10/24/2012 10:07 am ET Updated Dec 24, 2012

Detroit and the Tigers: The Ties That Bind

From the Panic of 1907 through World War II and certainly during the tumultuous sixties, the city of Detroit has turned to its favorite ballclub when it matters most. So it's only fitting that in the worst economic times since the Great Depression, the Motor City once again is cheering on its beloved Tigers.

The hometown team has appeared in the World Series 11 times. According to The Detroit News, on nine of those occasions a major war, wide-scale protests or an economic downturn has rocked the country and this corner of the Midwest.

I visited Detroit many times when researching my recent book, Summer of '68: The Season That Changed Baseball, And America, Forever. The city still bears the scars of the riots and neglect. So many buildings have become deserted and then torn down that great swaths of empty space remain. Mayor Dave Bing, who once starred for the hometown Pistons basketball team, is trying to convince people to move closer together so such services as electricity, water and sewer can be better utilized. Plans are being made to bring back farmers to plow the empty lots into productive fields.

Driving through Detroit often borders upon the surreal. It's like watching a film that breaks off time after time to reveal only a giant blank screen where an iconic American city once stood. One moves through a landscape with built-in pauses, giving everybody plenty of room for reflection and, dare we say, regret.

To understand how important the Tigers ballclub is to the city of Detroit, head north out of downtown, past the refurbished Fox Theater and the new ballpark, to the intersection of Twelfth and Clairmount. Here the worst of the rioting occurred in 1967. A tragic time when fire and smoke billowed into the sky and citizens feared what would happen next.

Fortunately, the Tigers of that era stepped up during those tumultuous times. Pitcher Mickey Lolich, for example, ended up patrolling the downtown streets with his National Guard unit, while slugger Willie Horton, who grew up in Detroit, tried to stop the rioting all by himself. Still in his Tigers uniform, Horton pleaded with the mob to stop, to simply stop.

"People knew immediately who I was," he told me decades later. "What I remember today is that they were so concerned for me, that I might get hurt. It looked like a war out there. I've never seen stuff like that -- burning buildings, looting, smoke everywhere."

Even though Horton couldn't single-handedly stop the riots, people in Detroit never forgot his courage. He now works in the Tigers' front office and when he makes his rounds at Comerica Park or walks the streets of downtown people recognize him and say thank you. Thank you for simply having the belief that a hometown guy in a baseball uniform could change things.

Detroit needs all the help it can get these days. Census figures indicate that the Motor City's population has plunged 25 percent in the last decade. Between 2001 and 2010, Detroit saw nearly 240,000 residents leave, or about one every 22 minutes.

St. Ambrose Catholic Church literally sits on the dividing line between the city of Detroit and the richer suburbs of Grosse Point. If one walks a few blocks west, the neighborhood goes downhill in a hurry. Head in the opposite direction and mansions and well-manicured lawns roll toward the horizon.

In the city's Boston-Edison neighborhood, where labor leader Walter Reuther and Motown Records mogul Berry Gordy Jr. once lived, thieves have taken to stealing "doorknobs, light fixtures, door, radiators (attractive as scrap metal) and especially copper pipes and wiring" from the homes, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Compare that with San Francisco, where 2012 World Series opened. That city enjoys boom times and a future that remains as glorious as a sunset along the Pacific Coast Highway.
These two storied franchises have been around for more than a century. Both teams have plenty of Hall of Famers - Willie Mays and Willie McCovey, Ty Cobb and Al Kaline. Both have enthusiastic fans. Yet these two teams have never faced each other in the postseason.

During the Fall Classic, the focus will be on the field, as it should be. How will the Tigers' staff ace Justin Verlander fare against an opportunistic Giants attack? Can San Francisco shut down Detroit's one-two punch of Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder?

But no matter what the outcome, Detroit will come together once again, cheering on its Tigers. And perhaps that's the most important thing.

Back on October 10, 1968, a year after the riots, hundreds of thousands again crowded Detroit's streets. But this time nothing went up in smoke as they celebrated the Tigers' victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in that year's World Series.

"This team was put here by God," Horton said back then, "to save this city."

Nearly a half-century later, the old slugger and many in the Detroit area still believe it to be true.

Tim Wendel is the author of 10 books, including Castro's Curveball, High Heat and Summer of '68. He is a writer in residence at Johns Hopkins University.