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Some Big Steps Aided Tigers' Journey

Signing Rodriguez in 2004, hiring Leyland in 2006 helped Detroit go from 119 losses to World Series.

October 20, 2006|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

DETROIT — Warren Morris, Eric Munson, Nate Cornejo, Gary Knotts, Adam Bernero, Brian Schmack ... who could forget the 2003 Detroit Tigers?

Come to think of it ...

"We've kind of erased it now," said third baseman Brandon Inge, one of nine World Series-bound Tigers who played on the 2003 team that went 43-119, one loss shy of baseball's modern-era record for futility. "Because of what we've accomplished, that season, for a lot of us, doesn't even exist."

Oh, but it does. It's branded as the year the Tigers narrowly avoided being linked with the 1962 New York Mets, that stumbling, bumbling expansion outfit that went 40-120, baseball's all-time worst mark.

But the 2003 debacle also serves as a handy benchmark to measure just how far the Tigers have come, which is farther than any team has ascended in three years.

From "the butt of jokes on Letterman and Leno," as closer Todd Jones said after the Tigers won their first American League pennant since 1984, to a 95-67 record and a berth in the World Series, which begins Saturday in Comerica Park, the Tigers' 52-win increase is the largest three-year gain in baseball history.

"The guys here that season, we understand how far we've actually come," Inge said. "To get to where we are now is truly unbelievable."

So unbelievable that not even Inge, a struggling young catcher in 2003 who blossomed into a slick-fielding third baseman and bottom-of-the-order terror, can believe it sometimes.

Asked how the Tigers went from laughingstock to blue-chip stock, Inge said, "I really don't know. Dedication ... determination ... once you have a season like that, there's no place to go but up. You can't get much worse."

How bad was it? The 2003 Tigers finished last in the league in batting (.240), on-base percentage (.300) and slugging percentage (.375) and first in strikeouts (1,099). They ranked 13th with a 5.30 earned-run average and had a league-high 138 errors.

They had one 20-game loser, Mike Maroth (9-21), and probably would have had another if Manager Alan Trammell hadn't removed young right-hander Jeremy Bonderman (6-19) from the rotation in late September.

They lost games in every way imaginable, and after one error-filled blowout in September, Inge likened the experience to a nightmare.

"It's like that dream you had as a kid," Inge told the Detroit Free-Press, "when you're walking down the school hall naked and there is no place to go."

One good thing came out of 2003. The Tigers closed the season by winning three of four against the division-winning Twins, two in walk-off fashion, to avoid a 120-loss season.

The following winter, a month after acquiring shortstop Carlos Guillen from Seattle, General Manager Dave Dombrowski, with owner Mike Illitch's blessing, made a bold move he thought would help turn the Tigers around.

On Feb. 6, 2004, Detroit signed All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez, who helped Florida win the 2003 World Series, to a four-year, $40-million contract.

Many thought the Tigers overpaid, in dollars and years, but Rodriguez hit .334 with 19 homers and 86 runs batted in and combined with Guillen (.318, 20 homers, 97 RBIs) to lead the Tigers to a much-improved 72-90 record in 2004.

An added benefit: "Any time you bring in a future Hall of Famer," Tigers Manager Jim Leyland said, "you get instant credibility."

On Feb. 7, 2005, Chicago White Sox slugger Magglio Ordonez signed a five-year, $75-million deal with the Tigers. Again, industry critics howled, but after missing half of 2005 because of a hernia, Ordonez batted .298 with 24 homers and 104 RBIs this season, and his three-run homer against Oakland in Game 4 of the ALCS clinched the pennant.

"It all started with Pudge coming here," Dombrowski said of Rodriguez. "That finally opened some other peoples' minds about coming here."

Several shrewd moves in 2003, including the acquisitions of current starters Bonderman and Nate Robertson and designated hitter Marcus Thames, have paid off this season.

In June 2005, Dombrowski traded reliever Ugueth Urbina to Philadelphia for second baseman Placido Polanco. Polanco batted .295 this season and was named ALCS MVP after going nine for 17 in four games against the A's. Urbina? He's in a Venezuelan prison awaiting trial for attempted murder.

The Tigers also hit a few draft jackpots, nabbing set-up man Joel Zumaya, he of the 103-mph fastball, in the 11th round in 2002, speedy center fielder Curtis Granderson in the third round in 2002, and right-hander Justin Verlander, a heavy favorite for AL rookie of the year, with the second overall pick in 2004.

Still, with Rodriguez, Polanco, Guillen, Ordonez, Robertson and Bonderman, the Tigers followed their 29-win improvement in 2004 by slipping to 71-91 in 2005, their 12th consecutive losing season and fifth straight with at least 90 losses. Dombrowski's work was not done.

Last December, the Tigers signed pitcher Kenny Rogers to a two-year, $16-million deal and closer Todd Jones to a two-year, $11-million deal.

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