The Tiger faithful love their team, and stand by their players through good and bad.
That is, after said players have won them over.
Johnny Damon and Jose Valverde didn't exactly hit the ground running in their first few games donning the Olde English D. It took Damon until mid April to get above the Mendoza line, and Valverde blew his very first save opportunity of the year (as many as Fernando Rodney blew all of last year).
The moves were highly-questioned to begin with, within the Tigers fan base and outside it
Many wondered why the Tigers would pay $14M to sign a closer rather than giving young guns Joel Zumaya or Ryan Perry a chance to earn the job. For reasons I still can't understand, some baseball experts actually contended the Tigers overpaid for Valverde.
Many baseball people liked the Damon signing, but a great deal of the Tiger fan base sure didn't. They made the mistake of determining that the Tigers essentially traded fan favorite Curtis Granderson for the older, "washed up" Damon, seeings how he was signed with money the team saved by trading Granderson.
On Monday night, before a national audience fittingly enough, the two showed they belong.
Damon and Valverde starred in a thrilling 5-4 win over the defending champion New York Yankees on an emotional night when the Tigers paid tribute to the late, great Ernie Harwell.
In his first game against his old squad, Damon homered off Sergio Mitre and Valverde slammed the door on the bombers by striking out three of their most feared sluggers.
It was as exciting a regular season game as you'll ever see. The Tigers led from the bottom of the 1st on, but there was always a sense that the Yankees were just one big hit from seizing control of the game. The Tigers had to hold on for dear life, and their two off-season prizes helped them do it.
I know what you're thinking; "It's one game, in May." I agree with you, In the grand scheme of things, this win doesn't mean much.
But as far as the acceptance of Damon and Valverde goes, there's no denying the significance. Any reasonable Tigers fan who hadn't yet been won over by Damon or Valverde was on Monday night. When that ball soared over Nick Swisher's head into the right field bleachers, it must've crossed the minds of many a Tiger fan, "This guy is a Tiger. He's one of us." They probably felt the same way when Valverde struck out Alex Rodriguez to end the game.
This town, as great a fan base as they are, is notoriously hard on high profile players. Detroit is a blue-collar town and the people don't appreciate all-stars not earning their paychecks; just ask Gary Sheffield and Edgar Renteria. It even took Miguel Cabrera a while to endear himself to this city.
High profile signings or not, Damon and Valverde are actually just the kind of guys Detroit fans have always loved to root for.
For all his flair and big personality, between the lines, Damon is all heart and hustle. He never seems to have a bad at bat, runs the bases exceptionally well, and keeps things loose in the clubhouse. His effect on the team thus far has been obvious, and he is exactly the kind of veteran you want on hand for the youngsters to learn from.
After many heart-racing, at-times frustrating years of watching Todd Jones and Fernando Rodney in the 9th inning, Tigers fans get to watch the best closer the team has had since Willie Hernandez in Valverde. If that wasn't enough, the guy is just a trip to watch his antics on the mound. Call it excessive if you want, I personally don't care what he does as long as he gets the job done.
The Tigers are no closer to winning a division title after today. We are only starting to close in on the 40 game mark Sparky Anderson famously maintained was the earliest time you could get a read on what your team is made of.
There's a lot of baseball to be played, and there's no telling what the rest of the season holds in store for the Tigers.
All I know is I feel a lot better about their chances with Johnny Damon and Jose Valverde here. I'm looking forward to watching these guys all year.
After last night's game, I'm guessing a lot of you feel the same way.
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