History is a funny word. Sometimes it means something is done or finished (that book is history), or maybe that it's outdated or old. Other times, it refers to something, usually a bad something.
For an example of the latter, I quote Bill James, one of the greatest statistical minds baseball has ever known, from his 1988 Baseball Abstract. Note that he uses "past", but it means the same thing.
The problem is that you acquire a past. In the beginning, what needs to be done is so clear, so obvious. When you have no players you must acquire the best young players that you can find. When they are ready you put them in the lineup because the people who were there before them are just a holding action, just waiting until the future is warm. When you have no past you have no loyalties, no debts. You know exactly where you are in the cycle. You have a memory of no yesterday's dreams which still might flower tomorrow, and thus there is no confusion of tomorrow with yesterday, plans with dreams or what is right with what is best for the team. On September 20 of 1987 the Toronto Blue Jays had a clean slate. They never will again.1
He is referring to the 1987 season, when Toronto and Detroit fought for the AL East division title for most of the season. Toronto took the first three games of a four-games series against Detroit in Toronto, September 24-26, and led by 3.5 games with 7 games to play for them and 8 for Detroit. Detroit won the final game of the series in Toronto, split four games with Baltimore and swept Toronto in three one-run games. Toronto was swept by Milwaukee before the Detroit series, and as a result, the Tigers clinched a tie for the division on Saturday and won the title on Sunday.
According to coolstandings.com, Toronto had an 89.9% chance to win the division as things stood on the 26th, taking into account their remaining schedule, Detroit's remaining schedule, and other factors. (The site explains it in slightly more detail.) It was the 25th-biggest collapse in MLB history, at least prior to this season.
Prior to 2003, the Tigers already had a long history: one of the eight original American League clubs that began play in 1901, one of only four to have played in the same city the entire time (Boston, Chicago, and Cleveland the others), the first AL team to win three straight pennants (and the first team to lose three straight World Series), a team that went 52 seasons before first losing 100 games and finishing last ... but with only four World Series titles and no pennants since '84, Detroit's history was mostly history.
In 2003, they lost 119 games. That's not good. But they rebounded the next year to win 72, and then two years later, they won 95 games and stormed through the AL playoffs to capture their first pennant in 22 years before losing to St. Louis in five games in the Series. (One of the biggest jokes in history: David Eckstein getting the Series MVP.)
But wait: Detroit didn't win the division in 2006, even though on August 22, they had a 93.1% chance of winning the division (7.5 games up). They had a 78.3% chance of winning the division on the final day, but lost their fifth straight game, all at home, to fall into the wild-card spot instead.
In 2007, it was different, oh yes. On July 19th, they had an 88.7% chance of making the playoffs. This time, the collapse was bigger, and by the last week of the season, the Tigers were completely out of the race. That was collapse #28.
This year, on September 30, Detroit had an amazing 96% chance to win the division. They were in the midst of a four-game series in Detroit against the Twins, having arrived with a two-game lead with seven to play. With a magic number of 6, all Detroit needed was three of the four games to clinch. They lost the first game (the first half of a day-night doubleheader forced by a rainout on Monday), but won the next two, and when October arrived, all they needed was 2: 2 Tigers wins, 2 Twins losses, or one of each, and with a game left between the two, they could do it all at once.
But they didn't. I got no birthday present. Minnesota went on to sweep Kansas City, Detroit stumbled against Chicago, winning only the final game of a three-game series to force a playoff, and then you know what happened next.
The problem wasn't whether or not Leyland should have given Porcello the hook for Zach Miner (probably; Porcello was already overthrowing a bit) or whether he should have made Rodney the designated finish-up guy (probably not; no sense in killing your pen with a possible game tomorrow, but you do have to win for that game tomorrow to be yours) or whatever, but rather that the Tigers couldn't consistently beat Kansas City or Chicago. They went 9-9 against each team while the Twins went 12-6 against each team. That, my friends, is the problem. The Tigers made themselves have to win in the last week, and with a history of collapsing, they couldn't do it.
Sure, there are a number of franchises with a longer drought than Detroit has (the Cubs, obviously, but the Rangers came into the league as Senators II in 1961 and haven't won ever; the Indians haven't won since 1948 ...), but at some point there isn't too much difference between them. All you know is that you didn't win this year, you didn't win last year, and you can't feel like you can win next year.
However, the Tigers do have some good young players, and they have made a run at the playoffs three of the last four seasons. And at some point this will pass, and the Tigers will win again, and everything will be all right.
But right now it sucks.
1James, Bill, The 1988 Bill James Baseball Abstract, p.84.