This is the best that sports can be— when they grow beyond simple competition to help us make sense of the world. And so we love when sports punch through the thinness of entertainment to revive a city or a cause or even just the daily strain of recovering normalcy. Sports sometimes offer a proxy for fans coping with their own struggles — athletic stakes are real enough to matter, but not so much that they might unduly harm those already suffering.
My team is the Detroit Tigers, who were incidentally one of the last obstacles on the Red Sox’s path to regional redemption last year. The Tigers are a team with ample local demons. As the Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell put it before last fall’s American League Championship Series clash,
Detroit means Elmore Leonard figuring out how his character can rob a liquor store and still get you to like him. Boston means being sold an official chartreuse Red Sox hat and a $200 seat atop a wall 400 feet from the plate because that’s what you’ve been told you should want to do since birth. In Detroit, if you can build a car with your own hands, you can’t get a job. In Boston, if you can deconstruct an Ezra Pound canto that nobody cares about, you get tenure.
The Tigers have been contenders for much of the last decade, and — unlike Boston — the narrative of brightening the city’s shadows has been constantly available. Though the city declared bankruptcy last year, it suffered no punctuated, violent tragedy. No bombs detonated within the city limits, no sacred days on the calendar were defiled. More or less, Detroit simply continued to be Detroit, a phrase which conveys more than it should. To be Detroit now is, at best, to be a punchline. At worst, it is to be a town left behind, an outmoded city, a place with no obvious purpose or future.
Detroit's crisis is so enormous and so constant as to drop from sight — there’s no seeing the entire forest amidst the trees. In Detroit, suffering is the norm, the whole story. There, “tragedy” is just another way of spelling “Tuesday.” And Wednesday. And all the other days ending in ‘y’.
It’s a permanent underdog. It’s always eligible for pity — and scorn. Detroit’s long economic winter doesn’t end with Spring Training.
Which is not to plead for sympathy so much as to note that every Tigers team fits the “overcoming hardship” narrative — every year. As broadcaster after broadcaster noted during the 2001playoffs, the that year’s Tigers won the American League pennant in the shadow of the GM and Chrysler collapses that helped drive the city into bankruptcy. Before then, the 2006 AL pennant-winning Tigers were playing to distract their region from its generally moribund economy. In the preceding two decades — and most of my childhood — the Tigers were generally too awful to provide anything beyond embarrassment.
But if the Tigers are somewhat better now, Detroit’s situation is not. Detroit has become home to new, sometimes buzzy initiatives, aimed at shaping a better future for the city. The initiatives seek to rebuild downtown around a new Whole Foods and creative business incubation. They aim to attract immigrants to revitalize the region’s population and economy.
But the fruits of these changes will be years in the harvesting. If Detroit’s glory is in the past and its future is still taking shape, its present remains dire indeed. Over the last decade, the city lost a quarter of its population. Some left the area, but Detroit’s public health statistics suggest that many passed on entirely. Detroit ranks at the very bottom of Measure of America’s health index when compared with other major American metropolitan areas. Though the city holds 10 percent of Michigan’s population, it has nearly half of the state’s citizens living with HIV or AIDS. Over 12 percent of the county has diabetes. Life expectancy lags the national average by over three years.
Paul Ryan’s aspersions about the “culture” problem of inner city poverty aside, no one sensible would attribute these dispiriting public health numbers to some aberration of American culture. Detroiters aren’t uniquely irresponsible with their lives. They’re just living on desperation’s bleeding edge — in2010, nearly a quarter of the city was unemployed (in 2012, unemployment was still nearly 20 percent). By no fault of their own, too many Detroiters simply can’t afford to live healthy, dignified lives.
In other words, few of the city’s current residents will be around to collect on the long-term returns of increased immigration and redevelopment of the urban core. Too many of these folks have no foothold in today’s economy; their livelihoods no longer command enough value to sustain dignified lives. They are the human face of free markets’ “creative destruction.”
But there will be no retrospective media coverage of their suffering this year or next, because Detroit’s crisis is systemic. There is no anniversary of their immiseration. If, God willing, the Tigers win the World Series this year, there will be a flurry of celebration over the underdog team made good, but there will be little healing. Nor will be some triumphant redemption to revitalize the city — just a return to the long, slow grind of remaking one of the nation’s blind spots into something more than a synonym for suffering.