A victory for the Yankees would be business as usual. A victory for the Tigers would be a breakthrough on the competitive-balance front.
The odds favor business as usual. The Yankees just won their ninth straight division title. With the demise of the Atlanta Braves' streak of 14 straight seasons atop a division, the Yankees are now the reigning champions of the regular season. But even this does not measure up to the Yankees' self-image or their annual aspirations.
If the Yankees do not win the World Series, their season is not a success. Other franchises talk about this concept, but the Yankees live it, and they put their money where their belief system is. They have not won a World Series since 2000, so division titles or not, the last five campaigns were not successful by their standards.
A loss to the Tigers in the first round of the postseason would be somewhere between unacceptable and unthinkable for the Yankees. On the other hand, who could call the Tigers' season a failure if they were to lose to the Yankees? They were in baseball oblivion not all that long ago, losing 119 games in 2003. Even last season, they lost 91.
The way the regular season ended was deeply disappointing for the Tigers, dropping five straight and, on the season's final day, dropping out of first place in the AL Central. They had been in the division lead since mid-May. They once had a 10-game lead. The American League Wild Card berth was a consolation prize, but it is much better than the alternative, which is watching the postseason from a great distance, on television.
Even if they could not win the Central, the Tigers proved something over the course of the season. They had not been to the postseason since 1987. In Spring Training, manager Jim Leyland suggested that they were still considered by many to be "laughingstocks."
Nobody chuckled at the Tigers when they rolled to a 76-36 record well into August. They proved that, with some very astute acquisitions and the addition of a manager of the first class, a team can rise up from obscurity to be a postseason qualifier. It was an extremely encouraging display for those baseball people who yearn for greater competitive balance, or, if you must, parity.
The Tigers sent all the right messages. They were intelligent and aggressive. They depended on the timeless virtues of impressive pitching and solid defense. They were proof that a baseball team could be all the way down and then all the way up, if not overnight, then certainly over a matter of months.
And in the process, they laid the foundation for years of future success with the influx of impressive young pitchers. A loss to the Yankees would be deeply disappointing, but it would not really tarnish all that has been accomplished by the Tigers this season. Or would it?
If the Tigers get blown out of this series, after their late-season fade, some of the positives will be overshadowed. Those positives should not be forgotten, but they might be misplaced. The Tigers could be viewed in terms of their late slump, not their wonderful play earlier in the season. The Tigers as an ongoing operation might not need to beat the Yankees to validate their worth, because they proved that worth over the vast majority of six months of the regular season. But they would need a competitive Division Series to underscore their point.
On the other hand, the Yankees need to win because, as good as they have typically been, they are the Yankees, and no other result will do. They have not won a World Series in six years, but they have not been in a World Series in three years. Only the Yankees could consider this sort of thing a drought. But this is a completely unique operation.
Everybody has World Series aspirations, but of the 30 clubs, the Yankees have lived those aspirations more than anybody else. A loss in a mere Division Series is not in the organizational game plan.
On the surface, it appears that the Yankees have more to lose here. But if somebody tells you that the Tigers have nothing to lose, that's way off the proverbial base. After their late struggles, they need, if not a blissful ending, at least a suitable ending. The initial 2006 expectations for these two franchises may have been vastly different, but in October, everybody has something very substantial at stake.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.