Winning does wonders for Tigers' image
LAKELAND, Fla. -- As we strolled around the Tigers' spring training camp, it hit us.
Here in America, we measure winning in the wrong place:
We would measure it with the sight of 2,000 people, huddled around a back field in Tigertown at 10:30 on a wind-chilled Florida morning, watching pitchers fielding ground balls off a fungo bat.
We would measure it with the crazed scramble to find a decent March hotel room in exotic Lakeland.
We would measure it with the laughs we hear in a transformed clubhouse, a place that is no longer looked upon as a room where losers hang out.
The 2007 Tigers are walking, talking proof that the 95 games the standings say they won last year don't begin to express what they really won.
What their World Series journey really did was change their franchise. And change their lives. Just ask them.
"It does change lives. It changes communities. It changes cities," said first baseman Sean Casey, who was traded to Detroit in July 2006 and couldn't wait to re-sign as a free agent in November.
"When you win, it really does bring people together,'" Casey said. "If you're out walking around the mall and you just see a guy with a Tigers hat, it starts a conversation. It brings fans together. It brings fathers and sons out to a game. It brings friends together to watch games on TV. You see it everywhere."
And you do. You see it imprinted on faces all over Lakeland, never before regarded as a fashionable spring training destination.
You see it at the ticket windows, where this team sold more Grapefruit League tickets than it did all last spring -- before it had even played an inning.
And you see it in the upbeat demeanor of the people who draw paychecks from this team -- a team that had become a laugh track in spikes after 12 straight losing seasons.
"It used to be, if you got released out of the Tigers, you had a problem getting a job," said closer Todd Jones, whose history with this club dates back to 1997. "Because the street cred around the industry was, if he can't cut it in Detroit, how's his career looking? The same thing [happens] with other teams now. But it's just nice to be on this end of the cycle -- for once -- and not be the butt of a joke, or an afterthought."
Twelve losing seasons in a row. Twelve. No team in history had ever spent that many years below .500 and then pole-vaulted all the way to the World Series.
So how do we properly measure the transformational tidal wave unleashed by a turnaround like that? We ask the people in the middle of it to document and describe it for us. That's how.
The GM/CEO/club president arrived a little more than five years ago. It didn't take long before David Dombrowski realized he had a mess on his hands.
He didn't merely have to stop the losing, or the how-bad-are-the-Tigers jokes. He had to undo the damage all that losing had inflicted on the brain waves of the people around him.
"One of the goals -- and we used to talk about it all the time -- was to change the mind-set of the people in the organization," Dombrowski said. "Not that they were losers. They just accepted the losing too easily."
That's what happens when your team loses for 12 years in a row. So this World Series team that Dombrowski built, he had to begin by building in the mind. In many minds.
He talks now about all the plans, the strategies, the goals. He talks about the people who were brought in and the changes that had to be made. It all had a purpose -- this purpose. It all felt right. But there was no way to prove it was right -- until a World Series season provided the only proof the planet would take seriously.
"You can talk about building," Dombrowski said. "You can talk about young players. You can talk about quality young players. But they don't get recognized until you win. You've got to win."
It was only a year ago that Dombrowski came across a list of the top 25 pitching prospects in baseball. It seemed to him that list was missing a prominent name:
The day Dombrowski read that list, we happened to run into him on the same back field in Tigertown. We'll never forget his venting: "If there are 25 better pitching prospects than Justin Verlander, I'll "
He decided not to finish that sentence. But we got the idea. A year later, it's clear exactly why Verlander didn't make that list.
"You don't get the recognition," Dombrowski said, "until you win."
It was the place nobody wanted to play, and the place nobody wanted to stay.
"Four years ago," Dombrowski said, "you'd try to sign players, and they'd give you reasons why they didn't want to play for you. 'You're not drawing well. You're not winning. Cold-weather climate. Players don't come from there.' I heard all those reasons -- and many more.
"I remember one [free agent] who was doing everything he could to not accept our offer. He just kept stringing us along, hoping something else would come up, even though we pretty much knew we were the only team that had made an offer. Even the agent was saying, 'We're just waiting.' And it went on a long time. I mean months."
Now that a World Series has cast its glow on the franchise, it's almost shocking to hear the marquee future free agents -- Pudge Rodriguez, Carlos Guillen, Kenny Rogers -- just about begging this team to sign them, extend them, keep them around.
You see Casey, jumping at the Tigers' offer last fall, not even a week into the free-agent signing period. You hear Rodriguez saying: "Everyone wants to come here right now." So how magical is the power of winning? That says it all.
"Really," Dombrowski said, "that's the difference between one extreme and the other -- why people don't want to play with you, versus why, all of a sudden, they do. You've got the same franchise except you win."
The closer was a Tiger back in the days of Deivi Cruz and Melvin Nieves and Omar Olivares. Todd Jones first joined the Tigers in February 1997, the season after a 109-loss nightmare.
He hasn't been a Tiger for all 10 seasons since then. But he goes back in time further than anyone around him. He saw a once-great franchise disintegrating in front of his eyes. He'd known nothing in this town but losing and more losing.
Until last year, when the Tigers brought him back, after a 4½-year, seven-team intermission. For this.
"My whole career," he said, "my knock was: 'He can't get big outs. He can't pitch in big-pressure [situations]. He's just a second-tier closer.' Well, being on a good team gives you the avenue to debate that point."
Three years ago, he got released by the Devil Rays. So imagine the feeling of this man at age 38, finding himself back in Detroit in October 2006, in the middle of a celebration he never thought he'd live to see: A celebration by a team that had just won the ALCS and now had an appointment with the World Series.
It was so overwhelming that, more than an hour after the last pitch, "I went back out on the field," Jones said. "And I sat on the back of the mound -- for five minutes, 10 minutes just sitting there, freezing, in this empty ballpark, knowing I was going to the World Series. And it was such a fulfilling moment."
Later that night, he and his wife went out to dinner -- and got a standing ovation. For the next week, as the Tigers waited for the Series to start, he could hardly walk down the street without experiencing another head-on collision with rampant euphoria.
"People were just happy," he said. "We made them happy. People just wanted to come up and say thanks. They didn't want anything. They didn't want you to sign a picture or anything. They just wanted to say thanks. It was an awesome feeling.
"To be a part of that kind of team, that hits such a chord with people, I mean, that is why you play."
When do you see this -- ever? When do you see a baseball team, in this age of money and mercenaries, that brings back just about every player from the year before?
But that's what the Tigers did this winter. They lost one reliever (Jamie Walker) to free agency. They traded for Gary Sheffield and signed Jose Mesa. But other than that, this is exactly the same team that played in the World Series the year before.
Hey, it sure wasn't broke. So why would they fix it -- or even redecorate it?
And the men in that clubhouse are totally conscious of who is back, because the 8½ months they spent together last year represent an experience very few humans outside their sphere can relate to.
What they lived through together -- the exhilarating games they won, the memories they made, the magic carpet they rode -- was the ride of a lifetime. It was a giant magnetic force, bonding them to each other for the rest of their lives.
"People always ask what I like about playing," catcher Vance Wilson said. "Well, I love the competition. But more than that, I love being a part of something. It's always special. But last year, to be a part of something like that, man, it was extra special."
When a baseball team gets so tight that the men in uniform hate to leave the ballpark, it's a sign they've enrolled in a whole different chemistry class than most teams these days. But that was the 2006 Tigers, a group that had a tough time telling the difference between the comforts of home and the comforts of the home office.
After home games, they found themselves hanging around the clubhouse sauna -- just to "make fun of each other, laugh about the game, talk seriously about the game," Wilson said. "Our sauna was just that place where we'd kid around and call it a team meeting."
And even on the road, "it's amazing to think back on how many times the bus had to wait because we weren't ready yet," Wilson said, laughing. "We had to delay the bus because guys were eating, talking, drinking beer together, all these things. It was almost like an inconvenience, forcing us out of the clubhouse."
So as that heart-thumping voyage kept going and going, they'll never forget the feeling of not wanting it to end.
"When we lost to the Cardinals," Wilson said, "I remember us all sitting there in the clubhouse. You look around, and you see all these guys, and you're thinking, like, 'Man, I can't believe I've got to go home now.' It's an emotional time. You kind of want to lay on the ground and start crying -- not only because you lost, but because you're fixing to leave your teammates, who have become your best friends."
They were forced out of that clubhouse, too, obviously. But now they're back, staring into the same faces, savoring the rare opportunity to do it again.
Their manager, Jim Leyland, isn't into rearview mirrors. He has told them to stuff the good times into their memory banks and take them off the shelf some other time.
But even as they look ahead, they've been transformed by the season they left behind. So even the same old spring training drills feel different than before.
"That bond is still there," Jones said. "So it's a different kind of preparation, and a different kind of expectation, because you don't want to let your teammates down, let your friends down who you connected with. And those guys don't want to let you down.
"You know, I've been around a lot of guys that will do extra because they're free agents, because they want to get paid. But I've never been around guys who want to do it because the other 24 are watching them, and who know what it took to get to the World Series last year. We want to make sure that, if all our pieces are back, we don't want to be the reason that it doesn't happen again.
"I guess it's because it takes so much from everybody that you can walk around that clubhouse and look at every player that you played with and remember something they did during the playoffs. Or something that they did during the season to get us there. And that just puts a good feeling in it."
So he is savoring that good feeling -- every second of it -- because he knows that other feeling, that old Tigers feeling, all too well.
"I guess when you've got the most to lose," Jones said, "that's when it feels the best when you win."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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