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Detroit Tigers mascot Paws waves flag in the seventh inning in game three of the 2011 ALDS against the New York Yankees at Comerica Park. Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIRE (Andrew Weber/US PRESSWIRE)
Detroit Tigers mascot Paws waves flag in the seventh inning in game three of the 2011 ALDS against the New York Yankees at Comerica Park. Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIRE (Andrew Weber/US PRESSWIRE)

RACHEL BRADY

Surging Motor City teams gun their engines Add to ...

In tune with a city recovering from catastrophic recession and the sexting exploits of disgraced former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, the Detroit Lions are surging into sporting prominence. The underdog darlings – whose fans once marched to demand the firing of former Lions general manager Matt Millen – are one of only two 4-0 teams in the NFL this season, a standing heady enough to score them a marquee position on Monday Night Football.

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Meantime, the Detroit Tigers have ousted the New York Yankees to reach the American League Championship Series against the Texas Rangers, the always competitive Red Wings are about to open their season, while the University of Michigan's football team is 5-0 under new coach Brady Hoke. Fans will tell you it's the return of a true “Michigan Man” as coach in Ann Arbor, one who learned under Lloyd Carr, the winner of Michigan's last national title, in 1997. And in East Lansing, Michigan State is 4-1 after defeating Ohio State.

“Media from everywhere is going to be here this week,” Lions wide receiver Rashied Davis told local reporters this week as his team prepared for the visiting Chicago Bears on Monday.

This time, people aren't gathered in town to see some other city's teams playing in a Super Bowl or an all-star game. This October, it's all about Michigan's teams.

“We haven't had a winner in a long time, and these teams are symbolic of what we've been going through around here,” said Spencer Fulk, a Detroit sports fan who is back to work at Chrysler. “We're the underdogs, but coming from behind and making a difference.”

To understand Detroit's pride is to understand what its people have endured. Hammered largely by the implosion of its bread-and-butter auto industry, Detroit's population fell to 713,777 in 2010 from 951,270 in 2000. The state of Michigan lost some 860,000 jobs since 2000, and its unemployment rate was the worst in the United States. In the second quarter of 2008, Ford reported an $8.7-billion (all currency U.S.) loss and General Motors a staggering $15.5-billion loss, respectively the worst and third-worst quarters in the companies' histories. Author Bill Vlasic, in his book Once Upon A Car, reveals that GM became so desperate for survival that in July of 2008, then CEO Rick Wagoner sought a merger with Ford, its “opposite sides of town, you-stay-on-yours-and-I'll-stay-on-mine” rival.

Things would get worse before they got better, as GM petitioned for bankruptcy in June of 2009 and pledged to close seven more factories in Michigan, costing the state 21,000 jobs. Meantime, the miserable Lions symbolized the despair, becoming 0-16 laughingstocks in 2008 even as the city itself was cast as the face of America's economic woes.

“You have a lot of people who planned to live here all their lives and woke up some time last year and realized, gosh, maybe that's no longer an option for me,” said Jeff Lewis, a creative director who is holding fort with friends at the Hockeytown Café, a bar in the shadow of Comerica Park.

“If you live in Toronto or New York,” Lewis added, “somewhere where everything is going well, sports seeks its own level and sits where it belongs in the relative fabric of things. But when you're in a place where everything has gone to [expletive]and your teams start winning, if you can be happy about something, it improves everything.”

While the Lions reflected the economic woes, the Tigers and Red Wings served as a welcome distraction for grateful sports fans. The Red Wings went to the Stanley Cup final in the same month as GM declared bankruptcy, and the rebuilding Tigers began to hint at what was to come this season. In 2008 they drew a record 3.2 million to Comerica Park despite a losing season. In 2009, they took a seven-game lead into September only to have the Minnesota Twins overtake them in the final four days of the season for the AL Central title. Last year, they finished an even .500 but went 52-29 at home.

“We're pulling for one another,” says Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who's listening to Santana's Make Somebody Happy for motivation. “Good atmosphere for the city. Makes people forget about their troubles with good times, with sports. If you can make somebody happy, that's what the song says, make somebody happy. We're trying to make somebody happy.”

In step with the Tigers, Lewis sees signs of optimism in the city, including freelancers in his industry getting more work. Detroit's unemployment rate has dropped, albeit to 12.9 per cent, and many auto makers, including GM, Chrysler and Ford, had big sales gains last month. The industry as a whole enjoyed a 10-per-cent gain over September of 2010.

Former Detroit Pistons star Dave Bing, a steel magnate after his NBA career, took over as mayor, bringing optimism to the area with tough-minded decisions. A giant ad reading “Outsource to Detroit” hangs on a skyscraper downtown, inviting the world's businesses along with tax incentives, which have attracted the filmmaking industry.

“And now here come Detroit's sports teams at a perfect time to fuel that with a wonderful injection of short-lived emotion and dollars too,” said Michael Bernacchi, a business and marketing professor at University of Detroit Mercy. “You're building enthusiasm there, and when consumer spending counts for 67 per cent of the total economy, selling good feelings, emotion and consumer confidence fuels that spending.”

Good feelings are in no short supply, despite the many boarded-up windows and vacant office space mere blocks from its two modern stadiums. They are spotted throughout a city full of stunning architecture and bars that fill up long enough to welcome ticket holders, but often fall quiet again when the teams aren't in Detroit and the fans drive home to the suburbs.

Across from the ballpark, the vintage marquee at the historic Fox Theatre wished the Tigers luck. They haven't won the World Series since 1984, losing in 2006 to the St. Louis Cardinals, the very franchise Detroit beat to win it in 1968 after overcoming a 3-1 series disadvantage, largely on the arm of Mickey Lolich. That championship is remembered as a healing force for the city, which was deeply wrought with racial divisions after the Detroit riot in '67.

A street artist named Illy Mack pops into the bars and restaurants that will have him, sketching people for a few bucks, using whatever he could find, often a pen and some lined paper ripped from a coil-spine notebook. His comic-book style portraits always include a Detroit insignia like the Detroit cityscape or maybe the Tigers' Old-English D.

“You looked surly there with your drink, so I drew you giving the finger to Yankees fans,” Mack says to a bar patron he sketched. “I always add a little something about Detroit. I love Detroit, it inspires me.”

At Hockeytown Cafe last Sunday, a bartender high-fived every drink-guzzling patron during the Lions' remarkable 34-30 comeback victory over America's team, the Dallas Cowboys, while a waitress shook her head and grinned at the number of Ndamukong Suh Lions jerseys in the bar.

“I've worked here 10 years, and there is a huge difference between the first five and the second five,” Melissa Comini said. “I never walked out of here with less than $100 in my first five years here, but then people stopped spending like that. But now, it is starting to get a little better again.”

Made in Michigan-style commercials permeated the airwaves as the game pumped into the bar – ads shot using Detroit's cars driving on Detroit's streets, or boasting of the state's hospitals or new technologies.

“I'm born and raised here, and I believe Detroit City is on the rise,” said Adam Smith, a fan at the bar wearing a Lions jersey, buzzing about tailgate plans for the coming Monday night game. “I got laid off and then got another job.

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