It’s tempting to say that this is as good as it gets—that the moment is so savory as to be incapable of being eclipsed.
The problem with beating the New York Yankees in the first round of the playoffs—on the Yankees home field in a do-or-die game that boils down to the fate of the last batter, indeed the last strike—is how easy it is to feel like nothing can be tougher.
Or that nothing could be better.
As sweet as the Tigers’ 3-games-to-2 victory was over the Yankees in the American League Divisional Series (ALDS), it doesn’t change the fact that the Tigers are still just one-third of the way toward their post-season goal.
Only now are they in Major League Baseball’s version of the Final Four.
You’d think there’d be a bigger payout to beating the vaunted Yankees than to merely be 33% of your way to the garish trophy with all the pennants on it.
Tigers-Yankees, 2011 ALDS was finesse vs. brawn. It was the jabber against the slugger. The Tigers pulled some Rope-a-Dope on the Yankees.
In the two Yankees wins, they outscored the Tigers, 19-4. The Tigers, meanwhile, managed just an aggregate 13-9 margin in their three victories.
The Yankees won big and lost small.
But the Tigers won the biggest of them all—the series, and now they move on to Step 2 in this three-step process to becoming World Champions.
Actually, it’s a four-step program; you have to make the playoffs, first. But in the post-season there are three distinct levels, and the Tigers did nothing more than clear the first hurdle.
There’s a danger, in my mind, that maybe they think they’ve done enough already.
The Tigers beat the Yankees, at Yankee Stadium, with 50,000+ pairs of leather lungs bellowing. The mighty Yankees, with their perennial, it seems, Murderer’s Row lineup. But the Tigers beat more than Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez and the rest.
Isiah Thomas, while in the prime of his NBA career, spoke of how difficult it was for the Pistons to beat the Boston Celtics in the playoffs. This was in the late spring of 1988, while the Pistons and Celtics duked it out yet again in the Conference Finals.
The quote is lifted from Jerry Green’s marvelous book, The Detroit Pistons: Capturing a Remarkable Era.
“To beat the Celtics,” Isiah said, “you have to beat more than a team. You have to beat a mystique.”
He was right. The ’88 Pistons weren’t just going up against Bird and McHale and Parish; they were also up against the creaky Boston Garden and its ghosts. The Pistons, like it or not, were also playing Havlicek and Russell and Cousy—even the smoke from Red Auerbach’s victory cigars.
That’s why there was such a rollicking celebration that night in June ’88 at the Silverdome, when the Pistons finally—FINALLY! —put away the Celtics for a right to face the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.
The court flooded with fans, delirious in the moment. It wasn’t clear what they were happier about—their team making the Finals, or beating the Celtics. I wouldn’t take that bet.
The 2011 Tigers have done more than beat this year’s Yankees in the ALDS. They’ve done something that only two teams in the history of baseball have done—beat the Yankees twice in a row in the playoffs.
2006 seems like a million years ago in a way, yet it also can be recalled vividly.
But the 2006 Tigers eliminated the Yankees in Detroit, in the so-called “friendly confines” of Comerica Park. It’s one thing to beat the Yankees when there are no ghosts and when all the leathered lungs are on your side.
Thursday night’s series-clinching win in New York had even the staid manager Jim Leyland in tell-all mode.
At the podium afterward, while his players whooped it up down the hall, Leyland pulled something from the now-it-can-be-told file.
“I would be lying,” Leyland said, “if I said that beating the Yankees in New York wasn’t something special. And I mean that with no disrespect; I mean it with respect.”
Moments later, Leyland added, “This is one of those games that I will remember for the rest of my life.”
Then Leyland got emotional as he spoke of utility man Don Kelly and the memories Kelly created for himself after slugging a home run in the first inning that got the Tigers started and was the best of icebreakers.
“It couldn’t have happened to a better kid,” Leyland said, choking up.
Tigers President/GM Dave Dombrowski told FSD in the locker room after the game that beating the Yankees in New York to win a playoff series was “special.”
Owner Mike Ilitch, 82 and still with an unquenched thirst for a World Series title, sidled up to Dombrowski, amidst the celebrating and, according to the Detroit Free Press, told his Prez/GM that Thursday was “one of the greatest days of my life.”
The hierarchy was giddy with the moment, from Ilitch to Dombrowski to Leyland. The button-downed brains had popped.
Yet the Tigers have done nothing more than give themselves a chance to play for the World Series, let alone win it.
There are still eight victories and two teams standing between the Tigers and their fifth World Championship.
This post-season run is just one-third finished.
Yet here you have the owner, president and manager, no less, each putting a premium on the series victory over the Yankees that surely wouldn’t be placed on any other vanquished team.
The Tigers beat the Yankees in the ALDS, in New York. Congratulations.
That’ll get them an “attaboy” and a date with the Texas Rangers, another ferocious team, less than 48 hours after eliminating the Yankees.
These are the playoffs, not charity.