Detroit’s changing of the guard: Hockeytown to Tigertown

The Prince Fielder-Miguel Cabrera show is helping transform Detroit into Tigertown. (Derick E. Hingle/US Presswire)

Since the mid-1990s, everyone has known who owns the city of Detroit. With Stanley Cup titles in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008, the Detroit Red Wings have not only been the best franchise in Detroit or hockey, but they have been one of the top franchises in all of sports. With their dominance in the National Hockey League, the Red Wings have provided Detroit with one of the most recognizable nicknames in sports: Hockeytown. But times are changing, and the city’s other nickname — Tigertown — is waiting to take over top billing. While the aging Red Wings’ run of dominance seems all but over, the Detroit Tigers’ success seems to be just beginning.

It was no surprise the Red Wings were favorites in the city with all of their success, but the fact that other teams in Detroit weren’t very good helped in a big way. Throughout just about all of the ’90s and most of the ’00s the lowly Tigers drew more boos than cheers at both Tiger Stadium and Comerica Park. The post-Barry Sanders Lions were, well, hard to even consider a professional sports team. And while the Pistons had great success in the early ’90s with the “Bad Boys” and six consecutive Eastern Conference Finals appearances from 2003-08 with an NBA Championship coming in 2004, Detroit was never going to be Pistontown.

That was then, and this is now.

While the Red Wings will be remembered — thanks to a trio of all-stars like Niklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg — as a team that brought the city a ton of joy throughout its economic collapse, it appears their run is finally coming to an end — and no one is more depressed about that than this writer. With their late-season collapse and stumble into the playoffs, their poor attempt at taming the Nashville Predators only told fans one thing: Lidstrom will probably retire. Red Wings fans know the team could possibly enter a stretch of rebuilding years as it attempts to get younger. It’s the end of an era in Hockeytown.

Yes, it’s a depressing thought because the Red Wings have been the standard in hockey the past 20 years, but don’t give up all hope on success Detroit fans. The possible end of an era in one sport could be followed by the beginning of a very prosperous era in another, with Motown shifting its focus from hockey to baseball. Tigertown is back!

There has been a buzz around Detroit, specifically along Woodward Ave., since last August when those lowly Tigers got their growl back and stormed into the 2011 MLB playoffs. While they may have come up a little short on their goal of winning a World Series Championship, the Tigers got their mojo back, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Let’s be honest. How long has it been since we have looked at the Detroit Tigers as a team that could be successful for the next decade? Did 2006 count? Yes, 2006 was magical for the city of Detroit as the Tigers made an improbable run to the World Series, a series they should have easily won against the St. Louis Cardinals but didn’t. It was awesome, but it was also a tease. I don’t think hardcore fans thought the Tigers were entering a prosperous age that would see long playoff runs each season because the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox were just as good, if not better.

This year is different, though. The AL Central is weak, and the Tigers should (although let’s not anoint them champs at this point) easily win the division, and there are multiple signs that there could be great things in years to come. The Tigers made moves last season and in the offseason that could allow them to make a Red Wings-like run throughout the next decade. And it’s no surprise there is a similiar make-up between the Tigers and Red Wings, who are both owned by Mike Illitch.

Let’s first look at the defensive specialist. There’s no argument as to who was the best pitcher in the AL last season: Justin Verlander. Verlander has taken on a Lidstrom-like persona amongst baseball fans in Detroit. The shut-down starter, who recently held a Texas Rangers offense to a single unearned run after they had hung 20 runs on the board in the first two games, is Detroit’s number-one guy. Much like Lidstrom’s powerful slap-shot form the blue line, Verlander can amp up his fastball to triple-digits, especially in the late innings. Verlander is capable of putting his name amongst Tiger greats, and that run to the top started last season.

Moving to the power forwards, the Tiger’s version of Datsyuk and Zetterberg come in the form of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. Cabrera, quite possibly the best pure hitter in all of baseball is “sneaky” quick when it comes to his ability to pull his hands through an inside-pitch and drive it out of the park. Sounds a little bit like Datsyuk’s stick-handling and knack for deking the you-know-what out of goalies, although Cabrera has to make some strides to make on the defensive side before he is considered one of the best in the game. Fielder, the big acquisition in the offseason (a nine-year deal), like Zeterberg, loves to tee it up and mash. Zetterberg continually leads the team in shots taken, and looks for an open one every chance he gets. Fielder does the same for fans at Comerica Park. Looking to hit it 400 feet with every swing, Fielder is going to tee-up a lot of balls in Detroit. And much like most of Zetterberg’s shots find the back of the net, a lot of Fielder’s balls will find the seats.

Alright, maybe it’s a stretch to compare the make-up of the two teams, but there really are a lot of similarities and the recipe that the Red Wings drew up throughout the last decade obviously worked. There are two banners that say “Stanley Cup Champs” from 2002 and 2008 to prove that point, and with an owner like Illitch, who is willing to spend the required money needed, “Tigertown” could be hot for the next five to six years.

Verlander, Cabrera and Fielder are the new “Big Three” in Detroit, but, much like the Red Wings’ success, quality play must take place at every level and position. Verlander sets the tone, and Doug Fister, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello can make life easier late in games for Octavio Dotel, Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde. In order for Cabrera and Fielder to deliver, Austin Jackson and Brennan Boesch need to get on base. The guys late in the line-up, like Alex Avila, Delmon Young and Jhonny Peralta, have to produce, too, to ensure Cabrera and Fielder will get pitches to hit.

All the pieces are coming together for the Detroit Tigers and at the right time. Although they will have to go through teams like the New York Yankees, Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels for their chance at a World Series Championship, Detroit could be their city for the next few years and they could be the team to bring the ultimate banners to Comerica Park.

Detroit will always find a fan of Hockeytown in me. Hopefully, I’m wrong about the Wings because they are as much a part of me as the Tigers; but all signs point to a rebuild. It’s okay, though, because the Tigers are picking up the slack.

Hockeytown is fading, and Tigertown is getting ready to celebrate.



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