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Tiger Flaws

The '62 Mets were lovable losers, but the Detroit team threatening their record has been colorless and grim in season of exposed ...

September 27, 2003|Elliott Teaford | Times Staff Writer

Looking back, the 1962 New York Mets were sort of fun. Playing in a broken-down ballpark, they were nutty and new with a 72-year-old manager who often spoke in a language all his own. The Mets were bad, but they had personality. They were "Amazin'."

These 2003 Detroit Tigers are a grim bunch, a faceless collection of no-names and inexperienced hacks. There is no facetious tag to hang on them. In fact, they are so bad they might not even get losing right.

Going into the season's final week, the Tigers seemed like a mortal lock to eclipse the Mets as the worst team in baseball's modern history.

The expansion Mets, assembled in only six months, were 40-120 in their inaugural National League season. The Tigers, established in 1901, set an American League record with their 118th loss Monday, but then won three in a row before suffering their 119th defeat Friday night. They have two games left and still have a chance to avoid infamy.

"I don't want to be part of the worst team ever," defiant Tiger catcher Brandon Inge told a Detroit newspaper this week. "I don't want to tell my grandkids that."

Expectations of the Tigers were not high to start the season. During spring training, when every team -- contender and pretender alike -- believes it has a chance to become World Series champion, the Tigers were simply hoping to avoid a 100-loss season.

Fans haven't exactly abandoned the Tigers, but they have been hiding from Comerica Park, the new downtown stadium. The Tigers' overall attendance average of 17,123 was the second-lowest in the AL going into the final weekend of the season.

"Even if they 'only' drop 119, this Tigers team is the worst team ever," "Brian D." posted on a Tiger fan Internet site this week. "The Mets circa 1962 didn't have 100 years to assemble talent. They didn't even have a major league team in '61, let alone a minor league system. The '62 Mets had an excuse, I'm not sure I can find one for our Tigers. That said, I would still prefer they finish without the record in hand."

Naturally, media attention has been trained on Detroit in recent days and weeks. Much as freeway drivers focus on a wreck on the other side of the divider, it has been difficult for reporters to avert their eyes from the Tigers.

One columnist, Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post, went so far as to defend them. Boswell correctly pointed out the Tigers cannot truly be called the worst team in history since the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics won only 36 games and had a .235 winning percentage. He wondered why a team that had all its stars sold in payroll-dumping moves by owner Connie Mack would be ignored in the Tigers-vs.-Mets debate.

"Because it's more fun to humiliate the Tigers?" Boswell wondered.

The Detroit Free Press' Web site Friday featured three articles and a photograph of the Tigers' victory Thursday over the Minnesota Twins, squeezing aside a story on hockey's Red Wings, winners of three Stanley Cup championships in the last six years.

The rival Detroit News' Web site also played the Tigers above the Red Wings. There was a photograph of a Tiger fan named Carl Kudla of suburban St. Clair Shores, who wore a sweatshirt with the words "No Way" and the record-setting number of 121 with a red circle around it and a red slash through it.

What's more, the Tigers have gained quite a following among members of the '62 Mets, including pitcher Jay Hook, who penned an opinion piece for The Times this week.

"Needless to say, I've begun to follow this saga closely," Hook wrote. "As I listened to a Tiger game against the Twins recently, the announcer from Detroit said, 'We are losing games every way possible.' His words set me back 41 years."

Perhaps the only thing the 1962 Mets and the 2003 Tigers have in common is losing.

The Mets were a team of veteran castoffs just happy to have one more season in the sun. The Tigers are a team of youngsters trying to prove they belong in the major leagues.

The Mets had familiar names such as Gus Bell, Roger Craig, Gil Hodges, Frank Thomas, "Marvelous" Marv Throneberry and Don Zimmer. The Tigers have fresh-scrubbed faces such as Mike Maroth, the first pitcher in 23 years to lose 20 games.

The Mets played in the dilapidated Polo Grounds, former home of the Giants before they moved to San Francisco, while awaiting the completion of Shea Stadium. The Tigers play in Comerica Park, a major upgrade from ancient Tiger Stadium.

The Mets were managed by Casey Stengel, 72, who after winning 10 pennants with other teams refused to treat losses as the end of the world. The Tigers are managed by former Detroit shortstop Alan Trammell, a popular overachiever as a player and a chronic stoic in his rookie season as manager.

Stengel made sure everyone got the joke. Trammell has been determined to make sure nobody's feelings get hurt, going so far as to remove Jeremy Bonderman (6-19) from the rotation before he could incur his 20th loss.

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