The Coleumn: Michipain Part II: Motor City Heartbreak 

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Last week, I explained my theory for why the University of Michigan Wolverines have a reputation of pain and how one game, their 2007 home loss to Appalachian State University, broke them. If you have not read it, I recommend that you do before beginning part two

This week, I dig further down the rabbit hole by exploring the effects of Michipain on the state’s professional teams. Minor league teams like the Western Michigan Whitecaps (Minor League Baseball) or the Grand Rapids Griffins (American Hockey League) do not count, because this only includes teams in the major sports leagues. 

If you drive 43 miles east from Ann Arbor, you will find yourself in Michigan’s largest city, Detroit. They have not been spared from the misery and, in fact, have experienced many of their teams collapse over the past few years. What you are about to read is some of the pain that Motor City residents have endured. 

(Writer’s Note: Historically, everything I mention takes place after Michigan lost to Appalachian State in 2007. The secret ingredient is consistency.) 

The first team covered has the least amount of success since the turn of the millennium. The Detroit Lions are the only team in the National Football League to not have won a playoff game since 2000, having last won in 1992 against the Dallas Cowboys. 

The Lions, seen here during the 2007 Thanksgiving game against their division rival Green Bay Packers, have played on Thanksgiving since 1934. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

2008 was the franchise’s nadir. Calvin Johnson was the Lions’ No. 1 wide receiver, and they went 0-16, becoming the first team to ever reach that mark. The Lions knew the only way to go was up and turned it around in 2011. Matthew Stafford won Comeback Player of the Year with a 5,000-yard season, and the Lions qualified for the playoffs at 10-6. 

As the No. 6 seed in the NFC, the Lions took on the 13-3 New Orleans Saints and looked to shock the world. But the Saints dominated in the fourth quarter and walked away with a 45-28 victory. 

Detroit returned to the playoffs in 2014 under a new head coach, Jim Caldwell. At 11-5, the Lions aimed to beat the Cowboys again to end their over 20-year playoff drought. However, a missed pass interference call sent the Lions home, 24-20. 

The Lions entered the 2016 playoffs at 9-7, having collapsed down the stretch as Stafford got hurt and Johnson called it quits after the 2015 season. Seattle showed them the door, 26-6. Following a decent 9-7 season in 2017, the Lions fell out of relevance in three years under head coach Matt Patricia. 

This ultimately led to trading Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams for a boatload of picks and Jared Goff. Stafford, who had not previously won a playoff game in his career, won the Super Bowl in Tom Brady-esque fashion. Despite the emotions Lions fans felt, they celebrated like the Rams were their own team. 

In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her crew ran into lions, tigers and bears (oh my). There are no bears, but there sure are Tigers on this path of pain. 

The Detroit Tigers were the worst team in Major League Baseball in 2003 and won the American League pennant just three years later. Despite losing the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, they knew they could win it all again. 

The Tigers returned to the postseason in 2011, two years removed from a heartbreaking game 163 loss to the Minnesota Twins that knocked them out of the playoffs. Detroit beat the New York Yankees in five games before clashing with the Texas Rangers in the ALCS, but the Rangers won the pennant again in six games. 

In 2012, Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown, and the Tigers won the pennant after beating the Oakland Athletics in five games and sweeping the Yankees in the ALCS. All that was left to do was win four games in the Fall Classic. They won zero, as the San Francisco Giants were too much to handle. 

The third time had to be the charm. The Tigers beat the Athletics in the ALDS before meeting the Boston Red Sox. Detroit controlled the series until Joaquin Benoit threw a changeup that David Ortiz sent into the Fenway Park bullpen to tie the second game. Boston then won the series in six games. 

2014 was the final chance. The Tigers acquired David Price from the Tampa Bay Rays and two-time Home Run Derby champion Yoenis Cespedes. They had the best starting rotation in the league and a nasty infield of Cabrera and Prince Fielder. Despite all that talent, they got swept by the Baltimore Orioles in the ALDS. 

The Tigers stadium in 2013. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Since then, the Tigers have paid the price for going all in by missing the postseason every single year since. To make matters worse, a good portion of the 2014 pitching staff, from Max Scherzer to Justin Verlander, won the World Series outside of the Motor City. 

When you cross I-75 from Comerica Park, you run into Little Caesar’s Arena, the home of the Detroit Pistons and the Detroit Red Wings. From 2003 to 2008, the Pistons were the beasts of the Eastern Conference. Led by Chauncey Billups, University of Connecticut legend Rip Hamilton and Ben Wallace, the Pistons reached the conference finals six years in a row. Wallace had already moved on to the Chicago Bulls by the time the streak ended, but the Pistons looked poised to succeed. 

Everything started to fall apart in 2009. The Pistons finished 39-43, their first losing season since 2001, and got ousted in the first round. By the time the Pistons made it to opening day in the fall, Wallace returned for a second stint, but the rest of the core had departed for greener pastures. Despite selecting players such as UConn’s Andre Drummond in the NBA draft, things have not gotten better for the Pistons. 

Since 2008, the Pistons have not made it out of the first round in just three playoff appearances (2009, 2016 and 2019). Not even a change in venue helped the Pistons return to dominance, as they have failed to win at least 25 games in a season since 2019. 

The Red Wings have had the most success of any team in Michigan during the new millennium. They had one of the best teams in National Hockey League history in 2002 and then added their fourth Stanley Cup in an 11-year span in 2008. The Red Wings almost went back-to-back in 2009, but Marc-Andre Fleury and the Pittsburgh Penguins had other plans in Game 7. 

Their story is more one of gradual decline and aging players, as the Red Wings had a 25-year playoff streak from 1991 to 2016. But after that cup finals loss in 2009, the Red Wings never made it out of the second round and lost in the first round four times. As the veteran core aged, the Red Wings never found the right pieces to replenish their talents and sustain their playoff streak into the future.  

By the time the streak ended in 2017, the Red Wings were a different team. Henrik Zetterberg was nearing the end of his career (which unfortunately ended in 2018 due to injuries) and Pavel Datsyuk had retired the season prior. They had plenty of veteran experience in Niklas Kronwall, Jimmy Howard, Frans Nielsen and Mike Green, but no one produced at their prime levels. 

As a result of not preparing their prospect pool for the future and a history of contracts that bloat with age, the Red Wings have not returned to the playoffs since 2016. Being in a competitive Atlantic Division does not help their case either. 

This concludes our fascinating story, one immersed in postseason sadness and constant failure. What makes this even more tragic is that SB Nation documented the downfalls of the Tigers, Pistons and Red Wings and made fans wonder where everything went wrong. 

There will be more chapters written in this extensive essay, but they will all describe sadness until the Wolverines, Spartans or any Motor City team hoists a championship. Although it is a sad story with no happy ending, players like Cade Cunningham, Aidan Hutchinson, Mortiz Seider and Tarik Skubal hope to positively change the Great Lake State’s fortunes. 

Until then, the Michipain continues with no end in sight. 

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