Let's take a trip in the Wayback Machine, shall we? Strap yourselves in - it's going to be kind of a bumpy ride.
Where are we going, you ask? Well, to the worst sports day of my life: Sunday, October 1, 2006.
Does this day remind you of anything? It always does for me. This was the day I was tuck in a terrible nightmare and had no way to get out of it.
You see, I was, at this time, a co-anchor for a little, tiny (teensy-weensy, microscopic, et al) local sports talk show in my little, tiny (teensy-weensy, microscopic, et al) college town. It was led by two guys - both of whom lived in the state of Minnesota, and I was the third wheel. I didn't mind that at all, especially since they knew far more about sports than I did. I just put in my two cents where needed, and sometimes got into some fun heated debates.
One of the guys, Dan, was able to use his status as "anchor of a sports radio show" to contact the nearest pro sports teams like the Minnesota Twins, Timberwolves, Wild, and Vikings and get press credentials. He would often head north to "the Cities" to watch the games and get either interviews or sound bites with some pretty popular players. We'd then air the clips on our show near the end, hyping up the fact that we had indeed talked to these players. We weren't joking! Really! We wouldn't just focus on the local team, but also go across the hall to the visitors locker room and get interviews from there.
Sometimes I was able to accompany Dan on these little trips up to the Cities, and they were often a lot of fun. My first game was a Detroit Pistons game, and to sit on press row right next to the court and see those giants crush the T-Wolves (it was in the middle of their Eastern Conference championship streak). I attended a few Twins games as well. It was fun to get the giant press books for each team as well as eat the yummy spread laid out for the press.
Now that you know all of this, can you guess where I was on Sunday, October 1, 2006?
That's right - I was with Dan at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome to see the Twins play the White Sox.
Worst day of my sports life.
Dan had picked this game a few weeks earlier, not really knowing that this day would be so important to the Twins. I didn't realize it, either. I was too focused on celebrating the Tigers' playoff berth. All they had to do on either Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, OR Sunday was win. Just a couple of those games. Any of them. And they would win the division. And we could celebrate some more.
But even though the Twins, who were in second, lost on Wednesday, Friday, AND Saturday, they still had a chance to clinch the division because the Tigers kept LOSING. After they had clinched a playoff spot on Tuesday, they hadn't won a game since entering Sunday. If the Twins won and the Tigers lost, the Tigers would just be a wild card, even after leading the AL Central for most of the season. But if both teams won, the Tigers would clinch.
But that couldn't possibly happen, right? They were far better than that. After all, they had Kenny Rogers, Jeremy Bonderman, and Justin Verlander as their top three starters (probably in that order, for that year). They were having great years from Pudge Rodriguez and Carlos Guillen, and had a couple of breakout stars in Curtis Granderson and Joel Zumaya. This was a great team that had no possible chance of losing such an important game.
Dan and I found our spots in the Dome press box with a long stream of media who were wondering if the scenario of the Twins clinching could actually happen. Dan had brought his nice digital camera along just in case. Since we were media, we were allowed on the field before and after the game. I prayed he wouldn't have to use it.
The Tigers game started an hour early, since they were at Comerica Park. I was thrilled to see Detroit pull out to an early lead in the bottom of the third, when they scored five quick runs to add to their run already on the board. 1/3 of the game done, and they were up 6-0. But Kansas City struck right back in the next half-inning to make the lead just 6-3.
Meanwhile, the Twins game began. I was half paying attention to the real game, and half paying attention to the game on a computer screen. But the game at the Metrodome was a quick one, and in no time it was over 5-1. As a matter of fact, it was over before the Tigers game. A game that was getting too close for comfort...
By the end of the 7th inning in Detroit, the Tigers were winning 7-4. Jeremy Bonderman had pitched 4 1/3 innings, and Joel Zumaya had replaced him admirable. But in the 8th inning there was trouble. Fernando Rodney was on the mound and the Royals were finding runs. Rodney opened the 8th with a hit batter and a walk, and the Royals scored four runs to take the lead.
I was in nervous shock when I heard this news. The Twins game was nearing the end, but you could tell people around the stadium were watching the Around The League Scoreboard and seeing that something was happening in Detroit. When the Royals went up 8-7, you would have thought Joe Mauer had just hit a walkoff home run.
But the Tigers didn't quit. In the bottom of the 8th Matt Stairs homered to tie the game, but nothing else happened. As a matter of fact, nothing else happened for three innings after the 8th. Our closer, Todd Jones, had to pitch 2 2/3 innings to hold on, but playoff strategy suddenly came into effect. Who do we put in to replace Jones?
By the 11th inning the Twins game was finished, and to my utter horror, the Metrodome management decided to put the Tigers-Royals feed on the big screen. So now none of the Twins fans were leaving, and I was the lone Tiger fan in the place. Let me remind you, the Metrodome holds a ton of people, and even though it wasn't a sellout, it was sure close.
Kenny Rogers, a normal starter, ended up pitching the 11th and 12th innings, and one could only hope that our star pitcher would rise up to the occasion. But in the 12th the Royals put on two runs, with the fans of the Metrodome screaming in glee. I could only put my head in my hands.
I wanted to slink out of there as soon as possible, but there was no way my ride (Dan) wanted to go. He was planning how fast he could get down to the field to take pictures. Plus we were supposed to do the Show from the Dome, with our host Joel linking up from the studio. There was no way for me to leave. I was stuck.
The bottom of the 12th came in Detroit, and I was praying that we could somehow get some runs. Some dude named Jimmy Gobble was pitching for the Royals, and was facing our 9-1-2 batters. But even after a Craig Monroe walk with two outs, Sean Casey could only muster a groundout to first to end the game.
After it ended the Metrodome blew up. At least, that's how it felt for me. The Twins, who had been watching the game from the top of the dugout with the rest of the fans, leaped out onto the field in glee and merriment and joy. The fans soaked up the images of their Twins players slapping fives down the first and third base seats. Dan had scooted out from press row at the middle of the 12th inning and I could see him on the field clicking away as the players celebrated right next to him.
Quickly the rest of press row vacated their seats to go and get player interviews for their Championship stories that would air in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press and other papers and online sites. Local TV sports anchors would get soaked in champagne. But I just sat there, mostly by myself on press row, staring at a computer screen, wondering when the next inning would start so the Tigers could get back in the game.
Dan was tickled pink, and he wouldn't let my sullen mood sour his amazing experience on the field. I saw his pictures later - they really were incredible. And he set up the feed back to the studio, where Joel was waiting for us to start the Show. As a Twins fan, he was thrilled, but he did a good job being professional about it. Needless to say, I spent the hour saying nothing - I was not a professional. Scratch that - I said one thing: "The Tigers blew it. That's it. They blew it." And that's all I said.
After the Show was done, Dan and I took the van back to the studio, and I said nothing. Even though the sun had set, I left my sunglasses on the whole way home. I helped Dan put stuff back in the studio, and then I drove back to campus.
But at that moment, I couldn't go back to my dorm room. I got my phone out and called my dad and cried. Like, a lot. If there had been other heartbreaking moments for my sports teams before October 1, 2006, I always had the fortune of turning off the game and doing something else. In this instance, I was in a nightmare from which I couldn't wake up. It had really torn me up.
My dad was just as bummed as I was, but he listened and said that you had to have some sort of realism in your fandom. I realized that I had spent 2006 being shocked at how good the Tigers were playing, and had put them up on a pedestal that I thought they couldn't fall from - I was relying on my dream instead of on facts. From that point on, I would have to understand that sometimes they win, and sometimes they lose.
I did follow that advice later, in 2009. When the Tigers and Twins tied for first in the Central and had to play game 163, I didn't get excited about it. Actually, I was working during the game, so I didn't find out what happened till it was done. Well, I found out the score. I ignored everything else. To be honest, I don't know what exactly happened in that game. I just know the Tigers lost. I had a feeling in my gut that they would lose that game, and they did. But I wasn't heartbroken over it, like I had been three years ago. I wasn't going to call my dad and cry about it. I was going to move on.
Now let's take the Wayback Machine to Friday, September 16, 2011. Actually, in Detroit it was already Saturday. But I got to watch as closer Jose Valverde got Josh Willingham to ground out to third base, and the Tigers finally got to celebrate a Division Title. The champagne flowed, the players broke out the goggles, and the fans celebrated.
I was thrilled to bits not just because they won, but because they won in convincing fashion! There was no waiting for the final game of the season to sit nervously and wait for other games' outcomes. Instead, it was done 1 1/2 weeks before the season was done. The division was clinched. No one can take that away. And my terrible memory could finally be forgotten.
(By the way, in 2006 the Twins were swept in the Divisional series by Oakland, and the Tigers went all the way to the World Series. I guess that helped to erase the memory too.)