Nothing gets past the Tigers (whales included)

April 19th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Jason Beck's Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

DETROIT -- Baseball players have some of the sharpest vision in sports. They’re trained to spot a ball within fractions of an inch of a strike zone they must visualize in their minds from the location of the plate and the batter. They can read the spin of a baseball out of the hand. Their careers center around their ability to focus on the micro level.

And yet, baseball players can still see the big picture. More to the point, they can notice the background -- even skylines beyond the ballpark.

“For me, whenever you go to a new city, that’s the first thing you look at,” catcher Jake Rogers said. “You look at the backdrop.”

It’s one of the reasons why PNC Park in Pittsburgh -- where the Tigers split a two-game series last week -- is as popular with players as with fans. It’s also one of many reasons Tigers players have an attachment to Comerica Park.

When those backgrounds change, they notice. Riley Greene, for instance, has been fascinated with following the construction progress of the Hudson building beyond right-center field.

“I kept thinking there was somebody on top of there,” Greene joked.

So even as the Tigers prepared for a doubleheader against the Twins on a long Saturday afternoon of baseball at Comerica Park, they didn’t miss the crew perched along the side of the David Broderick Tower beyond right field, slowly covering the whale mural.

“Oh yeah, the boys noticed it as soon as it was getting covered up,” Rogers said. “We noticed the whales were going into hiding. Especially in our dugout, as soon as you walk up [the steps], you’re looking right at it.”

The on-again, off-again sight of the mural has become an ongoing topic -- and at one point a court case -- around Detroit. It’s one of 100 such murals, known as Whaling Walls, painted worldwide over a 17-year period by artist and conservationist Robert Wyland, who was born and raised in the Detroit area.

Though Michigan is nowhere near an ocean, let alone whales, the Whaling Walls were painted as an appreciation for the creatures’ mammoth size and a reminder that everyone is connected to the ecosystem of the oceans. Thus, while there are Whaling Walls in obvious places like California, Hawaii, Florida, the Pacific Northwest and the East Coast, Wyland also painted versions across the Midwest. The Song of the Whales mural is still visible along the Cleveland lakefront driving in from the east on Interstate 90.

Though Detroit’s Whaling Wall -- the 76th in the series -- has adorned the tower since October 1997, the 150-foot-high, 65-foot-long mural of a mother and baby humpback gained visibility when the Tigers moved into Comerica Park a few years later. As the Tigers rose to contention in the mid-2000s, the Detroit skyline became more recognizable. For several years, the Tigers' media relations department included a page in the team’s media guide identifying each building in the skyline. Eventually, mapping applications made this easier.

The better the Tigers became, the more valuable the side of the Broderick Tower became, which led to advertisements going up and down over the years. Eventually, the whales always return to view, by man-made or natural forces.

“We love the whales,” Rogers said. “We always notice when it gets covered up.”

When the Tigers opened the 2022 season with lofty expectations, the whales quickly became covered once again by an ad. The team’s struggles that season gave rise in some social-media circles to a conspiracy theory: The Curse of the Whales.

The whales remained covered until severe storms last August blew the ad partially off the building. It was fully removed a few days later. The Tigers beat the defending World Series champion Astros on the night of Aug. 25 on Parker Meadows’ walkoff home run, and the team’s social-media department had fun with it, calling it a “Whale of a Comeback.”

The Tigers went 20-15 from that point to season’s end, though they lost five in a row after the walkoff win. They were 8-4 this season before another ad covered the whales last Saturday, though this one might be tied to next week’s NFL Draft.

So, does the Curse of the Whales have life? Tigers players weren’t aware of it, but baseball players can be superstitious.

“Maybe it’s a thing,” Rogers said. “Gotta let the whales breathe, man.”

Superstition or not, Rogers is technically correct, since whales are mammals.

“Let the whales breathe,” Spencer Torkelson said. “Yeah, we notice.”