Endangered Species: Cardinals at Tigers

The St. Louis Cardinals visit the Detroit Tigers as the Murder City Series continues.

If there was one thing missing from the St. Louis Cardinals' 2006 World Series win over the Detroit Tigers, it was the sense of animosity. For while these two teams have seldom met, their meetings have almost always been calamitous affairs.

The 1934 World Series pitted the rough-and-tumble Gashouse Gang against a Detroit team and crowd still as sharp and ruthless as Ty Cobb's spikes. The series was begun in earnest when Dizzy Dean walked across the batting practice field into Detroit's home dugout to deliver a brash declaration (one of many to come). It ended in a 4-3 Cardinals victory, but not until Dean had been beaned on the basepaths and the irascible Ducky Medwick had succeeded in compelling the home crowd to pelt the field with every type of flying projectile.

The Cardinals and Tigers were not to meet again until 1968, in a ferociously fought World Series that came before crowds that were newly vibrant and enraged. The nation was still roiling in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. King, race riots, and burgeoning university protests against every conceivable norm of the previous generation. The formalized conflict of baseball helped audiences to a cathartic release: We recognize the enemy and they is them.

That series tilted Detroit's way, again after seven hellacious contests. The worthiness of these champions could be doubted by no one.

In the decades that followed, though, both cities committed a form of slow hara-kiri, emptying out their middles in a rush of suburban white flight. Middle class families fled their city limits by the blockfull, leaving downtowns to become ghost towns. 

Few American cities were harder hit by this phenomenon than the once bustling-townships of Detroit and St. Louis. In the last twenty years, both of our fair towns have found themselves in the #2 spot on the "Murder Capital of the US" list, with only the other to look down upon. The fearless Whiteyball Cardinals appeared on a collision course with Sparky Anderson's powerful Tigers in the late eighties – in such as series, coinciding with the height of this urban decay, the fan frenzy could have been palpable. However, it was not to be.

Instead, both cities were well into a well-intentioned urban renewal by the time the twin Cinderellas – the wildcard Cardinals and the worst-to-first Tigers – met in 2006. Both teams were playing in new ballparks, and were acting as though smiling politely and painting stripes on one's face was the equivalent of displaying one's colors - as though civic pride were more important than rooting pride.

The teams themselves played the part as well. Tony La Russa and Jim Leyland were more than cordial to each other in a series that featured nary a brushback pitch nor dugout warning. When scandal hit the series in the form of Kenny Rogers' tarry palm smudge, La Russa played the gentleman before the Detroit faithful, and simply looked the other way. In baseball's Valhalla, Mickey Cochrane and Frankie Frisch goggled in disbelief.

Of course, this turned out fine for the Cardinals in what ended as a 4-1 championship over the exhausted Tigers. But what started as a surprise year for the Tigers rolled into a momentum-changing event for the franchise. Tigers owner Mike Ilitch renewed his commitment to fielding a competitive team, a commitment that began when his GM convinced him to pay Scott Boras rates for the two premier free agents of 2005, Magglio Ordonez and Ivan Rodriguez. The Tigers knew they were overpaying, but in the team's accounting ledger, the premium was billed under the line item "Cost of Winning Back the Fans."

In this past off-season, Detroit looked at a sparsely-populated free agent field and decided to get creative, dealing with Florida for two of GM Dave Dombrowski's former draftees, the Marlins' elder stars Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. For off-season excitement, this was a master stroke, one that immediately placed the Tigers in the argument with the east coast perennials as "The Team to Beat."

However, doubters were whispering. Willis is not the same pitcher as he once was, a man whose wild, unrepeatable mechanics have gone over the edge. Cabrera has always been dogged, fairly or not, with the "lazy" tag. Whether these whispers reached the boardroom or not, the Tigers signed both players to premium long-term contracts that accurately reflected their media stature, if not their future performance.

All season long, Detroit has scuffled under the weight of this expectation; however, except for the surprising White Sox, no one in the division has jumped ahead. With flame-throwing reliever Joel Zumaya back and youngsters such as Armando Gallaraga contributing, the Tigers have slowly built up a head of steam and are pushing to earn their way back into the national conversation. The Cardinals should expect to face a Tigers team with a lot more bite than when they last met.

 

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