We're now three weeks into the college football season. And one into the new NFL season. So naturally, one might expect the thoughts of Detroit sports fans (whose Tigers are currently 14.5 games out of first place) to turn toward... baseball?
At least that's what Major League Baseball seems to think, releasing each team's 2011 schedule this week and giving fans a preview toward next year. MLB actually did the Tigers a favor in that regard. One way to get fans' attention rather quickly is to put the words "New York Yankees" at the top. And that's exactly who the Tigers are looking at when their 2011 season opens.
Detroit begins next season March 31 at Yankee Stadium, where Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia will surely face each other yet again. Besides the fact that next year's schedule will begin in March, to avoid playing the World Series in November again, the Tigers and Yankees open on a Thursday.
On one hand, that allows for almost a full week of build-up toward Opening Day. On the other, wasn't there something beautiful about baseball beginning on the same day college basketball ends its season with the national championship game? To me, that first Monday in April was one of the best sporting days of the year. Oh, well -- not anymore. It's lost underneath the steamroll of progress.
After traveling to Baltimore, the Tigers open Comerica Park on April 8 with a six-game homestand against the Royals and Rangers. (Five of those games have a 1:05 p.m. start, which should do wonders for the team's radio broadcasts. Either that, or a lot of workers will be playing hooky.) While hosting the Royals for the home opener seems like a fun idea, likely to send the fans home happy - kind of like scheduling a cupcake for Homecoming - Kansas City has been something of a pesky opponent. Since 2008, Detroit's record versus the Royals is 24-27.
The Tigers get that first west coast road trip out of the way, heading out to Oakland and Seattle for seven games. That won't be easy on anyone (fan or blogger) wanting to stay up late to watch some Tigers baseball. Once the team returns to Detroit, most everyone ought to be grateful for the standard 7:05 p.m. start.
If you want to see the Yankees and Red Sox visit Comerica Park, May is the month for you. Both teams come to town for a four-game series. Actually, both the Blue Jays and Rays also play in Detroit in June, so May is pretty much AL East month. (Sorry, Orioles.) Beginning with that Rays series on May 23, the Tigers will have their longest homestand at 10 games. Before that, they'll visit Pittsburgh for their first interleague series, giving you a shot at a road trip to PNC Park. And the month ends with the first visit from the Minnesota Twins.
The highlight of June is probably Interleague Play. (That is, if you like Interleague Play.) Did the Tigers get an exciting draw for 2011? I suppose it depends on how you look at it. You'll get one more chance to see Detroit play at Dodger Stadium. That follows a trip to Colorado for a three-game tilt versus the Rockies. Which National League teams will you get to see at Comerica Park? Put your hands together for the Diamondbacks, Mets and Giants. Will Tim Lincecum pitch against the Tigers during the 4th of July weekend? We'll see how the pitching rotations work out.
Before the All-Star break, the Tigers have a seven-game road trip, including a stop out west in Anaheim. And for the second year in a row, Detroit receives a four-day midseason hiatus, getting that Thursday off. So that's one less thing for Jim Leyland to gripe about. If the Tigers are in the AL Central race at that point, a seven-game swing through Minnesota and Chicago late in July could be important.
Dog days of August? Well, if the Tigers are capable of seizing the opportunity, the schedule gives them a break with home and road series against both the Royals and Indians. Another three-game trip to Baltimore might provide some more relief. But six games versus the Twins (three in Detroit, three in Minnesota), along with a four-game visit to Tampa Bay, could prove difficult.
If the Tigers find themselves in a race for a division title, a nine-game road trip in September could be their final stand. Three-game series at Chicago and Oakland could be the difference, if the race ends up being close. But if Detroit gets through that stretch, the schedule gives them a seemingly soft landing with a final seven-game homestand versus the Orioles and Indians.
If there's no postseason for the Tigers, the season ends on a Wednesday. That just seems weird. Shouldn't it be on a Sunday, when most everyone is off at work and the players end a matinee by thanking the fans? Maybe tossing their jerseys into the stands? There's no reason the same can't be done on Wednesday, I suppose. But under the lights, mid-week, will it really feel the same? Baseball hopes this is for the greater good.
Of course, we don't have the clearest idea of who could be a tough opponent for the Tigers and who could be a breeze. (Complicating matters is the Tigers' tendency to play down to their competition and lose games they should win.) There are plenty of trades, free agent signings, and other such roster moves to be made during the offseason.
And even those teams that don't make a lot of moves might see young talent develop or a roster finally come together into something formidable. It happens almost every season. But some of the opponents on Detroit's schedule will also be who you thought they were.
Obviously, many of those same questions can be asked of the Tigers, as well. What kind of money will they spend? Will they make any trades? (Dave Dombrowski likes to make his mark during the winter.) Who might they be willing to part with to get a deal done? Which young players will build on the potential they showed this year? Will they take a chance with one of their prospects? We don't know what next year's Tigers team will look like.
But looking at the 2011 schedule provides an opportunity to think about what might be. (Fantasize about those summer road trips you'd like to take.) And with the right moves, the Tigers should compete for the AL Central next season. If they decide to make a run at it -- and there's no reason to think they won't -- the 2011 schedule shouldn't present the same obstacles that this year's did between mid-July and mid-August. And that's enough to already make next season look promising.