I’ve been putting this post off for a few days, largely because I’ve been busy, but I want to discuss yet another season-ending injury suffered by Joel Zumaya. The particular reason I want to do this is a rather long story.
See, before 2006, the Tigers were pretty terrible. The young players their system produced came up and did nothing, the veterans faded away and left, and there was precious little excitement surrounding the team. I loved baseball at this point, but I willingly admit that there wasn’t really anyone on the Tigers worth getting one’s hopes up over, and I wasn’t particularly a huge fan of any particular player. The exception became Pudge Rodriguez in 2004, but that was largely based on his pedigree more than anything else.
And then 2006 happened, and with it came a new wave of young Tigers that actually looked like they wouldn’t be career fringe players. I was taken by Curtis Granderson and his combination of power and speed. I loved Justin Verlander, of course. But none of them were quite like Joel Zumaya in my eyes.
I didn’t know much about Zumaya before the season started aside from the fact that he threw hard, but I didn’t quite realize exactly how hard. But up he came, starting Opening Day, and he simply blew it past everyone. All I could think was something to the tune of “this is awesome!”
And for Zumaya and the Tigers, 2006 got progressively more awesome. I have a few vivid memories of this season – the July 20th game against the defending champion White Sox which was televised nationally on ESPN, a duel between Kenny Rogers and Jose Contreras that was won by Detroit on a Chris Shelton RBI double in the 7th directly following a vicious slide by Marcus Thames that broke up what would have been an inning-ending double play. Zumaya was on to hold that lead, walked a batter I don’t remember offhand, but then proceeded to blow away Jermaine Dye and eternal team nemesis Joe Crede, who stared down Zumaya as he walked off the mound pumping his fist. At that point, for the first time, it really felt like the Tigers meant business.
I remember August 7th, one of the few games I got the chance to attend that year. Francisco Liriano was pitching for the Twins, at that point a phenomenon. It was the first time I’d ever been to a game that really meant something, with a raucous crowd hanging on every pitch and a ballpark full of electricity. Zumaya was brought in to preserve a 4-3 lead in the 7th, and I went nuts – it was the first time I got to see him live, and he promptly got a line drive double play to strand the tying run at third and end the inning. Everyone went nuts. It just felt right. The Tigers proceeded to score four runs the next inning, Zumaya was sent back out in the 8th, and I distinctly remember him striking out Joe Mauer and Michael Cuddyer, at one point hitting 103 MPH on the ballpark radar gun. I was hopelessly captivated.
And of course I remember the second game of the AL Division Series at Yankee Stadium. With the season hanging in the balance and the Tigers clinging to a one run lead in hostile territory, Zumaya came in and blew through the heart of the Yankees order, punctuating it with a complete obliteration of Alex Rodriguez followed by another emphatic fist pump as the boos rained down. I will never forget it as long as I live.
Of course, it was never quite the same, and I admit that when he finally blew his elbow out – possibly for good – on the mound at Target Field in 2010, after it looked like he was finally healthy and pitching like he did in 2006, I was completely devastated – I didn’t sleep well that night. He was one of the first player t-shirts I owned, he remains the only Tigers jersey I own, and he is the only player I ever went out of my way to acquire an autographed baseball from. I forgave him for throwing those bunts away in the World Series despite the fact that I still hold a grudge against Fernando Rodney for largely the same reasons (I’m a terrible person, I know). Heck, I even forgave him for signing with the mortal enemy Minnesota Twins.
I wish I could say I’m surprised by the latest injury, but I’m not. But whether he tries to come back one more time or not, he will always have my support. I never thought that one year in sports could mean so much to me, but 2006 taught me otherwise, and Joel was an irreplaceable part of that experience which I will never, ever forget. I don’t know if this is going to be it for him or not, but either way, all I can do is thank him for an all-too-brief career that I will never forget.