John Bird and [best name ever for a Southern blogger] Winfield Tufts of the Georgia Tech blog From the Rumble Seat have been publishing an ongoing series comparing the sports teams and fans of various cities. The series has been linked on MGoBlog, which was how I found it. Apparently, my commentary on there (most of which is repeated below) was enough that John and [I love it!] Winfield offered me an opportunity to reply with some thoughts as to the rivalries and traditions of Detroit area sports, to which I dutifully applied the Misopogonal treatment.
You can find the article here (as well as learn my real name). Below is the entirety of my response to John.
Hey, John. Thanks for inviting me to be a part of this. Any time you're on a To: line with the likes of Cook and Kurt you're like one step short of Fu-Te Ni in this town.
Well, there's um THE GAME. The one ESPN called the greatest rivalry in sports. The one where 100,000+ people pack into some 90-year-old stadium or other in late November and the hits rattle the whole country. Michigan has a history of taking its greatest players (Charles Woodson, Desmond Howard, et al.) out of Ohio State's backyard, then using them to beat the best Buckeye teams. The Buckeyes have a history of deserving it.
Key moments: Two Heisman Trophies were won on long returns, a guy named Tshimanga Biakabutuka had so many yards that everyone in both states learned how to spell his name correctly, and in 2006 the teams came in ranked No. 1 and 2 a day after Bo Schembechler died, and no less than three universes were born.
Michigan also has a "we respect you, now die" rivalry with Notre Dame, a sibling rivalry with Michigan State that's as heated in-state as it isn't outside of it, and the Little Brown Jug game with Minnesota, which I guess is significant if only because we were trading a goofy object as a trophy long before it was cool to do so.
Like Michigan, the Red Wings' consistent historical success has created strong enmities among the detritus left in our wake. Some, like Colorado, Chicago and Toronto, are returned to sender (after packing the envelope with cast-off car parts), though there are others who call themselves our rivals whom we have to be reminded of, like St. Louis, or Anaheim, which I think is in Switzerland or something.
Key moments: A vicious, face-rearranging hit from behind, by Colorado forward Claude Lemieux on Wings speedster Kris Draper in the 1996 playoffs, set up a game that got its own name. "Fight Night at the Joe," March 26, 1997, one of the most legendary nights of hockey in NHL history, featured 11 goals, a goalie fight, and revenge served cold as Red Wing grinder (and Draper's best buddy) Darren McCarty turned Lemieux into a turtle, and then later scored the game-winner on an overtime breakaway.
Though no one rivalry really stands out, Tigers/White Sox is the on-again, off-again hate-hate relationship for baseball [added: which as of June 9, 2010 stands at 1,000 to 999 in favor of Detroit]. It was on-again until we traded South Chicagoan Curtis Granderson and the "Wrong Sox" went into a Darrell Evans-in-Atlanta Era "let's pick up every washout veteran on the market" mode.
Historically, we were very early Yankee-haters, and also had a short but epic late-'90s us-or-them thing going with Toronto. When we do make it to the World Series (eight times), the Cubs or Cardinals have a knack for being there waiting. Oh, and we hate losing to Cleveland. Do they know we hate losing to Cleveland?
Key moment: You guys in Atlanta like pitchers' duels, right? Game 7 of the 1968 World Series, St. Louis: the Tigers send out Mickey Lolich, on two days rest after pitching twice already in the Series, to face Bob Gibson, who was coming off a World Series record 17-strikeout outing. Victor....Lolich, who took the game 4-1.
When the Pistons have our 'fros up, we're the Crassus of the NBA's First Triumvirate, the Smoltz (Warren, MI) to Boston and LA's Glavine/Maddux, the Zeke to their Magic and Bird. When not, we're content to play foil for whatever bull they're peddling in the Cut-Windy City.
Key moments: The late-'80s Pistons earned their nickname "Bad Boys" in the 1987 series with Boston, a 7-game dogfight so gritty it might have made hockey players blush. In '88, Isiah Thomas, playing on a severely sprained ankle, scored 25 points in the 4th quarter of Game 6 against the Lakers, and might have won the Championship right then and there, but for a questionable call that gave L.A. a pair of game-ending free throws.
The Lions' biggest rivalry has been no less intense despite being wholly one-sided for the last 53 years. That rivalry is with their fans, who continue to fill the stadium every Sunday as the Lions have continued to find ways to torture us for it.
Key moment: After definitively proving himself the worst GM in the history of sports, in 2005, the Lions re-signed Matt Millen to a five-year contract extension that made Millen, at the time, the highest-paid executive in the NFL.
The nice part about being the most Jake, bee’s knees, barney-mugging, cat’s pajamas town this side of the Atlantic during the decade that major sports shaped themselves (1920s) is that Detroit has had a long time to come up with traditions (kind of like how we Jews have accumulated 3,000 years worth of holidays).
The list of traditions starts like this: “Hail to the Victors,” the opening salvo to Michigan's acclaimed fight song which we like to think of as the second-most popular diddy in the United States behind the one written by Francis Scott Key.* The Victors is best enjoyed while leaping to touch the “M Club Supports You” banner before home games.
* Key's lesser-known hits from the same night include Can I Have My Doctor Back? You Can Stop Firing, It's Been 25 Hours -- I Think You Got It, and Get Me the Fuck Off This Ship.
No list of Detroit traditions can be complete without flying mollusks, i.e. our penchant for hurling octopi on the ice during Red Wings playoff games. The ‘Legend of the Octopus’ dates back to the 1952 playoffs, when eight legs symbolized the eight wins needed to win the Stanley Cup. The tradition has remained unique to the Red Wings due to two remarkable features: 1) we have our own closely guarded code for when it is appropriate to toss an octopus, something copycat tossers have yet to figure out, and 2) they are actually really slimy and gross and smelly and nobody would touch those things if it wasn’t already a 50-year-old tradition.
Less famous is the tradition of Red Wing lady fans tying a red string in their hair for each playoff win, and a white for each playoff loss (due to the playoffs often lasting two or three months, the ribbons are now usually tied to a hat or wrist).
A relatively recent tradition has been the dressing up of the city’s signature sculpture, “The Spirit of Detroit.” The iconic sitting man by the late Detroit-area sculptor Marshall Fredericks (our resident Michelangelo) tends to rock a giant jersey of whichever local team seems to be making a championship run.
The non-big sports have been pretty big in Detroit for long enough to have their own established traditions. One is “The Monster,” a Links series golf course at Oakland Hills Country Club that hosted the 2004 Ryder Cup and 2008 PGAChampionship, its name stemming from being a really hard course before the big courses started Tiger-proofing. Sailing is a big thing here, too, as much as sailboat racing can be a thing outside of the British Empire. The Port Huron-Mackinac sailboat race, organized by Detroit-based Bayview Yacht Club, is one of the largest freshwater races in the world (the other being the Chicago-Mackinac).
If there’s anything redeeming about Lions football it’s this: when your wife and mother-in-law are arguing over the proper temperature to cook stuffing, you are not in the kitchen, because you are in the living room, because since 1934, the Detroit Lions have been playing Thanksgiving Football. We give thanks.
The Tigers' traditions, like their rivalries, seem to be fleeting, though old ones start back up from time to time (like rookies getting washed with champagne after their first MLB homer, started by Lance Parrish in the ’80s and brought back this year). The longest tenured that is currently active is the chant, “Eat ’em up Tigers, eat ’em up!” which originated with a local panhandler. A more entertaining street entertainer around Detroit-area home games is a rhyming drummer who makes disparaging quips, quite intelligently, about passers-by who decline to give him change.
“Gum Time,” mostly a feature of 2006, was the Tigers’ version of the rally cap, stemming from starting pitcher Nate Robertson’s (now with the Marlins) stuffing of lots of Big League Chew in his mouth to spur comebacks (this worked).
There is one Tiger tradition that has lasted the ages, and like the city, it is simple yet classic. It’s a D. It’s in an Olde English font. We wear it. Always.
The Pistons’ most prominent traditions have a strong whiff of annoyance: an announcer with a jeering way of claiming Detroithas possession, and giving the opening introductions to Europe’s “The Final Countdown.” We know this does not speak well of us, but we enjoy are comfortable with that.
A few Detroit traditions have died but are still remembered fondly. One was an annual just-before-Opening Day exhibition against AAA Toledo. Another – this one ruined by an uncaring Roger Stern – was family-friendly MLK Day basketball with the Pistons. Other dead traditions are best left to history, such as drunken brawls at the Silverdome during Lions losses.
Michigan’s marching band also has a neat tradition of playing “Temptation” followed by “The Hawaiian War Chant,” because, according to
tradition state law Hammurabic code “You can’t have one without the other.”
Ultimately, Detroit’s greatest tradition is probably its fans (our announcers always say so), and, with certain very big exceptions, our media. The two are connected. Allow for elaboration:
From the late, great Ernie Harwell to the passionate Bob Ufer, fatherly Jim Brandstatter, and friendly team of Ken Daniels and Mickey Redmond, we have been singularly lucky in broadcast voices.
We boasted several nationally renowned sportswriters throughout the 20th century (the last being the pre-sappy-period Mitch Albom), and these in turn gave way to probably the most robust and intellectual blogging base in the country, from Pride of SB Nation Bless You Boys, to the NHL blogging clearinghouse Kukla’s Korner, and of course the preeminent MGoBlog.
Yet our most cherished blogging treasure is a slightly unstable woman named Samara Pearlstein who dies inside with every Tigers out, and whose mix of self-drawn artwork and effervescent writing creates perhaps the most poignant sports commentary on the Internet.
Make no mistake: our major newspaper columnists are generally utter crap, and our talk radio (now down to one station) trades almost solely in polemics. Yet the blogosphere over Southeast Michiganhas been strong enough that when a Brazilian guy said he had never seen a Red Wings game, the fanbase raised enough money to fly him to Detroitand rectify that five times over (donating the rest to charity). And just this week, not 24 hours after his call blew the first perfect game by a Tiger in our century-plus history, Tigers fans cheered Jim Joyce for owning up to his mistake. That kind of mercy doesn’t come from Yahoo boards.
Also (shameless appeal) this once came off the line in Detroit:
(the car, not the passengers. We wish we could produce those passengers)
That's it. That's my case for Motown. We are not the most populous city anymore, but we fill our stadiums, and since half of Detroit's population has split to the four winds, when our teams are in town we tend to fill everyone else's stadiums as well. That is why, when your poll closes, I believe it will end like this: "Michigan, the Champions of the West."
What a great ending.