Tigers reveling in their October thrill ride
Three years ago, the Tigers were a total laughingstock. Now they're basking in the glow of their first World Series in 22 years.
DETROIT -- The latest installment of a shared dream begins in the bottom of the ninth inning, with Magglio Ordonez tearing into a Huston Street fastball, driving it over the left-field fence and sending a ballpark and an entire city into a frenzy. That's when the Detroit Tigers cease being a baseball team and turn into 25 Motor City Madmen.
"Pure elation,'' said pitcher Kenny Rogers.
"You kind of go numb with excitement and joy,'' said first baseman Sean Casey. "It just touches your heart.''
"You have to watch your ankles and cleats,'' said Detroit center fielder Curtis Granderson. "People are jumping up and down, and you have to make sure no one steps on you. During our last celebration, someone hit me in the jaw.''
Hey, if Dodgers reliever Joe Beimel could cut his hand in a bar incident and Mets starter Orlando Hernandez could injure his calf running sprints in the outfield, there are worse ways to get dinged up in October.
The Tigers, who went 12 years without a .500 season, are suddenly getting lots of practice in the art of reveling. With a 6-3 victory over Oakland on Saturday, they extended their postseason win streak to seven games and produced the franchise's first World Series appearance since 1984, when Kirk Gibson, Alan Trammell and Jack Morris helped eliminate San Diego in five games.
The Tigers have also completed a radical turnaround from 2003, when they had to close with a rush to finish with 119 losses. It's hard to tell who suffered more -- Brandon Inge, Craig Monroe and Jamie Walker, who played on that horrendous squad and had to cope with the perception that their team was an industry joke, or the faithful fans at the Mayo Smith Society, who commiserated over the team's sad fate in the fan club's newsletter.
Quietly and efficiently, general manager David Dombrowski executed an organizational revamp. Granderson, Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya arrived from the farm. The Tigers made prudent trades for the likes of Carlos Guillen, Placido Polanco and Jeremy Bonderman. And owner Mike Ilitch shelled out the money to bring in free agents such as Ordonez, Rogers, catcher Pudge Rodriguez and closer Todd Jones.
The final piece came last winter, when Dombrowski brought in manager Jim Leyland to run the show. Leyland's nicotine-stained fingerprints were all over this club, from its attention to detail to its team-oriented mindset. He's shown an uncanny knack for making the right move, saying the right thing and setting the proper tone in the clubhouse.
"He's sincere, he shoots straight and he tells you exactly what he's feeling,'' Inge said. "He cares about his players, and when you have a manager like that, you want to play as hard as you can and leave it out on the field. He respects you, so you should give him the respect he deserves.''
After beating the Yankees so thoroughly in the Division Series that they put New York manager Joe Torre's job in jeopardy, the Tigers made quick work of an Oakland team that waxed Minnesota in the first round. Detroit's pitchers held the A's to nine runs and a .221 batting average in four games, and the Tigers fed off the inspired play of Polanco, who hit .529 (9-for-17) to win the ALCS Most Valuable Player award.
Different night, different hero. In the series opener against Oakland, Inge did the bulk of the damage out of the No. 9 spot. Then it was Alexis Gomez coming off the bench to drive in four runs in Game 2. Then came Rogers in Game 3, pitching like a kid at age 41. And finally it was Ordonez, stifled by Oakland's pitching through the first three games of the ALCS before hitting a pair of homers in Game 4.
It's no wonder A's third baseman Eric Chavez talked about the Tigers inheriting the "it" factor that White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen attributed to his team in 2005.
"Whatever it is, the Tigers have it,'' Chavez said. "Balanced lineup. Power arms. Guys who can handle the bat. Polanco is just a killer. I looked at him today and said, 'Are you kidding me?' He was wearing us out. Sometimes you just have to look the other guy in the face and say, 'You beat us.' They beat us.''
Few people expected the Tigers to make an extended run into the postseason after they lost 19 of their final 31 regular-season games and dropped three straight to Kansas City on the final weekend to cede the AL Central title to Minnesota. They figured to be nothing more than a speed bump for the Yankees.
Things changed 10 days ago at Yankee Stadium during a bizarre rainout scenario. The Tigers, informed that Game 2 of the Division Series would begin at 10 p.m., assembled in the dugout ready to play, and starting pitcher Justin Verlander began warming up only to find the game was being pushed back a day. After switching hotels and enduring some major inconvenience, the Tigers began their seven-game win streak.
"Our whole team was out there in the dugout at 9:50 getting fired up to play the game,'' Walker said. "We looked over and there wasn't a damned Yankee in the dugout or on the field. It was getaway day, we had our families there, and that kind of left a bad taste in our mouths. I think that was probably the turning point.''
The Tigers derived even more emotional fuel from the decision to bump up the starting time for Friday's Game 3 from 8 p.m. local time to 4:30. While Major League Baseball cited the frigid weather in Detroit for the change, the Tigers suspected it had more to do with making sure the game didn't conflict with Game 2 of the Mets-Cardinals series.
"They tried to say the weather was why they moved that game up,'' Walker said. "That's bull. New York is prime time, and we've been playing second fiddle.''
Then again, the Tigers have the honor of being the first team to qualify for the World Series. The ALCS sweep gives Leyland plenty of time to set up his pitching and Detroit's injured players a chance to heal. Zumaya (wrist) and Casey (calf), both unavailable for the final three games of the Oakland series, expect to be ready for the Cardinals or the Mets.
This week, the excitement will gradually build in Detroit. Now that Al Kaline, Willie Horton, Mickey Lolich and George Kell have thrown out ceremonial first pitches in the postseason, the Tigers will have to dig deeper into their past to find another mainstay to do the honors. And if local parking lot owners could charge $30 a space in the ALCS, who knows what they'll be able to get away with when the Cardinals or Mets come to town?
During the Oakland series, Jones spoke eloquently about the recent trying times in Detroit, with massive job losses due to problems in the auto industry. The Detroit players derived some satisfaction, Jones said, from giving the team's blue-collar fans a three-hour respite each day from weightier, real-life issues.
Leyland, predictably, got emotional after Ordonez's homer. But he wasn't the only one at Comerica Park to pull a Dick Vermeil.
"You can't go anywhere in this city without Tigers fans talking about their pride in the organization and the team,'' Rogers said. "As players, maybe we don't understand it completely, but we surely appreciate it. This is something we'll take with us for a long, long time.''
All that's left now is to seal the deal. As far as the Tigers are concerned, it's two celebrations down, and one to go.
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