Defending AL champs are hungry for more

Originally Published: April 1, 2007
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Before we contemplate what this year is going to mean in the life of the Detroit Tigers, we need to clear up what last year meant.

We need to clear it up because so many people got it so wrong.

This team was not some kind of cute little George Mason fairy tale. It wasn't Boise State. It wasn't the '93 Phillies.

Detroit Tigers
AP Photo/Paul SancyaGlory days? Don't be surprised if the Tigers are celebrating this October.
This was not some once-in-a-millennium, magical run by a team playing over its helmets for one enchanted season.

No, sir. This team isn't going to climb out of its 2006 bubble now and go back to being what the Detroit Tigers used to be. Sorry. We hate to break it to you, if you're somebody who thought like that.

But last year, friends, was just the beginning. And the rest of the American League knows it, too.

"Enchanted?" laughed Twins GM Terry Ryan. "No, they weren't enchanted, whatever that means. That's a team that doesn't have any question marks. They don't have any holes. And I don't know that you can do any better than that."

"They're loaded," said Indians outfielder David Dellucci. "They're a fantasy baseball team."

For 12 years, the Tigers were an afterthought, a joke, a 119-loss season waiting to happen. But guess what was going on while you were busy listening to all of us baseball geniuses debating the state of the Red Sox and Yankees?

The Detroit Tigers built themselves a superpower. That's what.

Only a week ago, we were asking Indians GM Mark Shapiro about the possibility that his team could become this year's Tigers. He found that question kind of amusing.

"The biggest problem we'd have in being this year's Tigers," Shapiro replied, pithily, "is beating this year's Tigers.

"If they're healthy, and there are no unforeseen bumps in the road," Shapiro said, "they're the best team in the American League. They're the best team in baseball. I feel completely comfortable saying that."

Well, if he does, then we do, too. So we'll say it.

The Tigers are going to win the World Series. This year, they're going to get it right.

This October, they won't lead anybody's league in E-1's. This October, their dreams aren't going to get blown up by any 5-foot-8 shortstops, by any slips or slides on soggy grass, by any pitchers who had won one game in two months.

This October, the Tigers are going to finish what they started last year. Oh, they may have had themselves a magical season, all right. But we don't see any expiration date on their magic kit.

"For the first time in my career with the Detroit Tigers, we have a target on our back," said third baseman Brandon Inge, "instead of being dusted off everyone's shoulders, like, 'All right, we've got Detroit. Easy three. Let's take them and get out of here.' It's a better feeling. You play for that respect, and that's how you get it. So now let's find out what kind of team we really are."

And they will, too. This year is the test. This is the point, for any team, when it finds out how good it is. So the Tigers will find out there is a reason that only one team in the past three decades lost a World Series one year, then came back to win it the next.

Agony to ecstasy
Lost World Series, won it the following year (division play era):
1988-89 Oakland A's
1976-77 New York Yankees
1969-70 Baltimore Orioles

That team was the 1988-89 Oakland A's, a team that endured a shocking loss to the Dodgers in its first World Series journey, then squashed the Giants in four games the next time around. And was back to its third straight World Series the following year.

Well, it's funny we should mention those A's, because an AL scout said this spring that's exactly what the 2007 Tigers remind him of -- a team that may have lost the World Series, but a team that's eminently capable of showing up in the next World Series. And the next one after that.

The Tigers wouldn't be the first team we have thought that about, of course. And 30 years of history tells us it's never as easy the second time around. But this group seems remarkably aware of that -- possibly because its manager has been pounding all of them over the head with that message since the day they showed up under the palm trees.

You think there is any chance -- any -- that Jim Leyland would let this team relax, or coast, or spend the next six months reminiscing about how cool last year was?

"There ain't no way," the manager said, "that's gonna happen."

What Leyland has been sermonizing about, in that lovable way of his, is one of his favorite concepts: Don't forget about what you did. Just stuff it in the top drawer of your memory bank and take it out some other time -- like maybe the year 2088.

"What he said was, 'Last year was last year, and this year is this year,' " said this team's Opening-Day starter, and emerging ace, Jeremy Bonderman. "And that's true. Nobody remembers yesterday. Everybody remembers today. He just wanted to make sure we all didn't get caught up in what we did last year."

But Leyland also delivers that message in a way that lets these men know -- that lets the world know -- he understands exactly how far they traveled last year.

"I said when I took this job," he said, "that we had good players. We just didn't have a good team."

Now, however, they've crossed that threshold. They've arrived at a place only the best teams get to visit -- a place where confidence, talent and universal respect collide.

"Nobody remembers yesterday. Everybody remembers today."
-- Jeremy Bonderman

"We will not be a flash in the pan," Leyland said, firmly. "I'll tell you that right now. We've got a good team. We've got good players."

In fact -- and this is another scary development for the rest of the American League -- they have more good players than they had last year. The only guy who departed was left-handed reliever Jamie Walker. But they added one of the biggest offensive difference-makers in the sport, Gary Sheffield. Pretty good upgrade.

Try to find an area where this team has serious issues, at least on paper. Good luck.

Lineup: Bet you didn't know these guys scored more runs than the Red Sox and outhomered the Indians last year -- and now they've got their best October hitter, Sean Casey, for a full season, and they've plugged Sheffield into the No. 3 hole. And remember, they were so deep last year, their No. 9 hitter, Inge, missed leading the team in homers by one. "With our lineup, one through nine, I honestly feel there are no breaks in there," Inge said.

Rotation: You always wonder about staffs that had to pitch that extra month the year before. This team already has to cover for the loss of Kenny Rogers for at least half a season. So if a Justin Verlander or Jeremy Bonderman were to go down, you could find us backpedaling on this whole column. But this is still a deep group, thanks to the return of Mike Maroth, who missed half of last season after elbow surgery. And last June's No. 1 pick, future dominator Andrew Miller, could show up any minute, especially now that Rogers has created an ace-ian kind of vacancy. So for now, assuming the rest of these guys stay healthy, it's still tough to work up any serious trepidation about a rotation that led the big leagues in ERA and shutouts."Our starting staff" said Bonderman, "is almost like the Braves used to be."

Bullpen: As fun experiences go, facing this bullpen is right up there with, say, an appendectomy. From Jose Mesa to Wilfredo Ledezma to Joel Zumaya to Fernando Rodney, it's a nonstop radar-gun fest. Then Todd Jones marches in and carves you up with his cutter. Opponents hit only .242 against the whole bullpen last year -- meaning you had a better chance of getting a hit off Roy Oswalt, Curt Schilling or John Smoltz than you did against these smokeballers. "When it's coming in at 89 (mph) from one of those guys," quipped Blue Jays masher Vernon Wells, "it's an off-speed pitch."

The Manager: There might not be another locker room in the sport -- maybe in any pro sport -- where more players go out of their way to pay homage to the guy running the show than they do in this one. "He's awesome, man," said Bonderman, in answer to a basic question about whether Leyland has done or said anything different this year. "He can lighten you up in a hurry. But he'll jump on you when he has to, too."

The Farm System: Leyland admits he's more concerned this year than he was last year that, if the Tigers need help from their system, there isn't quite as much there. "I mean, we just can't reach down to the minor leagues and grab a few more Zumayas and Verlanders," he said. But other teams still rave about the Tigers' prospects. Even when you get past Miller, we could name quite a few teams who would consider Jair Jurrjens their best pitching prospect. And outfielder Cameron Maybin is on everybody's list of the top-10 phenoms in the game. "The one thing you have to do [to guard against falling back to the pack]," said GM Dave Dombrowski, "is, you've got to keep the talent coming."

Chemistry: There aren't many stories like this one. A group of players loses together for year after stinking year. Even loses 119 games one of those years. Then nearly a dozen of the same guys are still around to see the same team go to a World Series. But it happened in Detroit. And the transformation from flops to champs glued this cast together more powerfully than just about any other team you'll run across. "I've been around a lot of guys that will do extra because they're free agents, because they want to get paid," Jones said. "But I've never been around guys who want to do it because the other 24 are watching them, and [they] know what it took to get to the World Series last year. ... We care about each other, and that's a great place to be."

No Fear-Of-Yanks-And-Sox Disease: It's easy to have an inferiority complex when you play in the same league as those Yankees and Red Sox conglomerates. But if this team was so intimidated, how did it manage to wipe out the Yankees three games in a row last October after losing the opener of their LDS? "I remember I said, 'I want to play against the Yankees,' " said shortstop Carlos Guillen. "Once we won [Game 2]," said Bonderman, "we looked at them, and it was like, 'You've got to prove you can beat us.' ... We don't fear anybody. We respect everyone, but we show no fear."

Jim Leyland
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarJim Leyland is one of the best motivators in the game. When he talks, the Tigers listen.
October Inspiration: If the only thing worse than not getting to the World Series is losing the World Series, the Tigers could be one dangerous team this year. "I don't care about [just] getting there," said Inge. "Yeah, it's an honor to be there. And yeah, we deserved to be there. But to go there and not win, it just really, really left a bad taste in my mouth. I don't like it one bit. I know we can win. So there's a huge sense of unfinished business."

Now obviously, if the Tigers overload the trainer's room, all of this could change, especially in a division as treacherous as the AL Central. And there are a lot of key players here who probably know their health-insurance policy numbers by heart (Guillen, Magglio Ordonez, Ivan Rodriguez, Placido Polanco in particular).

So there will be many obstacles on the obstacle course. But this team seems to have caught on to that, too.

"I just wish people wouldn't just chalk up what guys did last year and throw in Sheffield and say, 'Well, that's it,' " Jones warned. "That's the hard part that people don't understand. You've got to get excited about the journey. You can't worry about the ending. You've still got to play the games out. And when you focus on the numbers, it's hard to concentrate on the journey."

But no journey can match last year's journey. So if the team on the field looks anything like the team on the paper over the next six months, we bet you won't hear words like "cute" or "magical" or "enchanted" to describe the Detroit Tigers anymore.

"Last year, I think everybody was really happy for us," Jones said. "That will be the difference. Everyone in baseball was pulling for us the first six weeks of the year, because they all figured we'd get over .500 and fade, and it would be a nice little cuddly story.

"But now," Jones chuckled, "they all want to beat our butts."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com