Wojo: Fans are coming back, and eventually the fervor will too

Detroit News

You’re out of practice, obviously. You’ve been rooting from your sofa — rooted to your sofa — near the fridge, not far from the bathroom. If the game turns dull, you flip to the Cooking Channel or clean the garage.

Time to get back to work, or back to play. Sports venues are opening up again, partially and fully. Comerica Park can welcome capacity crowds of 41,083 starting tonight, and while I figure the Tigers won’t draw half that against the Mariners, they should draw plenty for the weekend series against the White Sox. It’s all still better than the previous maximum of 8,200 as the pandemic is being defeated, seat by seat, shot by shot.

More than a year ago, when COVID hit every slice of society, we wondered how sports would endure and whether fandom would diminish. You may have come to enjoy the home-viewing experience, without parking woes and $15 beers, but the entertainment value is dampened when the action echoes in empty arenas.

My strong guess is, the in-person experience was missed and the fervor eventually will return.

Not right away in Detroit, where the Tigers are pushing through their rebuild and the Red Wings and Pistons are sitting out the postseason. But watch an NBA or NHL playoff game with the arenas full again and you hear the greatest noise ever, cheers and chants and taunts. You also hear and see some idiotic behavior, such as a fan in Philadelphia dumping popcorn on Russell Westbrook, or a fan in Boston throwing a water bottle at Kyrie Irving. Or the doofus who ran on the floor during a playoff game in Washington.

Sorry, I’m not offering any grand psychological analysis here. Fans have done dumb things before. So have players and coaches. The nation got crazy for a while and the lines of civility were blurred. But I don’t think this is some social backlash at the NBA, and if the lines need to be redrawn with stricter punishments and enforcement, fine.

More: Tigers draft watch: Would Detroit be willing to pay beyond top dollar for Jack Leiter?

If anything, there needs to be a reevaluation of what we love about sports. The interaction, the camaraderie, the sweet, throaty sound of a packed arena or ballpark. You can view it from afar, but lasting connections are made in person. The Dodgers, Lightning, Lakers and Buccaneers all won championships the past year in mostly empty stadiums and no one would pretend it was the same.

Franchises need to understand that too. Just like restaurants trying to win back customers, teams have to reassess how much they charge and how much they deliver. The biggest draw, naturally, is a winning product. We’re running low on that right now in Detroit, so flashes of the future are the draw. You saw it with the Pistons and you’re seeing it with the Wings. You’ll see some of it with the Lions.

And you’re starting to see it with the Tigers, where progress is tedious but apparent. Two prime youngsters, Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal, already are shining. Others have popped up, including 28-year-old local guy Eric Haase, who can play catcher and the outfield and occasionally hits two home runs in a game. Akil Baddoo has steadied himself after a scorching start and a rough stretch, and Jeimer Candelario is becoming a fine major-leaguer.

There are boosts and bumps, from Spencer Turnbull, who has thrown a no-hitter but is sidelined with a forearm strain, to Michael Fulmer, excelling as a reliever and now also sidelined. I think watching Miguel Cabrera chase 500 home runs and 3,000 hits is still fascinating, maybe moreso because of his struggles.

As the schoolkids return to the stands, you’d like to see more of the Tigers’ kids on the field, and the pressure for that will grow. Would it stir excitement to see prospects Matt Manning, Spencer Torkelson, Riley Greene or Dillon Dingler in Detroit? Sure, and it has to be tempting at some point. But all have endured standard developmental pains in the minors, and it’s not time to get gimmicky.

Opportunities arise constantly and the Tigers need to seize them. Wilson Ramos and Grayson Greiner were the catchers early, and now Haase and Jake Rogers have emerged. Other young players — Daz Cameron, Isaac Paredes — could get another shot.

Baseball, as much as any sport, has its challenges. Too many strikeouts, not enough runs, not enough action on the basepaths. But it still has the greatest appeal — sunshine and green grass and peaceful summer breezes punctuated by a periodic roar.

“It is nice to play in front of your home crowd, as fans around the league are growing and the environment starts to pick up,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said. “It feels normal, which is what baseball is supposed to feel like this time of year.”

The goal now for any business is to remind people what they missed. If you’ve watched these NBA playoffs with raucous crowds, like the New York-Atlanta series with Spike Lee in his courtside seat, it was old-school theater. I saw the end of the Vegas Golden Knights’ victory over Colorado the other night and as the crowd stood and sang “Viva Las Vegas!” it was new-school chilling.

Remember those chills? They don’t happen every game, but when Detroit teams start playing impactful games again, you’ll feel it. In case you’d forgotten, I took a quick spin through the memory bank and dug up the loudest crowds I’ve ever heard at pro sporting events in Detroit.

Oddly, we just hit the anniversary of the decibel-breaker, June 7, 1997 in Joe Louis Arena, when the Wings ended their 42-year Stanley Cup drought by sweeping the Flyers. As the final seconds ticked away with crying fans pounding on the boards, and again when Steve Yzerman lifted the Cup, it was a cauldron never to be matched.

The Pistons sure came close in 2004, as they completed the most-improbable title run by thrashing the Lakers. As the thunder sticks thumped in the Palace, the entire fourth quarter was a cacophony of celebration and wonderment.

There was the incredible clamor when Darren McCarty dropped his gloves and pummeled Claude Lemieux on March 26, 1997. Or the engrossing scene in the Silverdome on Dec. 21, 1997. In one moment, linebacker Reggie Brown lay on the field, struggling for his life with a neck injury. In the next moments, there were relief and exuberance, as Barry Sanders topped 2,000 yards and the Lions beat the Jets to clinch a playoff spot.

And of course, back to Comerica Park in 2006, when Magglio Ordonez sent a ball rocketing into the night sky and fans experienced a rollicking rarity — a walk-off win to clinch a spot in the World Series. If you’ve been distracted by the pandemic or disappointed by the ills of pro sports, look up that Ordonez home run on YouTube and remember what you felt.

No, you won’t feel anything quite like that for a while around here. But if the pandemic provided a renewed appreciation for what people loved and missed about daily life, perhaps it’ll do the same for sports. The connection doesn’t have to be greater than it was, or worse than it was. Just back to normal would be nice.


Twitter: bobwojnowski

On deck: Seattle Mariners

Series: Three games at Comerica Park, Detroit

First pitch: Tuesday-Wednesday — 7:10 p.m.; Thursday — 1:10 p.m.

TV/radio: All games on BSD/97.1 FM

Probables: Tuesday — LHP Marco Gonzales (1-3, 5.01) vs. LHP Matthew Boyd (2-6, 3.90); Wednesday — RHP Chris Flexen (5-3, 4.70) vs. RHP Casey Mize (3-4, 3.34); Thursday — LHP Justus Sheffield (5-4, 4.77) vs. TBA

Scouting report

Gonzales, Mariners: This will be his second start after missing the month of May with a left forearm strain. He struck out six in four innings in his previous start against Oakland. Right-handed hitters have done damage against him this season, slashing .282/.612/.976 and hitting six of the seven homers he’s allowed.

Boyd, Tigers: The raw numbers from his last four starts are rough — 7.84 ERA (18 earned runs in 20.2 innings), .291 opponent average, .547 slugging, five home runs. But some of the projective analytics show him in a softer light — the 87 mph exit velocity against him, for example, ranks in the top 65 percentile and the chase rate against him in in the top 84 percentile.

— Chris McCosky

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