Earning Their Stripes The new-look Tigers, who last year had an anemic offense and lost a league-record 119 games, began this season with a bang

April 18, 2004

He players aren't walking around the clubhouse in matching
T-shirts, the ones imprinted with a motivational slogan culled
from a self-help book or a segment of Oprah. No, this year's
Detroit Tigers are not on a mission, are not hell-bent on proving
that their epic failure in 2003 was an aberration. "Last season
is nothing to us now," says bench coach Kirk Gibson, who sat
alongside manager Alan Trammell through each of Detroit's
American League--record 119 losses. "This is a new team."

Memories of the Tigers' ignominious season were blessedly distant
on Sunday, when the crowd of 12,138 at Comerica Park stood and
roared in the 40° afternoon chill not for the announcement of a Stanley
Cup playoff score for the Red Wings, but because leftfielder
Craig Monroe had singled home pinch runner Andres Torres with the
winning run in the bottom of the 10th inning. The 6-5 victory
enabled the Tigers to clinch the three-game series against the
defending AL Central champion Minnesota Twins. And coupled with a
three-game sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays earlier in the week at
SkyDome--Detroit outscored Toronto by a combined 20-6--the
Tigers thus were listed in the Monday morning papers as having
the best record in the league (5-1).

"Who would have thought?" Detroit catcher-turned-outfielder
Brandon Inge asked after Sunday's game. Well, nobody, probably.
Last season the Tigers didn't win their fifth game until May 5.

Yes, Detroit still had 156 games to play, but for a team that
started '03 as an 0-9 laughingstock (whereupon Jay Leno
deadpanned on The Tonight Show, "Take Your Daughter to Work Day
is coming up. Finally, a chance for the Tigers to win a game") an
early flirtation with respectability was significant. "Even
though it's so early, for us, a start like this is huge," said
second-year skipper Trammell.

No Detroit player was more eager to forget last season than
lefthander Mike Maroth, who became the face of the team's
futility after starting 0-9 and winding up with 21 losses--the
most by a pitcher in 30 years. Effectively incorporating a new
cutter into his repertoire, Maroth allowed three runs in each of
his two starts last week, picking up a win over the Blue Jays on
April 6 and not figuring in the decision on Sunday. "After last
season, it was the mental as much as the physical that needed to
be turned around," says Maroth, 26, who struck out five Twins in
6 1/3 innings. "You're fighting every day trying to keep all
that losing out of your head. When the year finally ended, I just
didn't want to think about baseball for a while."

A welcome distraction came on Oct. 29, when his wife, Brooke,
delivered their first child. "The timing of Nolan coming into our
lives couldn't have been better: It put things into perspective,"
says Maroth, who didn't pick up a baseball until late December.
"When I got to spring training my mind was clear. Nothing felt
better than being 0-0 on the mound in Toronto."

Not once last season did Detroit's starting pitchers win
back-to-back-to-back games. Jason Johnson, Maroth, Jeremy
Bonderman and Nate Cornejo all won in their first starts last
week, and none allowed more than four runs. The biggest
turnaround in the first week, however, came on offense. The
Tigers scored seven runs on 11 hits on Opening Day; last season
they didn't score their seventh run until their seventh game.
They had five runs or more in each of their first six games. Last
season they scored that many three times in the first month. And
they rallied twice from three runs down to win. Last season they
erased deficits that large three times.

"This time last year, it was already miserable in the clubhouse,"
said Inge. "We knew that we were overmatched and really had no
chance. This year we know we've got a lineup that can compete."

With a dearth of major league--ready talent in the Detroit farm
system, general manager Dave Dombrowski aggressively pursued
several free agents in the off-season. His interest wasn't often
reciprocated; shortstop Miguel Tejada, for example, signed with
the Baltimore Orioles after barely giving the Tigers a chance to
bid. "A lot of guys made it pretty clear they didn't want to come
here," Dombrowski says. "We realized that to get people to sign
we had to offer a little extra incentive, whether it be more
money or giving a guy a second year when we'd normally just offer
one." The Tigers eventually snagged catcher Ivan Rodriguez (four
years, $40 million); leftfielder Rondell White (two years, $6
million); and second baseman Fernando Vina (two years, $6
million). The 32-year-old White, who says he's never felt
healthier thanks to the Pilates training he started in the
off-season, has had the most immediate impact, scoring a
league-high nine runs through Sunday.

Will the Tigers be this year's Royals, who started last year 9-0
and went from 100 losses in 2002 to 83 wins in '03? Of the 37
teams that started 5-1 or better over the last 10 years, 26 went
on to a winning season. But of the five teams that lost more than
110 games since 1940, none won more than 66 games the following
year.

In late January, as word spread that Rodriguez, who chose not to
re-sign with the world champion Florida Marlins, was about to
make a deal with Detroit, Marlins manager Jack McKeon told the
Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, "I would hate to see him go to a
lousy club and ruin all the good things he did last year that
enabled him to have Hall of Fame credentials." On Monday, though,
it was the Tigers who shared the best record in the majors with
McKeon's club.

"There's nothing lousy about this team now," says White. "When I
told people I was going to play for the Tigers, they kept making
jokes about how bad they were. I don't hear those jokes
anymore."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO FRESH START The birth of his son put a 21-loss season inperspective for Maroth, whose two strong outings helped Detroitwin five times in its first six games. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO RISK TAKER Rodriguez threw in his lot with the Tigers, though hisformer skipper felt it might hurt his Hall of Fame chances.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)