Tigers Give City a Reason to Roar

Detroit Tigers fans celebrate at Comerica Park after the Tigers beat the Oakland A's to reach the World Series for the first time since 1984. The team's last winning season had been 1993.
Detroit Tigers fans celebrate at Comerica Park after the Tigers beat the Oakland A's to reach the World Series for the first time since 1984. The team's last winning season had been 1993. (By Brett Mountain -- Bloomberg News)
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 18, 2006

DETROIT, Oct. 17 -- As metaphors go, Detroit boosters could do worse.

The hometown Tigers' march to this year's World Series after 12 consecutive losing seasons was beyond improbable. Not only did they lose 119 games just three years ago, but they wheezed into the playoffs as a wild-card team after losing five of their last six.

Then they faced the New York Yankees. And tromped them, then swept the Oakland A's.

In city and suburb, the crowd went wild.

"A team that nobody expected, that came from nowhere," said Richard E. Blouse Jr., president of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce. "It's not the Yankees. It's not a $200 million team. But we can succeed."

If any U.S. city needed a reason to believe, it's Detroit. Motown has been on a losing streak for years, hemorrhaging work, people and hope. The Census Bureau lists it as one of the most impoverished cities in the country, with one in three residents living in poverty. The latest automotive industry layoffs brought more bad news. Yet a few positive things are happening here that just happen to intersect the fabulous story line of the newly crowned American League champs.

"You can feel the excitement," said David Starzyk Sr., who runs Cheli's Chili Bar across from the ballpark. "It's enthusiasm and optimism instead of the problems of the auto industry and unemployment."

The city's recent development focus has been downtown, where dozens of restaurants have opened in the past two years, some in anticipation of Detroit's spruce-up for this past February's Super Bowl. Three $300 million casino and hotel projects -- Greektown, MGM and Motor City -- are under construction or expansion. An ambitious riverfront project has begun, backed in part by General Motors.

As lofts and martini bars begin to dot an urban landscape pocked with empty lots, a developer this month received bids topping a previously unimaginable $1 million for downtown apartments. Recently, former Pittsburgh Steelers star Jerome Bettis -- a Detroit native -- and ex-Pistons leader Dave Bing announced the creation of investment groups in the city.

Then there are the Tigers, who drew 2.5 million fans downtown this year, a 25 percent increase over 2005. The Pistons upset the Los Angeles Lakers to win the National Basketball Association championship in 2004. The Red Wings won hockey's Stanley Cup two years earlier. But neither of those titles energized -- or benefited -- the city like the Tigers' recent run.

"The Tigers are here. This is home base. They're bringing the city and the suburbs together. I don't care if you were white, black, Asian or Hispanic, you were hugging and high-fiving," said Lee Anthony, 38, an African American mortgage broker. "It's not just suburban whites. Old-time fathers and grandparents are coming down and bringing the kids."

The Pistons play in Auburn Hills, far north of the city.

"When we go see the Pistons, we help Oakland County, we help Auburn Hills. But none of that money is funneled to Detroit," Anthony said. "The Pistons, we love them, but they don't bring anything to downtown."

One investor who saw potential was Red Wings defenseman Chris Chelios. With impeccable timing, he bought an unused brick structure, built in 1852, across from Comerica Park and converted it into Cheli's. It opened in January, in time for Nike to rent it for the Super Bowl and for baseball fans to discover it when the season started.

On a busy day -- the Tigers averaged 32,000 fans a game during the regular season -- the restaurant overflows with more than 2,000 customers, Starzyk said. That means thousands upon thousands of beers sold, and dozens of jobs, in a part of town with only intermittent attractions.

Eating lunch downstairs were Gregory B. Foster, a real estate investor, and his real estate agent, Mary Ellen Haan. They had just been inspecting potential investment property, discovering that it was not quite the bargain it seemed two years ago.

When Foster moved home to Saginaw, Mich., from suburban Maryland in November, his friends in the D.C. area told him he was crazy: "Everybody always looked at Detroit as being this raggedy city." They still say so, except some have been pestering him for Tigers tickets.

Foster thinks raggedy can bring rewards, if the timing is right.

The fact is that unemployment, at 13.8 percent in August, is nearly three times the national average. The city borrows heavily to pay its bills. The schools are miserable and taxes are high, particularly considering poor delivery of services. The charismatic young mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, struggled through his first term and won reelection a year ago after promising to do better.

"Huge budget problems," Margaret Garry, vice president of the Mexicantown Community Development Corp., said over tea in the gloriously refurbished and recently reopened Guardian Building. "We have not turned the corner in making this a great place to live. There's so much work yet to do, but we're going in the [right] direction."

And in the meantime, the Tigers and their Cinderella season are here for the savoring.

Haan, the real estate agent, was seven when the Tigers beat the Chicago Cubs to win the 1935 Series. She remembers. She recalls 1968, when the Tigers beat the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games, and 1984, when the Tigers swamped the San Diego Padres.

Then, after so many sorry seasons, the Tigers started the march to Saturday's Series opener. Maybe, just maybe, she thinks, the city will do the same.

"It's a dream come true," Haan said. "If you saw how they smashed the Yankees -- that was beyond belief -- and then they swept the Oakland A's. See, you can't be a pessimist. You've got to be a believer."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company