From Hanoi to the Motor City

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Illustration by Marshall Hopkins

I know only one hardcore Detroit Tigers fan: Magnum, P.I. He drives a Ferrari and lives on a lavish Hawaiian estate, but Thomas Magnum’s no snob. He always wears a blue baseball cap with a gothic “D” on it. That makes him a bona fide regular guy.

When “Magnum, P.I.” premiered in 1980, that Tigers hat carried a heavy historical load. At the time, the Vietnam War was portrayed soberly by the media; it was the open wound of American history. Then series creator Donald P. Bellisario and Tom Selleck resurrected it, moved it to Oahu, gave it a sports-car sheen, threw in a Tigers hat and a rubber chicken, and created the soul of a modern American hero.

The Tigers’ history had a lot to do with Magnum’s appeal. One of the original American League teams, they had a storied past with four World Series victories, including a dramatic 1968 victory over the Cardinals while Magnum was still fighting the Cong. Down three games to one, the Tigers stormed back and beat Bob Gibson in the seventh. But after that they had slipped into mediocrity. By 1979 they routinely finished well out of the playoff race.

Tom Selleck was born in the Motor City, and I’m sure he had personal reasons to don the big “D” (Later Selleck even got to play in a “pre-season game”:http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D0CE4DD1030F937A35757C0A967958260&n=Top%2fReference%2fTimes%20Topics%2fPeople%2fS%2fSelleck%2c%20Tom). But for Magnum, it was symbolic. It meant that he was in touch with the heartland. He supported an underdog — an underdog with potential. He was American. I loved Magnum as a kid, but looking back on his privileged lifestyle, it’s not surprising that Tom Selleck is a “right winger”:http://www.nationalreview.com/miller/miller200405291425.asp or that he played Dwight Eisenhower in a “TV movie.”:http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0401504/

The Tigers, meanwhile, won the Series again in 1984. (Perhaps Magnum’s fictional fandom buoyed the team.) In the post-Magnum era, they’ve been terrible, never reaching the playoffs. In 1992, the team was bought by Mike Illich, who runs the pizza empire called Little Caesars (no relation to any other Caesars). He led the club to a record twelve straight losing seasons, then dismantled their historic ballpark to build the generally despised Comerica field. The Tigers posted a record 109 losses in 2003.

This year the team is re-born. The Little Caesars stormed through the regular season, then beat up on the big bullies from the Bronx, called the “Yankees” (That name that no longer evokes the Civil War and Reconstruction, but instead conjures a shipping magnate in a blue blazer. Is Steinbrenner the real Robin Masters?) A lot of people have dusted off their old Tigers caps for the playoffs. Not Magnum. His hat is now a relic in “the Smithsonian.”:http://starbulletin.com/2000/11/10/features/story2.html It’s official: Magnum, his Tigers fandom, and his Reagan-era optimism are history. I wonder what kind of baseball fans Iraq will produce.

Maybe our new heroes will be more like Icepick – the invisible hand of Oahu. Icepick was a gangster/bookie on “Magnum P.I.,” who secretly ran things throughout Hawaii and maybe beyond. He had a strange sort of moral weight on the show. Who does Icepick root for? The Yanks?

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