Detroit Rock City

A tired lonely city, together, rooting for something
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We had been warned about this. The night before by the yuppies in Chicago. And just that morning, by the police sergeant father of a schoolteacher.

“You should go Toledo,” he said, playing his final card to keep us away from Detroit. “Or keep going right to Cleveland, Cleveland rocks.”

But the schoolteacher and I had made up our minds: we were seeing America, which meant seeing Detroit. Once the fastest growing city in the world, its skyline is now a snapshot frozen in a more successful time. A lot of grandeur and art deco. If it weren’t so empty, it could contain American greatness. Unlike some other Rust Belt cities --  where you’re staring at a once beautiful view that let itself go -- Detroit still looked capable, just lonely.

It was late and we were pulled over 85 miles miles outside of town. We probably looked suspicious, in the Japanese car with New York plates on what we would find out is a drug trafficking route, but the cops didn’t draw their guns. That would have been overdramatic.

Instead, they just kind of did that cop thing: kept their hands low and stuck out their hips to showed you what they were working with. In a strictly legal sense, the officer stopped us because we were driving with one headlight. And maybe he really hated the Wallflowers, but it was also that we were a couple of nice looking young people that lead to us being pulled over.

At the passenger window, the schoolteacher daughter of the police sergeant talked amicably with the police officer son of a schoolteacher, oblivious to his silent partners on the driver’s side. “People don’t just drive the backroads from Chicago to Detroit,” the officer said.

He asked our business, in Detroit, and in the real world.

“We’re on vacation,” she said. “I’m a teacher. He writes things.”

Rule No. 1, broken. Never tell the cops your wheelman writes things. We all read “On the Road.” Sal Paradise was hopped up on goofballs that entire drive. Say your driver is a longshoreman on leave. No way a writer headed into Detroit in the middle of the night wasn’t running some drugs.

The cop eyed me wearily (more suspicion, surely a man who writes stuff would know the word he wanted was warily) and asked whether we had any heroin. This offended us and I think he saw that. Well then, he asked, how much currency was in the vehicle?

“Seventeen dollars,” I said.

“Are you sure?”

It was possible I’d purchased that rest stop candy near the Indiana border with a debit card.

“Maybe 18 dollars.” If I handed over the wallet, its contents: crumpled singles, receipts and several business cards from Japanese media members, would reveal we weren’t lying about the starving writer thing.  But, counting quarters, there could have been 19 dollars and I feared perjury.

Luckily, he never asked to see. The officers on the driver’s side stood down. The flashlight cops behind were satisfied. No one found the 55-gallon drum filled with money. We were drug-free, money poor and allowed to go on our way.

The good officer said fix the headlight and even apologized. Like he said, “People don’t just go to Detroit.”

The next day I watched several thousand people converge on downtown Detroit. It was a beautiful morning, the kind the cops say they just don’t get anymore in Motown. Statistically speaking some of these visitors may have entered Detroit with large quantities of money. Statistically speaking some may have been running drugs. But they all found a better reason to stick around. It was a perfect Sunday morning and the Tigers were in town.

***

It’s probably illogical to suddenly root for a team you never liked because a city you grew up respecting suddenly became a place everyone told you to avoid, but when you got there you thought its stadium looked majestic in the sunlight. But I think I’m rooting for the Tigers this October, even if they once stole my hotel room at a college journalism conference in St. Louis.

There’s something to this Tigers team. If the Dodgers are the new American Dream , than the Tigers are certainly an American Dream. Where Detroit never shut down, and the qualities American industry may never have stood for -- adaptability, foresight, prescient decision making -- never left town. The Tigers operate under the assumption that tomorrow is coming and they should prepare, because sometimes staying the course runs you aground and lottery tickets turn into Joba Chamberlain.

They built this team on that most American maneuver -- the trade. Like a successful American auto industry, blockbuster baseball trades were a thing we thought we could always count on. Then this July, with the extra Wild Card inflating contention dreams across the league, brought the lamest trading deadline in recent memory. Still Detroit dealt on.

With All-star shortstop Jhonny Peralta on the verge of a Biogenesis suspension, the Tigers didn’t hold out and wait it for an 11th-hour reprieve, as if they had him on their fantasy team. They brought in Jose Iglesias, who at the time led the American League in hitting, and manages to be even better with the glove, in a three-team deal. Iglesias backed up Peralta for a few days, then, when the hammer came down, he slid over and Detroit adapted and improved.

They do this all the time. Miguel Cabrera came over from Miami for prospects Cameron Maybin (who had five tools) and Andrew Miller (who had two tools you can’t teach). Cabrera was a known quantity who only got better. Miller and Maybin finished this season on the disabled lists of teams who weren’t the Marlins.

That was also an example of a rich, well-run team taking advantage of the quadrennial Florida fire sale, but the Tigers filled in their cracks with quieter deals. Last year they brought in Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez at the deadline. The year before saw Doug Fister’s arrival for a package that included Casper Wells.

The three-team blockbuster that landed Max Scherzer, Austin Jackson and Phil Coke in Detroit is really the best one, because at first it looked like the Yankees and Diamondbacks each got the better end of the deal. Now? Not so much: Curtis Granderson is great but always hurt, Ian Kennedy pitches for San Diego. Scherzer went 21-3, you can call Jackson “Awesome Jackson,” and Coke can be refreshing. Now, if only the Ford Motor Company could make a similar deal and swindle the Yakult Swallows into sending the plans for a new Honda prototype across the pond with the rights to Wladimir Balentien.

And even when operating within the market, the Tigers turn to old-fashioned ingenuity. Prince Fielder’s hefty contract didn’t banish Cabrera to DH. Assembly line style, Detroit moved the hulking slugger over to third, despite the fact that conventional wisdom told them not to. The Tigers are below average in most defensive categories, but their pitchers overcome this partially by leading the lead in strikeouts. True American innovation.

***

I’m not sure if the fans would would still flock if the Tigers weren’t successful, but they haven’t really been given that chance. Despite playing in a bankrupt city, the Tigers were sixth in attendance this season and ninth last season. On Stubhub I expected to find an infinite number of sub $10 tickets. I was pretty disappointed. The secondary ticket market is big business in Detroit.

And Comerica Park looks like it could hold even more fans. It was striking how wide it is. At every corner that morning I thought I’d lose it, shake the orange-clad horde and their old English Ds, but you never really clear the stadium until you do. Then you really do. And then everyone’s really gone.

We slalomed through the crowd, the only pair fighting the gravitational pull away from the massive stadium. We checked out the Fox Theater and multiple storefronts advertising the city’s best Conies, then doubled back past the ballpark and got on the looping Detroit People Mover, where I saw no other riders.

Down by the water, society returned. Young couples jogged. Someone jet-skied down the Detroit River, the casinos and maple leaf flags of Windsor, Ont., providing the perfect backdrop for water sport. At the border, traffic from Canada flowed through the tunnel at a decent clip. Detroit again seemed like a place a person might want to visit.

It was probably a lie. I’ve never been to Detroit in the winter. I’ve never been to Detroit at night. I’ve never been to Detroit when the Tigers weren’t in town and the jet-skier was probably Canadian. I’ve never been to 8-mile road, and I regret that, but I saw a documentary and it said Detroit was burning and I believe those guys because they spent a lot more time in Detroit than I did.

The whole “win one to save the city” thing is kind of stupid. A World Series isn’t going to pull Detroit out of bankruptcy, it isn’t going to bring back 50,000 lost manufacturing jobs and it isn’t going to suddenly make consumers clamor for an American-made electric car that they can efficiently cruise the backroads into Detroit on every night. But a few extra weeks of baseball can keep the mind occupied until the next good thing comes along. And Detroit seems like a better place when there’s a baseball going on.


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