In the mid-2000s, when the Detroit Tigers were good for the first time in my lifetime, the team ran an ad campaign for a few years called “Who’s Your Tiger?” A deep-voiced narrator would ask the question, rhetorically, and then proceed to run down cool descriptions of one or more Tigers players. At the end, he would repeat the slogan, leaving the viewer with the implication that, in order to please this man and the city of Detroit more generally, they needed to have a favorite Tiger.
Here’s the closest thing I could find to an example on the Internet today. Its inclusion of Gary Sheffield shows that it’s a couple years removed from the campaign’s original form, but you’ll get the gist from it.
The slogan only lasted a short time, apparently from 2005 through the end of the 2008 season, but it was a big success. Here’s Tigers marketing coordinator Ron Wade, in the Advertiser-Tribune of Tiffin, Ohio in 2007, remembering the before times:
“Our players weren’t recognized,” he said. “(The campaign) worked really well.”
Anecdotally, I can confirm this. While I suppose it’s possible that this is just because there are only so many ways adults can engage with an 11-year-old sports dork, “Who’s Your Tiger?” was, in my memory, a ubiquitous icebreaker-type question when that team finally started winning games. I definitely got asked who my Tiger was in 2000s Michigan about as often as I get asked my star sign now in Brooklyn (Magglio Ordoñez and Taurus, for the record), and the two questions, honestly, serve the similar purpose of telling you something about how a person presents themselves in the world. Do they prefer an all-around standout like Carlos Guillen? A speedster like Curtis Granderson? The charisma of Sean Casey? Placido Polanco’s finesse? The seriousness of Kenny Rogers? The quirkiness of Nate Robertson? Whatever the answer, it reflected back on their personality in a way that opened them up to you, with little real effort on either side’s part.
The Tigers have fallen on some dark times since then, having posted a winning percentage under .400 in each of the past four seasons. The roster, too, is a sad reflection of how the incentives of modern baseball encourage teams to stack their lineups with cheap young nobodies in a lengthy pursuit of highly rated prospects rather than trying to improve by signing established veterans. Not only were those Tiger teams better, but they were overflowing with personality because almost all of their players had more than a passing familiarity with the Majors. Many people, I’m sure, who once picked a favorite out from the team’s impressively balanced lineup would now struggle to name any current Tigers outside of Miguel Cabrera. I can tell you definitively that in 2019, when the team lost 114 games, not a soul was going around the city telling people, “My Tiger is Brandon Dixon.”
But as Maitreyi so wonderfully noted last week, these particular third-place Tigers have emerged from a dismal start to their 2021 and become, if not a good team, at least a watchable one. They still don’t win more often than they lose, but they clear a low bar that all Detroit teams have struggled to meet as of late: I don’t feel like I’m wasting my time on them. (They’ve lost five of their last six, for example, but all but one has been by a single run.) A lot of that personal investment has come from following Cabrera as he chased history, but even after 500 cleared the fence in Toronto, guys like Derek Hill and Victor Reyes have done just enough that a desperate fan with a big heart can start to find a way in.
Some of the team’s players, I will admit, have to be sold to you like they’re traumatized kittens in need of a new home. But there’s at least one very obvious exception to that rule, and it’s corner outfielder Robbie Grossman. I’m not going to lie: Grossman was already the closest thing to “My Tiger” at the beginning of the year mainly because I thought he was cute. But my superficiality has been rewarded many times over by his steady and productive play, and more excitement was to be found on Tuesday night against Oakland. In the Tigers’ third at-bat of an eventual—well, the final score isn’t important here. What matters is that Grossman, facing his old team, hit the 20-dinger milestone for the first time in his nine-year MLB career by coolly driving a juicy curveball into the left field bullpen.
Part of what I like about Grossman is how much logical cause-and-effect there is in his Tigers story. The 31-year-old’s connection to his old manager A.J. Hinch was key in the Tigers giving him a two-year, $10 million deal this offseason—the franchise’s first multi-year free agent contract since before the 2016 season. He has since gone on to be the team leader in everything from home runs and OPS+ to WAR and on-base percentage (though with a few more plate appearances Casey Mize could give him a run for his money there).
So basically, just to make sure you’re following all this, the Tigers went out and spent money on a baseball player that they thought would improve their team, and then he improved the team. Isn’t that awesome? They should do that more often.
But even if Grossman is, somehow, the third highest-paid player on the ballclub, a season this solid is still a pleasant surprise. With the Astros at the start of his career, he was a non-factor, with zero power to speak of. As a Twin, he started off pretty decently but saw his numbers dip in his next two seasons. In Oakland, he had one bad long season and one good short one with an overhauled approach, which turned out to be a sign of better things to come. The league average OBP has dropped from .323 in 2019 to .316 this year, but Grossman’s has gone from .334 to .355 in that same time. Slugging percentage, too, has declined across MLB from .435 to .408, but Robbie’s has skyrocketed from .348 to .423. His once-poor fielding is better than it used to be, as well, and he’s made zero errors since the start of 2019.
These Robbie Grossman facts may not knock you out of your seat, but after years of this team being stuck in a crud desert, his contributions are an oasis of solid baseball. It feels frickin’ great to just chill out and turn on the TV and watch this hottie draw walks, or hit longballs, or not screw up when a potential extra-base hit gets knocked his way. As a Taurus, I’ve always had a thing for reliability and consistency—the slow and steady tortoises who won’t give you a heart attack when they’re up at the plate with runners in scoring position. Grossman is that dude, and I really had no idea how much I was missing that dude until he arrived on my hometown team. He’s my Tiger. And I swear to god, if Al Avila even thinks about dealing him for prospects and picks, I’m going to have to learn to blog while wearing handcuffs.