Beginning with the Detroit Tigers’ 2021 Opening Day game, small crowds will be the norm at Comerica Park for the time being. That may take some getting used to. The last time the Tigers sold less than 10,000 tickets for a home game was 15 seasons ago.
Detroit Tigers fans eager to attend games at Comerica Park in 2021 after a one-year COVID-induced exile received good news on March 19. The team announced,
"“The latest epidemic order announced by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services allows for select outdoor entertainment and recreational facilities, which operate under enhanced safety protocols, to operate at up to 20 percent capacity, or approximately 8,200 ticketed guests at Comerica Park. The Tigers have coordinated with public health and medical experts, government officials and Major League Baseball to develop a comprehensive plan that will allow fans to safely and confidently return.”"
History will be made in Detroit on April 1. The expected contingent of 8,200 for Opening Day will represent the fewest tickets ever sold for a game at Comerica Park. Right now, the record is 8,804. That was set on April 13, 2004. It’s been rare for the paid attendance to be less than 10,000 at that ballpark. The first time it happened was in 2002. A dismal team in 2003 resulted in seven such home games. There were three more in 2004. The last time the Tigers played a home game that had a paid attendance under 10,000 (in a game in which fans were allowed to enter the ballpark) was in 2006.
May 1, 2006
The Tigers got off to a good start in 2006. Just ask Chris Shelton. Detroit went 16-9 in April and wrapped up the month with a flourish. They demolished the Twins in three straight games, claiming decisive 9-0, 18-1, and 6-0 victories. Over 23,000 tickets per game were sold for that weekend series at Comerica Park. A Tigers spokesman reported that the Friday night and Sunday afternoon crowds each included over 5,000 in walk-up sales. Taking Opening Day out of the equation, the second-place Tigers averaged just over 22,000 for 10 home dates in April.
Surprisingly, the paid attendance on May 1, for a Monday night home game against the Royals, was only 9,597. Tigers fans may have needed a night off to catch their collective breath after experiencing sensory overload in the weekend’s Minnesota series. More than likely, though, the Red Wings and the Pistons were the biggest reasons the Tigers lost so much of their audience that evening. With Detroit’s hockey and basketball teams each engaged in playoff action, its baseball team momentarily took a back seat. A lot of people probably stayed home (or went to their favorite sports bars) and watched those games instead.
At Comerica, the smattering of attendees was getting settled in as Jeremy Bonderman pitched a 1-2-3 first inning with one strikeout. It was the fifth start of the season for the Tigers’ 23-year-old. Matt Stairs led off the second with a single, but Bonderman struck out Royals captain Mike Sweeney and got Doug Mientkiewicz to hit into an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play. Bonderman was smooth in the third inning. Mark Teahan grounded to first baseman Shelton, who made the toss to Bondo, who was covering the bag, for the out. The Tigers’ righty then struck out Angel Berroa and got John Buck on a called third strike. With two outs in the fourth, the Royals threatened. Reggie Sanders singled and stole the 300th base of his career. Bonderman walked Stairs but struck out Sweeney again to escape.
Meanwhile, Royals starter Runelvys Hernandez had been pitching scoreless ball. The last time he toed the mound at Comerica Park, in July 2005, he shut the Tigers out, 5-0. Hernandez also hit three batters in that game, including Carlos Guillen, who took a pitch to the helmet. That led to a brawl that is most remembered for the body slam that Detroit’s Kyle Farnsworth delivered to Kansas City’s Jeremy Affeldt. Calm and cool heads prevailed throughout the game this time around.
Magglio Ordoñez homered to left field on the first pitch he saw in the fourth. It was his sixth of 24 longballs that season, and it broke the 0-0 tie. The two Royals with the hardest names to spell, Mientkiewicz and Mark Grudzielanek, notched a single in the fifth and a double in the sixth, respectively. Their efforts were in vain. Bonderman was able to keep the Tigers’ divisional foes off the board in each frame. He added two more strikeouts in those two innings. Bondo then needed only nine pitches to get through the side in a 1-2-3 seventh inning, which included another strikeout.
When play resumed after the seventh inning stretch, Guillen singled off his old nemesis Hernandez. It looked like he might be stranded there when the next two Tigers were retired. Craig Monroe came through and cranked a two-run home run to left. It was his sixth of a team-leading 28 HRs in 2006, and it gave Detroit a 3-0 lead. The round-tripper was also Monroe’s 10th hit in the last six games, including this one. In that stretch, he scored six runs and drove in three. C-Mo’s bat had gotten hot and it was a big boost for the Tigers lineup. He modestly deflected credit afterward. Monroe said,
"“We believe we’re a good team, and a lot of that is due to our manager. He’s always prepared, and when the head is prepared, it is much easier for the body to be prepared.”"
The inning continued. Omar Infante followed Monroe’s homer with a single, and Royals manager Buddy Bell made a pitching change. The former Tigers skipper called on righty Steve Andrade, who made his major league debut by striking out Curtis Granderson to end the inning. Bonderman pitched another 1-2-3 inning in the top of the eighth and racked up another strikeout, his ninth. At the time, that was his season-high, but he went on to register back-to-back 12-strikeout performances in June. The first and third hitters were each first-pitch swinging, and so Bonderman needed only six pitches to get through three Royals.
Andrade was back on the hill for Kansas City in the bottom half. In his first full inning of big-league work, he threw only seven pitches to three good Tigers hitters. Andrade got Placido Polanco to fly out to center on the first pitch. Ivan Rodriguez grounded to short, and Ordoñez grounded out to first. It was very impressive work by Andrade, who returned to pitch another scoreless inning against the Tigers the next evening. He made only two more appearances for the Royals after that. The White Sox and the Indians each roughed him up, and then he disappeared from the majors. Andrade’s career ERA of 9.40 would’ve been much worse without his two successful outings against the Tigers.
Detroit took its 3-0 lead into the top of the ninth. For the second game in a row, a Tigers starting pitcher had thrown eight scoreless innings. The day before, it was lefty Kenny Rogers. Detroit’s young pitchers, Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya among them looked up to the veteran Rogers. He became known as “The Professor”, and Bonderman was a good student in 2006. He did well in his assignment against Kansas City this Monday evening, but his work was done. Jim Leyland wanted his closer to get the last three outs. The Tigers manager stated,
"“There was no way Jeremy was going to see the middle of that lineup again. That’s why we have Todd Jones.”"
With a clean inning, the Tigers would’ve won by shutout for the third time in four games. That was a feat achieved by only two other Detroit teams, the 1903 and 1971 Tigers. Alas, the 2006 squad would not join them.
Jones got Grudzielanek to fly out to right-center, and then the rollercoaster ride started. Sanders tripled up the gap in right-center. Stairs, who would become a Tiger in September, drove in the Royals’ first run with a single. Polanco fielded Tony Graffanino’s grounder and made the force play at second unassisted. There were two down. Mientkiewicz lined a single to right, and Graffanino took third. Teahan drove him in with a single. The Tigers’ lead was down to 3-2. With the tying run on third, Jones induced a grounder to second from Berroa for the final out of the game. Two hours and sixteen minutes after the first pitch, Comerica Park’s intimate gathering of 9,597 fans enjoyed a 3-2 Tigers win. Jones picked up the fourth of his 37 saves that season. Leyland quipped,
"“I was happier when it was 3-0. My pulse was going a little faster after that one.”"
Bonderman, who pitched into the eighth for the first time in the young season, scattered four hits and walked only one. Sixty-two of his 94 pitches were strikes. By game score (82), it turned out to be his best start in 2006. He picked up the third of his 14 wins (which tied the career-high that he’d set in 2005). Critiquing his own work against the Royals, Bonderman noted,
"“I didn’t have my good sinker, but I was throwing the changeup well, and I was moving the ball around. I got better as the game went on.”"
The W was Detroit’s fourth in a winning streak that would hit six. The AL Central-leading White Sox also won that day, so the Tigers remained a game and a half behind. Before the evening at the ballpark drew to a close, Leyland gave Jon Paul Morosi of the Detroit Free Press a message to pass along to Tigers fans: “Enjoy the ride”. The ride was already fun, but there was a lot more fun in store. Leyland’s team took over first place on May 21 and didn’t let go of its division lead until the last day of the regular season.
After the sparse turnout for the game on May 1, there weren’t any more small crowds at Comerica Park, especially that year. There were 16 home games later in the regular season that drew over 40,000 apiece. Of course, the place was packed for Detroit’s dramatic postseason run. In 2007, the lowest paid attendance at a Tigers home game was 21,263. In 2008, Miguel Cabrera’s first season with the team, it was 30,901. From 2012 through 2017, the lowest paid attendance at Comerica was never under 21,000. Even in the 2019 season that was so tough to watch, the paid attendance for a home game never dipped below 11,000. That will change in 2021, but at least the ballpark won’t be devoid of Tigers fans anymore.
(Attendance figures came from Baseball-Reference.com.)