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Sports success buoys depressed Detroit

The problems plaguing the most depressed big city in America are not going away, but the  surreal season for Michigan sports has allowed Motor City residents to escape — if only for a short time.
Paws, the Detroit Tigers mascot, rallies the crowd during the seventh inning of Game 4 of baseball's American League division series against the New York Yankees, Tuesday in Detroit.
Paws, the Detroit Tigers mascot, rallies the crowd during the seventh inning of Game 4 of baseball's American League division series against the New York Yankees, Tuesday in Detroit. Paul Sancya / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The problems plaguing the most depressed big city in America — block after block of abandoned houses, a plummeting population, troubled schools and unemployment near 30 percent — are not going away.

But for Jim McCusker, who was laid off as an engineer at Chrysler five years ago and is still trying to break back into the auto industry, the surreal season for Michigan sports has allowed him to escape, if only for a short time.

"It definitely gets the conversation away from the economy and how people are struggling," said McCusker, who now works in airline reservations and was watching the hometown Tigers in an American League playoff game Tuesday night at Comerica Park.

This fall, there has been plenty to talk about.

The Detroit Lions, who haven't won a championship since before the Super Bowl was invented, and who lost all 16 of their games three years ago, are 4-0 and arguably the biggest story of the young NFL season.

The Michigan Wolverines are undefeated, No. 12 in The Associated Press college football poll after being unranked to start the year. Michigan State, traditionally more of a basketball school, is 4-1.

And the Tigers play the New York Yankees on Thursday night in a decisive Game 5 of the first round of the baseball playoffs. A win would put them in the AL championship series against the Texas Rangers.

If the Tigers advance there, they will play in the World Series for the first time since 2006. They last won it in 1984, a time when this city was leading a renaissance for the U.S. auto industry.

Jim Leyland, manager of the Tigers, said he sees the city's other coaches as allies, pulling for each other and for Detroit. He nearly cried on the September night when the Tigers, who were seven games behind in May, won their division.

"Good atmosphere for the city. Makes people forget about their troubles with good times with sports," said Leyland, who recently called Lions head coach Jim Schwartz and attended a Michigan football game this month.

"If you can make somebody happy, that's what the song says, make somebody happy," he said. We're trying to make somebody happy."

And it's catching.

Mike Babcock, coach of the NHL's Detroit Red Wings, was at Tuesday's game at Comerica Park. Joe Dumars, president of the NBA Detroit Pistons, and Ndamukong Suh, the Lions' star defensive tackle, showed up Monday.

"It's great to be a sports fan here," said Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers president and general manager. He pointed out that the Red Wings open their season Friday, adding to the excitement.

Many people here are more accustomed to cringing whenever attention is focused on Detroit. The national spotlight has focused in recent years on each blight and blemish.

And the city's troubles are well-known. Between 2000 and 2010, a quarter-million people packed up and moved away. Public school enrollment this fall is expected at 66,000 students, down from 104,000 only four years ago.

City officials have put the Detroit unemployment rate as high as 28 percent, more than three times the national average. Run-down houses in all-but-abandoned neighborhoods have sold recently for four figures.

Mayor Dave Bing, a former star guard with the Pistons and basketball Hall of Famer, is tearing down about 3,000 abandoned houses each year. But with an inventory of more than 30,000, it would take more than a decade to clear them all. And there isn't enough money to do it, anyway: Detroit's budget deficit is about $155 million.

The city recorded 265 homicides through Sept. 27, a jump of 22 percent over the same period last year.

"It's horrible. We don't have nothin'," said Mike Woodbridge, a landscaper who was at the Tuesday night Tigers game with two friends.

On game nights, police patrols are heavy around Comerica Park, the baseball stadium, and Ford Field, where the Lions play. Fans attending the games are mostly from the suburbs and keep to the well-lit and clean streets close to both stadiums.

Some of the surrounding neighborhoods are dark and forbidding. To the northeast of Ford Field stands the Douglass housing project, made up of several 14-story brick towers and a handful of six- and two-story buildings, the shorter ones ravaged by fire.

The last family moved out of Douglass in 2008. It has been empty and open ever since, and the $6 million price tag for demolition has scared away potential developers, housing officials have said.

"Developing the property would bring energy to downtown Detroit," Eugene Jones, director of the Detroit Housing Commission, said earlier this year. "This is a tax base. You're creating jobs. You're creating a whole bunch of things that the city needs."

Other communities in southeast Michigan share similar troubles and needs. Pontiac, 20 miles northwest of Detroit, has had a state-appointed financial manager since 2009 and runs a deficit of more than $10 million.

Hundreds of jobs vanished when General Motors closed its truck plant there in 2009. The Lions left seven years earlier and moved from the Silverdome to Ford Field. The Silverdome cost Pontiac $56 million to build in 1975. It was sold at auction in 2009 for $583,000.

Detroit has had its sports highs in recent years. The Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 2008, and the Pistons were NBA champions in 2004. Two years ago, Michigan State's basketball team made it to the title game in a Final Four played in Detroit.

But since it fell on hard times, Detroit has not seen such a sports frenzy — baseball, pro football, college football — at once.

"For a city that has had a lot of economic hardships, I'm glad all the teams here have been able to provide a temporary distraction," said Lions backup quarterback Drew Stanton, who went to high school in the Detroit suburbs and starred at Michigan State.

People in Detroit are quick to point out that it is only that. Mike Corbin of suburban Huntington Woods was sitting with his wife under a big concrete statue of a tiger outside Comerica Park before the Tuesday night game. The Tigers, who could have advanced in front of the home fans, were blown out 10-1 in Game 4.

"For somebody who has been out of work for two years, it's a little distraction," he said. "But I don't think it comes anywhere close to overcoming your day-to-day reality of being out of work and maybe losing your house."


Associated Press sports writers Noah Trister and Larry Lage contributed to this report.