That’s because Baltimore, Detroit and Oakland aren’t generally known for being the kind of places where foreign dignitaries, jet-setters, hedge fund managers, socialites and international jewel thieves gather to rub elbows and do business. Those cities are blue collar, and proud of it. In fact, to just say blue collar isn’t quite sufficient. In their cases, the blue collars are frayed, faded from repeated machine washings, and in some cases missing a button.
The upside is that in Baltimore, Detroit and Oakland, they embrace a work ethic that borders on fanaticism. Residents of those cities generate elbow grease by the vat, which is why it’s so refreshing to have the Orioles, Tigers and Athletics participating in baseball’s 2012 postseason, beginning tonight.
The Orioles, Tigers and A’s are the antithesis of fancy-schmancy. They hustle, they fight, they scratch, claw, even gnaw, to get ahead. Blue collar is imbedded in their DNA. They worked overtime to reach the postseason. Their players didn’t even take the seventh-inning stretch off.
Although the Tigers may have had the benefit of three stars making in excess of $20 million this year — Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander — they still represent a working-class town in a rust-belt region. They are imbued with the no-nonsense expectations of the populace, but also with the same determination as their hardball forefathers.
Not much has changed in Detroit baseball since Ty Cobb, at least when it comes to tenacity. Cobb was an ornery sod who legend has it once beat up a heckler who had no hands, but his fire-breathing approach to competition at the dawn of the 20th century set the tone for the entire Tigers franchise. That tradition was passed on to men like Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer and Al Kaline, and later Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell, Jack Morris and the modern-day embodiment of Cobb — in terms of a raging will to win — Kirk Gibson.
But today, that hunger to get ahead is personified in manager Jim Leyland, outwardly cooler than the likes of Cobb and Gibson. Leyland is not demonstrative. He transmits his lofty expectations through his stare, which carries with it years of dugout dust. You don’t want to mess with Jim Leyland. You especially don’t want to let him down, because he is the current standard-bearer for a way of baseball life in Detroit, home to four World Series winners over the years.
In Baltimore, Buck Showalter has the same effect from the dugout on his Orioles, who, unlike the Tigers were not expected to be here. Showalter is different from Leyland in the sense that he isn’t known for being the long-term answer, as his perfectionist ways are said to wear on players after a time. But he did a remarkable job in 2012 of making his charges believe they were as good as anyone, and as deserving of a shot at the American League East title as the more ballyhooed Yankees.
The Orioles too have a lunchpail-and-Thermos tradition, reflecting a proud city that has always had to hustle to establish its own reputation and escape the shadow of Washington. The face of Baltimore baseball has long been that of Earl Weaver, the tempestuous manager of Orioles who spent his entire 17-year career with the club. The enduring image of Weaver is going all Tasmanian devil on an umpire, getting tossed, and continuing the tirade on his way out.
For many years the Orioles, under owner Peter Angelos, spent a lot of dough and got nothing in return. Baltimore fans had to satisfy themselves with the memories of players such as Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer and Boog Powell, the trio of Fall Classic triumphs, and later ironman Cal Ripken Jr. and the fine grub at Camden Yards.
Now the Orioles are in the wild-card game against the Rangers after an improbable season in which they posted 16 straight extra-inning victories. That doesn’t happen without a never-day-die philosophy, and players like Adam Jones and Chris Davis lead the charge of these overachievers. The Orioles aren’t expected to go far. But the fact that they arrived in the playoff derby mostly on grit is inspiring.
The Athletics? It’s as if someone made a sequel to “Moneyball” with a fantasy ending. Oakland traded away three All-Star pitchers last winter, lost starting third baseman Scott Sizemore on the first full day of spring training, and cobbled together a roster of odds and ends under Billy Beane’s direction. The result is one of the most unlikely division winners in recent history.
Perhaps because it shares the Bay Area with more well-heeled San Francisco, Oakland has always had to battle for a share of the spotlight. When it comes to the A’s, they went so far as to introduce gaudy uniforms and suggest an orange baseball during the heyday of owner Charlie Finley in the 1970s. Those clubs may have been noted for their brash and stylish demeanor, but they hustled their way to three straight World Series titles beginning in 1972 under manager Dick Williams, featuring personalities like Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson and Rollie Fingers.
These A’s can’t match those teams in appearance, and mostly likely won’t be considered legendary 20 years from now. But it doesn’t matter. The spirit is the same, and the town is alive again because of it.
What time is it in Baltimore, Detroit and Oakland? Time to remember what hard work and guts can bring.
Michael Ventre is a regular contributor to NBCSports.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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