DETROIT — The clubhouse of a team that just lost the World Series is a bittersweet place.
There was despair in the eyes of the Tigers, still reeling from the four-game sweep by the Giants that concluded with a 10th-inning defeat late Sunday night. But there also was an underlying sense of pride for what had been accomplished in bringing the American League pennant home.
Losing with hope makes a big difference in how a team says goodbye.
Pitching ace Justin Verlander shared a final postgame meal with several teammates and Magglio Ordonez, who threw out the Game 4 first pitch and led them to a World Series six years prior.
“Hey,” Verlander said, “next year we’ve got Victor coming back! And Magglio’s coming back.”
Everybody laughed at the thought of the former batting champion coming out of retirement, and nodded about designated hitter Victor Martinez, a perennial 100-RBI guy, returning from knee surgery.
Verlander and infielders Ramon Santiago and Omar Infante were the only Tigers to play in the 2006 Series loss to the Cardinals and this one, and Santiago put the whole season into perspective.
“It’s hard right now — I cannot lie to you,” he said. “But we have to keep our heads up and just be better next year.
“Like last year, when we lost to Texas (in the ALCS), we said that we had to find a way to get to the World Series this year. We did that but didn’t finish business. Now we have to see what we can do to win it all. It’s one step at a time, and we need to take that next step next year.”
Tigers manager Jim Leyland made his rounds in the clubhouse, whispering in their ears as he hugged each player before adding a hearty slap on the back.
“If somebody told me in spring training that we would be in the World Series, I would have had to say, ‘I’ll take that,'” Leyland said. “It was kind of a weird way that we got there because we were a little inconsistent all year. Then we played pretty good when we had to get the division, and we obviously played pretty good through the first two rounds of the playoffs.
“We got to the World Series, and we sputtered offensively.”
Nobody “sputtered” worse than first baseman Prince Fielder, who had a leadoff single in the fourth inning of Game 1 but couldn’t buy a hit in his final 12 at-bats. He reached base only one other time, after getting hit by a pitch, and ended up being thrown out at the plate in a controversial play during Game 2.
After answering all the questions about his struggles, Fielder sat on the stool in front of his locker, staring off into space.
I asked him how hard it was to watch the Series end from the on-deck circle, while Miguel Cabrera took a called third strike from Sergio Romo for the final out.
“Nah, just seeing it end from anywhere would be tough,” said Fielder.
Although one last swing at redemption and possibly a game-winning homer, would have been nice.
Delmon Young, the ALCS MVP and Yankee killer, soon to be a free agent, stopped by to bump knuckles with Fielder and exchange pleasantries about the season. They became close during this season, but likely will be opponents on a field somewhere next year.
Young turned and walked out of the clubhouse. Brennan Boesch, another outfielder with an uncertain future, walked over to hug Fielder. They exchanged a few words before Boesch headed home.
“You know, it was still a special year,” said Fielder, whose warm twinkle returned to his eyes. “It was a lot of fun. We got to go to the World Series, my first, and we got to see our No. 3 hitter make history.”
Cabrera, who won the first Triple Crown in 45 years, became fast friends with Fielder, too, while combining to knock in 247 runs and drill 74 homers. They also provided joy to fans with their goofy, salt-shaking celebratory ritual.
“It was a great season for all of us,” Cabrera said. “Now I already want to be part of another World Series team and win it this time.”
Catcher Alex Avila said they will be back.
“We are built to be contenders,” he said. “And we have a lot of guys on our team who are still very young.
“We didn’t hit in the Series, but with the way we pitched and played defense, all we needed was three, four or five extra hits to win this series. It was that close.”
There was a pair of 2-0 losses and the last one, 4-3, in 10 innings.
“All we lacked was timely hitting,” center fielder Austin Jackson said. “That pretty much sums it up.”
There are decisions to be made, players to be let go, and players to be traded for and signed.
But that’s for another day. The early morning hours on Monday were for reassuring one another and turning the page on coming so close.