Monday, October 16, 2006

2006 American League Champions

I think a lot of people are struggling for the right words to talk about this Tiger team because it has snuck up on them. In 2001, after having seen the team get a whiff of .500 the previous season, I foolishly bet my friend they could reach 85 wins. He said I was crazy; they had only reached 79 the previous season and now they didn’t even have Juan Gonzalez. Big deal, I said. You don’t think they can get 22 home runs from whoever fills that four spot? The next season I was a little wiser and reduced the over/under on the same bet to 75 wins. I lost again and they were even worse. In 2003, we didn’t do the bet because there was no number I felt comfortable picking and there was no way I was going to cheer when the Tigers scratched to the number that I feared may be accurate - 50 wins. As everyone knows by now, even that pathetic goal was out of their reach.

I love this Tiger team, but I loved those Tiger teams, too. Back then, I had to latch on to the smallest successes and it seemed like each one would get smothered in the hope. I was Lenny squishing rabbits and the rabbits were guys like Nate Cornejo, Robert Fick and Eric Munson. In desperation, I would scour the minors and see promising numbers only to find out that player was 31 years old or a “crafty” pitcher who would later be completely undressed and demoralized when he was called up – more like sentenced – to the majors. The efforts the Tigers made toward respectability were mocked widely and, it usually turned out, presciently. It became almost a cruel joke when dud free agent signings were dressed up like a cousin to take to the prom. Craig Paquette? We gave up a draft pick for this guy? I winced to read what the national media was saying about the Tigers. In 2002 and 2003 they were written off after the first week.

With many franchises, this consistent ineptitude at the major league level could be hiding a growing and deepening pool of minor league talent, but even this wasn’t true of the Tigers. Each year, scouts would look through the system and wave away the whole system. A closer with a number one overall pick? (Anderson) The only award those guys are going to win is Most Likely to Break Down. (Baugh and Sleeth) Even when a move in the Tigers’ draft was applauded, such as when they “stole” Michael Woods with a supplemental first round pick, he turned out to lack the promise the accolades suggested. I had turned to the minor leagues to take solace from a major league team that seemed poisoned. Well, the poison in the fruit was starting in the soil.

In 2004, they made some steps back toward respectability, but it felt like the team had to pull a Yankee move just to get to those 72 wins. We had seen these mock charges before and a lot of us were skeptical that this bear was just trying to get a rise out of us. We fans who thought of ourselves as savvy knew that this organization’s only hope was to be patient, and build this franchise back up from within. That takes a lot of time when you're starting with almost nothing. Pudge, Rondell and Urbina were all just bandages that would be long gone by the time the Tigers were ready to make a real charge. Therefore, we weren’t surprised when they regressed a little and dipped back to 71 wins in 2005. Signing Maggs and Percival and trading for Farnsworth were just more of the same. They were empty calories for the greedy fans who needed progress in the form of names they knew. We figured – we hoped – that Dombrowski was just pulling these strings while the depths of the system were mended and made stronger. You know, guys like this Curtis Granderson kid.

In fact, I cringed when 2006 was near its beginning and I heard reports of Dombrowski saying that if progress wasn’t made this year, people would be held accountable. That was strategically leaked, right? They’re not going to do anything stupid like trade Justin Verlander and Curtis Granderson for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell, right? I don’t know how good those two are going to be, but please tell me the rumor about trading them for Javier Vasquez isn’t true either. I’m already worried about how Leyland is going to do; didn’t he kill young pitchers like Wilson Alvarez in Florida and Jon Smiley in Pittsburgh? Please don’t make me fret that we just gave away another John Smoltz besides.

So the losing culture in the locker room was nothing compared to the years of calluses and scars we had built up as fans. Brandon Inge had been on the team the longest and we remembered when he was supposed to be an athletic young catcher who had not yet disappointed us. We saw them shoot out to 5-0 and nodded knowingly when they were just as quickly 5-4 and then 7-7. Sure, they could slap around Texas and Kansas City, but Chicago and Cleveland sure showed them where they stood in the division’s pecking order. Well, you know the story from there. They got up to ten games over after 28 games. Twenty games up after 48 games. Thirty games up after 80 games. By this time, even the crustiest fan would have to acknowledge their first winning season since 1993 was in the bag. You didn’t even have to be too much of an optimist to start talking playoffs at that point, but deep down I think we all expected the last game of the Tigers’ season to be a loss if they made the playoffs. Surely, they couldn’t have come this far this quickly? It took forty games above .500 with fifty games left to play to open our eyes.

Our Tigers were really good. They were smoking the rest of the division and they looked for all the world like they might just be the best team in baseball. Some fans even got overzealous and mentioned playoff rotations. But even on a pace to win 110 games, the wounds from past seasons were still too fresh to talk too much about what all this could mean. There was still a lot of time left, and there was still a lot that could go wrong. Well, as everybody who’s watched a game of the playoffs knows, it did. This team was by no means as bad as teams from a few years ago, but like a few years ago, I hated to turn on the radio. They were just going to talk about the Tigers and their historic choke. They blew the division despite a cupcake schedule the last couple weeks, and it was a good thing they did celebrate clinching the playoffs because that was likely the only celebration there would be.

So do you see? Do you see why I almost lost my voice when they beat the Yankees? Do you get why my nose starts to burn and my scalps tingles when I hear the call of Maggs’ home run? This was a franchise that had a team on ESPN’s Worst Teams of the Past 25 Years before the 2003 Tigers. This was a team that was a consensus fourth place team this season. I braced myself for disappointment when I predicted they would flirt with .500. Not break it. Flirt with it. This is the team that turned phone conversations with family from “Can you believe the Tigers?” to “Can you believe the Tigers!” They made us believe. Then they took that away. Now they have given it back. Now the Tigers are going to the World Series. I can only think of one thing in sports that could be better than that.

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