Why Detroit Tigers decided to play baseball on a night that transcended sports

On a night that upstaged sports, two men stood on the field at Comerica Park for pregame warmups Wednesday: Detroit Tigers right-hander Michael Fulmer and Chicago Cubs lefty Jon Lester.

Two starting pitchers going through their routines near the warning track on opposite sides of the field. Yet, there was a different feeling about the three-game series finale, full of uncertainties for what might happen next.

All coming back to the same question — to play, or not to play?

The Milwaukee Bucks boycotted their NBA playoff game Wednesday against the Orlando Magic to protest Sunday’s police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Wisconsin. Shortly after, the NBA announced all three of Wednesday’s playoff games were postponed. The Milwaukee Brewers followed suit by nixing their game against the Cincinnati Reds, and then the Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres, and Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants chose not to take the field for their games.

But the Tigers, amid social unrest, decided to play.

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Detroit Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire celebrates with shortstop Niko Goodrum after the 7-6 win against the Chicago Cubs at Comerica Park, Aug. 26, 2020.

“Our players decided we were going to play together as a unit here with an understanding of what’s going on in this world, in this country,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said Wednesday. “We got to fix these things, and we’re all a part of it. We all got each other’s backs in here, and we did talk about that part of it in the clubhouse. Tough day. It’s really hard. Decisions were made by our guys: we’re going to play.

“If they asked us to stand with them, the players ask us to stand with them and not play tonight, we would do it. That’s just who we are. But our guys wanted to play.”

The first position player to step on the field was outfielder Cameron Maybin, a 33-year-old and 14-year MLB veteran. This is his third stint with the Tigers, and his teammates look to him for leadership. Five minutes later, at 6:43 p.m., fellow outfielder Jorge Bonifacio joined him. 

Tigers right fielder Cameron Maybin scores on a Austin Romine double in the sixth inning on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020, at Comerica Park.

Maybin went to the middle of the outfield to meet with Cubs infielder Jason Kipnis; they were teammates together with the Cleveland Indians last year. The pair spoke for a minute and embraced with a hug before returning to their sides of the field. Gardenhire emerged from the clubhouse at 6:57 p.m., and three minutes later, the national anthem began with members from both teams on the field.

“I think we kind of knew that we were going to go ahead and play the game kind of early on,” Tigers reliever Buck Farmer said Wednesday. “It was a group choice at that point.”

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Fulmer stepped on the mound at 7:10 p.m. and leadoff hitter Ian Happ stepped into the batter’s box to begin the game as scheduled, even though many professional teams and players across the country chose not to play, including Cubs starting outfielder Jason Heyward.

“Everyone’s going to handle things the way they feel they need to handle it,” Tigers shortstop Niko Goodrum, who played, said Wednesday. “Things have to change in this world, man. Things have to stop. There’s right and wrong, and what’s going on is wrong. If guys choose to sit out, and that’s how they want to send their message, then I’m all for it.”

Racial and social injustice. The Black Lives Matter movement. The uncertainties of where America is headed. The “stick to sports” debate. All of this encompassed by heated arguments on social media.

Goodrum asks himself: What is right, and what is wrong?

Society is divided.

Detroit Tigers shortstop Niko Goodrum hits an RBI double during the sixth inning against the Chicago Cubs at Comerica Park, Aug. 26, 2020.

So the Tigers decided to make it simple by becoming united. Meanwhile, the Brewers — along with the other five MLB teams — unified by refusing to take the field in an act of protest.

Still, the Tigers played in unity, and won their game, 7-6.

“We saw the NBA canceled their games and then some games in MLB got canceled and some guys sat out,” Goodrum said. “Everyone is going about it how they feel they need to go about it. This is an individual decision, or a team decision, that everyone is making.”

[ Lions cancel practice, demand change after Jacob Blake shooting: ‘We won’t be silent’ ]

When the seventh-inning stretch came along, the fake crowd noise dimmed to quiet. The classic “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” didn’t play.

Instead, a moment of silence combined with an MLB-provided statement played on the video board.

“UNITED FOR CHANGE.”

Goodrum knows what is happening in society is bigger than sports. He is tired of turning on the TV only to learn “people who look like me are getting shot by the police,” and demands change.

He is more motivated now than ever before to speak with his family members, gather friends and work together to develop a plan.

“Just brainstorming some things that could shed light or bring change,” Goodrum said. “It’s something we all have to think about.”

And he resonates with the ongoing divide as a Black athlete, yet even more as a Black person.

“Before I come to the field, I have to leave my house,” Goodrum said. “I’m a human being just like everyone else, and I have to make it to the field. Those are things we shouldn’t have to worry about — going to the field, is something going to happen? If I get pulled over, is something going to happen? I shouldn’t have to fear that when I get up in the morning.”

So when he arrived at Comerica Park on Wednesday and recognized what was happening across the sports world, he had to make his own decision, one that would likely impact the way the entire organization moved forward with its matchup against the Cubs.

To play, or not to play?

“For me, it’s what’s going to impact most,” Goodrum said. “Me not playing today, is that going to spark a change? Just different things you have to think about when you make decisions like this.

“I decided to play, and I support the guys that did not play and the guys that did play.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzoldThe Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Why Detroit Tigers decided to play baseball on a transcendent night

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