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Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland commented today about the recession’s effect on his baseball team’s fan base:

“My heart aches for these people up here,” Leyland said. “They’re trying to feed their families. We’re getting a check every two weeks. We’re certainly glad that we are, but we’re aware of the people that aren’t. You do whatever you can to help. I’ve got family members out of work over the recession. I know what it’s like. You hope things get turned around.”

Michigan has the nation’s highest unemployment rate, 12 percent. The unemployment rate is a whopping 22 percent in Detroit.

Detroit has struggled for years as GM, Ford and Chrysler lost business to foreign automakers. Profit losses and the looming threat of bankruptcy plague the Big Three automakers more than ever thanks to the recession — and that is bad news for the Detroit area.

With that in mind, the Detroit Tigers decided to do something I think is pretty cool. The outfield fountain at their ballpark, Comerica Park, used to be sponsored by General Motors. The struggling automaker decided to end its sponsorship of the fountain for obvious cost-savings reasons, but Tigers owner Mike Ilitch is letting GM’s name stay on the fountain for free. The Tigers added the corporate emblems of Ford and Chrysler — again, free of charge — and a sign that reads “The Detroit Tigers support our automakers.”

“I wanted to help,” Ilitch said in a statement Wednesday. “I kept asking myself, ‘What can I do to help?’ I’ve always viewed GM, Ford and Chrysler as pillars of strength in our community, and I understand the ups and downs that a business must endure. To me, it’s a small way of showing our support and saying thank you for all the times they’ve been there for this community.”

Will Ilitch’s decision make a significant difference in the Big Three’s big picture? Probably not, but it is a classy gesture nonetheless.

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Reports say General Motors may eliminate Pontiac, Saturn, Saab and Hummer from its brand line as a cost-cutting measure aimed at winning government approval for $12 billion in emergency federal aid. (GM’s other U.S. brands are Chevrolet, GMC, Buick and Cadillac.)

GM apparently is not commenting on these reports other than to say we’ll learn their accuracy when the company submits its survival plan to Congress next week. It wouldn’t be a surprise if GM axed some of its brands, considering it has more than Ford and Chrysler combined. It isn’t even surprising that GM would consider doing away with the 82-year-old Pontiac line, considering it eliminated the 103-year-old Oldsmobile brand in 2000 because of declining sales.

What does surprise me – somewhat – is the inclusion of Saturn on the chopping block. Yes, Saturn sales are down, but it has been years since GM made a serious attempt to market that brand. Saturn has consistently produced fuel-efficient cars, which probably would be a good selling point these days. Saturn also probably has its best-ever lineup of vehicles on the market right now, especially the Aura, which has gotten very good reviews from experts and owners.

In the past decade, I have owned three different Saturn cars, and I speak no ill of any of them. My current car is an Aura, and it lives up to its reputation as a quality car. It is definitely the best Saturn car I’ve owned. Obviously I’m biased in favor of the Saturn brand, but I think most people who have driven Saturn cars speak favorably of them, especially about the vehicles’ fuel efficiency. (My Aura consistently gets 30 to 32 miles per gallon on the highway and 26 to 29 mpg on city streets.)

But perhaps the biggest loss I would associate with the disappearance of the Saturn brand would be the no-hassle sales experience, which was one-of-a-kind. In addition to vehicle satisfaction, that experience was a main reason why my last three cars have been Saturns. But I suppose that in my car-shopping future, I’ll have to deal with salesmen who are trying to make an extra buck off me. I’ll have to negotiate a price instead of just being told upfront what the cost of my car will be. And why not? Customer service has eroded virtually everywhere, so it was probably only a matter of time before the Saturn experience was taken away from consumers, too.