Mitch Albom: Search for a Tigers scapegoat won't help us

9:37 AM, Oct 21, 2013   |    comments
Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder sits in the dugout in the final inning during Game 5 of the ALCS between the Detroit Tigers and the Boston Red Sox. / Julian H. Gonzalez/DFP
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BOSTON (Mitch Albom, Detroit Free Press)  And then you stop playing. The heat escapes. The schedule empties. There is nothing left to battle but your thoughts.

You saw it in the players' postures after the final game Saturday night. The Tigers slumped on stools inside the Fenway Park clubhouse or hunched on couches or stood facing the wall. Shirts were buttoned. Belts tightened. Wet showered hair was pushed back behind the ears, slowly, as if even that used up energy.

They had each taken their hotel keys, a symbol of belief that there would be a Game 7. The keys were useless now. Soon a plane would fly them home.

For a while, nobody spoke. Reporters circled awkwardly in the middle of the room. Finally, Prince Fielder, who had the most miserable series of them all, stood up, still in uniform, a signal he was ready. TV lights flicked on. He answered questions softly, without rancor.

Was he disappointed? Yes, but that was baseball. Did the end come too fast? Yes, but that's part of the game. How did he deal with it? Get ready for next year. On and on this way.

Once the crowd thinned, I asked him what happened on his botched baserunning in the top of the sixth inning.

"I kinda got stuck watching (Dustin Pedroia) tag Victor (Martinez)."

But the book says you should run for home.

"Yeah."

As we spoke, you could almost hear the angry keys banging on the Internet - people calling Fielder overpaid, overweight, the reason Detroit lost. I asked his view.

"They can do that. That's what they do. They pay their money to watch the game. It's my job to play hard, give it all I got."

Are you unhappy with your performance?

"Definitely. Everybody would like to hit .500 in the postseason. Hit 10 home runs and everything. But it didn't happen. I definitely gave it the effort."

Either you believe that and accept this, or you don't and you have a sour taste in your mouth until April.

A city of destiny

Cool it down. Whatever Fielder did or didn't do, he didn't do it to you or me. And I'm pretty sure he wasn't trying to not drive in a run, or to get tagged in a rundown, any more than Austin Jackson was trying to strike out 18 times in the first eight games, or Joaquin Benoit and Jose Veras had a secret Spanish phrase that meant, "Let's throw them the grand slam ball now!"

For all the talk of a power outage, do you realize Detroit had the best batting average, the most hits and the fewest strikeouts of all four league championship teams?

The Tigers were simply beaten by a faster, more defensive, more opportunistic team with a finer bullpen and - and this is important - better karma. You didn't realize until you got to Fenway and saw the B Strong carved into the outfield grass and hanging on the Green Monster wall, how much the Boston Marathon bombings six months ago gave unity and purpose to this team and city, kind of like the New Orleans Saints and Hurricane Katrina or the New York Yankees and 9/11.

Ask anyone in Boston: Even they can't believe how unified this roster full of newcomers has become.

If anything, that's what the Tigers were lacking. That intangible. Their three biggest stars are their three highest-paid players - Fielder, Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander - but none of them is what you'd call the heart of the team, the way a Chauncey Billups or Steve Yzerman were once the heart of the Pistons or Red Wings. They don't fire up the clubhouse. They do their own things. Maybe that hurts. Maybe it doesn't matter.

Remember, this is the same group that rallied from 2-1 against Oakland and won the division series on the road. Back then - all of, what, 11 days ago? - the Tigers were a franchise that believed and never quit. Did things change that fast?

Battle of bullpens

Or did they just run into a team with a far better bullpen - at a time of year when late innings determine victories? Remember, not one of the Tigers' starters can be accused of blowing a game. It was two Detroit relievers who gave up killer grand slams in Games 2 and 6. And a bunch of Boston relievers who stymied Detroit bats in Games 3 and 5 - both won by a single run.

"The way I would sum it up," manager Jim Leyland said, "I thought their starters were good. I thought their bullpen was great."

Maybe it's that simple. Maybe the Tigers need a few tangibles - speed, a real closer - and intangibles - plate patience, leadership. It's not a major overhaul. This is their third straight ALCS. They can't be doing everythingwrong.

Cool it down. Nobody likes to lose. But slumps come, mistakes happen and injuries (like Cabrera's) are unpredictable. Everybody wants a scapegoat, because it make us feel like we're solved the problem. We haven't. We don't get a pennant by pointing fingers.

It annoys me, too, when Fielder conveniently falls back on "that's baseball" as an explanation.

What annoys me most is that he may be right.

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