history. Nothing can change that. Nothing.
But a division championship—or at least a Wild Card berth—can accelerate the memory loss from last season’s debacle, when the Tigers frittered away a seven-game lead in early September and a three-game lead with—gulp—four games to play.
There’s only one thing better—and safer—than a three-game lead with four to play, and that’s a four-game lead with three to play. But the Tigers still managed to find themselves left out of the post-season party.
The 1968 Tigers, I will concede, suffered no significant loss in personnel from the ’67 club. They were pretty much the same group of guys. The 2010 Tigers are scrambling to find replacements for 2009’s Curtis Granderson and Placido Polanco, and are trying out a new closer, Jose Valverde.
But there are enough of them who will start straggling into Lakeland over the next several days who remember the pain of blowing the ’09 division to the Minnesota Twins. And they’d be best served to do what is the opposite of what they’ll say they’re going to be doing.
We’ve forgotten about it, they’ll say. Yeah, it hurt, but this is a new season, they’ll tell the press.
If anyone ought not to get a case of amnesia, it’s these Tigers of 2010. The fans, the press? They can forget all they want. But these Tigers better have steel traps when it comes to memory. They’d all better turn into elephants.
True, the 1967 squad didn’t really blow anything, per se. The division was a frantic race to the end, and no team really ever took control. But the Tigers still felt like they were the best of the four, and that they let the Red Sox off the hook. So they were beside themselves when spring training ’68 began.
The Tigers, frankly, may not have been the best team in the AL Central last season, but they put themselves in a position from which they never should have relinquished. So that’s on them. And they should be mad as hell.
And they should channel that anger into making the 2010 AL Central theirs and theirs alone.