When We Needed Them Most, Detroit Sports Teams Gave Us the Least

We deserve better, especially right now when the real world is so lethal and depressing
detroit sports
Detroit sports stadiums photo: IStock

Most of my life, I’ve rooted for losers. I had hoped moving to Michigan might change that. And in this titanic year of plague and political poison, a happy diversion seemed more important than ever. So, of course, my hopes are dashed yet again.

I grew up on Long Island, where my father somehow aligned my family with all of the wrong New York teams: the Mets, the Jets, the Knicks, the Islanders. I spent high school watching the Yankees, Rangers, and Giants win, win, and win. Then, for college, I was off to Northwestern, the most durable Big 10 joke of them all. It was a fandom existence that alternated between betrayed optimism and outright disgust, punctuated by astonishing satisfaction when, once in a while, things went right. There’s a reason the 1986 Mets and the 1995-96 Wildcats football team remain so special to me; when you lose that much for that long, those few, improbable triumphs become exaggerated.

There’s virtue in remaining loyal despite such perpetual heartbreak. It instills an empathy and acceptance of bad luck and loss that, as they say, builds character. That’s why I never just glommed on to some other city’s teams; that seemed too easy, too unearned. Unless I could legitimately consider myself “from” a place, I had no right to bask in their glory.

Arriving in Michigan in 2011 with plans to stay put, though, promised an opportunity to come by a hometown champion honestly. At the time, the Red Wings had just come off two Stanley Cups in three appearances over a decade. In the same span, the Pistons had an NBA championship in two finals appearances, plus four other visits to the conference finals. The Tigers lost a World Series in 2006 but were consistently notching winning seasons. University of Michigan basketball and football were both slumping but had rich, decades-long traditions of victory and contention that held a certainty of at least occasional success. And surely the Lions were due for a revival sooner or later, right?

Well, no. Not so much. The once-proud Red Wings haven’t made the playoffs for four straight years, which is amazingly pathetic seeing how, in the NHL, with 24 of 31 teams making the postseason, getting in is almost like receiving a participation trophy. The football Wolverines are now on a record losing streak against That Team Down South, a humiliation my Ohio State alum nephew never fails to point out and that not even the great savior Jim Harbaugh has been able to stop. The Tigers, after being swept in the 2012 World Series, just finished their fourth consecutive season under .400. The Lions have proved to be the NFC’s version of the Jets, minus the lore of 1969 and Joe Namath. And the Pistons and the Knicks have been sitting together in the NBA’s Eastern Conference cellar for so long they’re probably OK to interact without social distancing.

Michigan’s basketball team was a bright light, but then John Beilein got greedy and vainglorious, bouncing for a nasty, brutish, and short NBA stint.

This is not a real-world problem. But that’s just the thing; we in Detroit (and New York, for that matter!) deserve better, especially right now when the real world is so lethal and depressing. We weathered one of the nation’s most deadly COVID-19 outbreaks. We muddled through our quarantines and summer shutdowns. We stayed in, we masked up, we lost gobsmacking amounts of money and business, we endured the filth and froth of nonstop political advertising that is our, uh, reward for being less predictable, more thoughtful voters.

And for all that, when there’s finally something new to take our minds off our pandemic paranoias for a little while, we get, statistically, the worst pitching rotation in Tigers history and, by mid-September, the Detroit Free Press declaring, “Two weeks in, Detroit Lions’ season essentially over.”

Our Detroit sports teams have, once again, failed at their one job: to lighten our burdens. This year wasn’t as bad as 2019, when Detroit’s four major sports franchises collectively rang up the most losses of any city in any year ever, but that just may be thanks to the shortened seasons.  Yet, we endure it and keep buying the merch. And we bid good riddance to 2020, as we always do, by thinking to ourselves, Maybe next year

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Steve Friess is news and features editor at Hour Detroit and a contributing writer for Newsweek. A Long Island native who earned a journalism degree at Northwestern University, Friess worked at newspapers in Rockford, Illinois, Las Vegas, and South Florida before launching a freelance career in Beijing, China, where he served as chief China correspondent for USA Today. After his return to the U.S. in 2003, he settled in Las Vegas, where he covered the gambling industry and the American Southwest regularly for The New York Times, Playboy, The New Republic, Time, Portfolio, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. During that time, he created and co-hosted two successful and groundbreaking podcasts, the celebrity-interview show The Strip and the animal affairs program The Petcast. In 2011-12, Friess landed a Knight-Wallace Fellowship for mid-career journalists at the University of Michigan. That was followed by a stint as a senior writer covering the intersection of technology and politics at Politico in Washington, D.C., In 2013, he returned permanently to Ann Arbor, where he now lives with his husband, son, and three Pomeranians. He tweets at @SteveFriess and can be reached at sfriess@hour-media.com.