The Detroit Tigers are leading their division. In September. Late September.
Seriously, even when I try punching myself thinking that I’ve just fallen into a deep slumber all summer and had this really long and crazy dream, all I get are bruises, no answers. So I gladly concede: This summer has been a reality, and it’s really going to happen.
In two weeks, Detroit will begin playing playoff baseball. Read that again if you must, but then move on, because it’s the truth. The Tigers will be playing playoff baseball, and it won’t be on a video game.
To say it’s been a long time coming is an understatement.
I don’t care if Detroit is officially Hockeytown. I don’t care if the Pistons have spent the past three years as Detroit’s sweethearts. And I certainly don’t care that most of the baseball world still thinks we’re a joke and will get swept in the first round of the playoffs (or not even make it, as some moronic analysts still contest).
The fact is, Michiganders still love their Detroit Tigers, and it’s been a struggle for us the past two decades.
How bad of a struggle, you ask? Let’s put a little context to this.
No division titles in 18 years. In that span, the Braves won 14, the Yankees won 10 and hell, even the Cubs won two.
The Tigers have lost 90 or more games in seven of their past eight seasons. Getting the point yet?
If not, how about this: In 2003, the Pistons won 11 more games (54) than the Tigers (43). On the surface, it’s not that weird – the Pistons were good, the Tigers were not. But when you consider that the Tigers play 80 more games than the Pistons, then you get that whole context thing I was shooting for.
The Tigers were bad.
Like George W. Bush-in-a-spelling-bee bad.
But things have changed. Much like the Pistons of a few years back, the front office did things right. When new president Dave Dombrowski came over to the Tigers from the Marlins in 2001, he said it would be a process, but we’d eventually reap the rewards.
There were definitely struggles (see 119 losses in 2003), but hey, what do you know, the guy actually knew what he was talking about.
Dombrowski slowly weeded out the cancers of the organization (how’s that early retirement going, Bobby Higginson?), wasn’t afraid to pull off a big trade for promising prospects (thanks for Franklyn German and Jeremy Bonderman, Oakland) and did an amazing job drafting and developing good young talent (I hear this Verlander kid is pretty good).
And once the core was intact, Dombrowski wasn’t afraid to spend a little dough on a free agent or two. He slowly added important pieces like Carlos Guillen, Ivan Rodriguez and Kenny Rogers while the rest of the team came together.
The final piece of the puzzle came this offseason, when managerial legend Jim Leyland joined the fold. Now, I love Tigers history. I remember watching Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammel playing together when I was a kid. But even I have to admit: The step up from former manager Trammel to Leyland is astronomical.
Leyland’s been there before, and with a young team like Detroit, his experience and motivational tactics have been a perfect fit.
Am I jumping the gun here? Detroit hasn’t even qualified for the playoffs yet. Yeah, I understand that, but I also have confidence in this team. Apparently, so do about 120,000 Tigers fans – tickets for Detroit’s theoretical three playoff games went on sale yesterday and lasted for a whole 51 minutes before selling out.
Now that I’ve covered that base and tried making excuses for why I can’t be called a jinx, let’s attack the real pressing issue: Can this team contend for a world title?
Unfortunately, not even a genius columnist like myself can answer that for you. I don’t want to be “that guy” who is just happy to be in the playoffs, but I understand that it will be an uphill battle for the Tigers to make the World Series.
The Yankees are absolutely stacked and are playing great baseball. The Twins have been very hot in the past few months, too, and can make some noise even though they’re Liriano-less. And the A’s are playoff tested and know what it’s like to play in October.
It really all depends on how Detroit’s young players perform. Rogers is hot, winning his last five decisions, but young aces Bonderman and Verlander have been all over the place in the season’s last few months. One start they’re nearly flawless, others they can’t protect a multi-run lead.
The Tigers have the talent – they wouldn’t be leading the toughest division in the majors if that wasn’t true.
They’ve got heart – they would have folded after both Chicago and Minnesota got within three games of them earlier in the year if that wasn’t true.
And they’ve got a bunch of loyal, hungry fans behind them.
Now the question remains: Can they do what the Pistons and Red Wings couldn’t do this year and actually play their best ball in the playoffs?
I guess we’ll just have to watch in October to find out.
– Bell’s next order of business: Waiting 40 years until the Lions can muster up a winning record. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.