Titles are no elixir for urban problems

October 22, 2006|By RICK MAESE

DETROIT -- Next door to Comerica Park sits St. John's Episcopal Church, where an electronic sign beckons with bright orange letters, "Pray here for the Tigers." The plea should erase any doubt that religion and baseball intersect sharply in the Motor City.

But the role sports plays - the role the Tigers play - can be a bit tougher to dissect.

The electricity that flowed through the stadium for last night's World Series opener was evident - so evident, in fact, that first glance would lead you to believe it lit up the whole neighborhood. But actually, that was the doing of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who had three empty buildings illuminated so television images wouldn't depict a barren downtown.

You see where we're going, right? Whenever the spotlight shines on Detroit's sports teams, it also casts light on the city's many problems.

"This is one of the toughest times that this city has been through since probably the race riots," Tigers pitcher Todd Jones said. "There's companies that are based in Michigan that are laying off 50,000, 60,000, 70,000 people. ... That's real life."

So what then do we make of the headlines that accompany this year's World Series? "Tigers' Big Season Revives Hopes for Detroit Rebound," The New York Times said. "A once-great team makes a comeback. Could the same happen to the city the team calls home?" asked the hometown Detroit Free Press.

If this were a Disney movie, the Tigers, who lost, 7-2, to the St. Louis Cardinals last night, would win the Series, hoist the trophy and General Motors would immediately open a dozen new plants. Ford would announce 100,000 new jobs. The crime rate would drop and the employment rate would rise. If this were a movie. And if sports could really effect that kind of change.

We've heard similar optimistic pronouncements before, and it's somewhat surprising that we're again pretending that a sports championship might change a city's fortunes.

Detroit should certainly know better. Less than one year after the city's race riots in 1967, the Tigers topped the Cardinals in the 1968 Series and the modern-day sports riot was quickly born. The city's image wasn't improved, but a trend had started.

And it continued in 1984 with the Tigers again ("Good feelings have replaced the gloom of recent recessions in Detroit") ...

And 2002 with the Red Wings ("Cup is worth millions in Detroit") ...

And the 2004 Pistons ("If Pistons become champs, metro Detroit would win big").

The Super Bowl was here in 1982 and again last January ("Detroit hopes big game provides big lift"). And baseball's All-Star Game was played here last summer ("A boost for Detroit's economy").

Each time, almost without fail, the media delivered similar reports of imminent economic revival (though it's not as easy to find such hopeful financial forecasts linked to the Shock's WNBA titles in 2003 and 2006). Of course, if any of these championships were really some sort of civic cure-all, we wouldn't read the same promises of pending prosperity every few years.

This isn't intended as some cynical view on the impact of sports; rather, it's a mild injection of perspective. In places where sports matter, in cities such as Detroit and Baltimore, too, a good team can really tie a community together.

"This whole summer we've had the chance to take three hours out of their day and have them turn on the TV and cheer for the Tigers," Jones explained. "I think that's pretty important because this is a tough time. ... Hopefully, they can find some time to enjoy each win we get."

If big sporting events really changed cities - if championship excitement equated to socioeconomic growth - a city such as New Orleans, which hosted Super Bowls as if they were annual holiday parties, wouldn't be mired in poverty and crime. And a place such as Detroit wouldn't continually trumpet that it's turning the corner.

A lot of money is generated by big sporting events, but it doesn't trickle down to the common fan, the guy who's skipping his anniversary cruise because he can sit in the nosebleeds at a World Series game.

There was plenty of life around Comerica Park last night. But you need walk just a couple of blocks from the ballpark to peek behind the made-for-TV curtain: abandoned houses, boarded-up buildings and vacant offices. Detroit has lost a million people in the past 50 years and tens of thousands of jobs. The crime rate rivals that of any other city in the country.

So forget the headlines. Sure, the Tigers can win a baseball championship, but they cannot heal a city. For a week, it's OK to pray for a baseball team. Their success is a great respite. But with history as our guide, we know that when the World Series is over, the real world awaits.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Rick Maese -- Points After

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