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Username: Tigersfan9

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Posted on Saturday, June 03, 2006 - 1:09 pm:   Edit PostDelete Post   Move Post (Moderator/Admin Only)

Changing stripes
After years of futility, Tigers again are on prowl
By Gordon Edes, Globe Staff | June 2, 2006

DETROIT -- Jim Leyland, still wearing his navy blue cap with the old English font "D," sat with his blue-stockinged feet resting on his desk, the cigarette he'd vowed to quit smoking years ago freshly lit in his hand.

``We'd lost four in a row," he said, after the Tigers had scored two runs in the bottom of the ninth last night to beat the Yankees, 7-6. ``We needed to come out of it before the whole town went to hockey practice tomorrow."

For all the positive vibes they've generated this spring, they'd begun the night in Comerica Park with a chance to become the first Tigers team to lose four straight at home to the Yankees since 1926. That was Ty Cobb's last year as player-manager in Tiger Stadium, whose remnants remain a rotting hulk downtown, except for the urinal from the runway to the visitors' clubhouse, which Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell claimed as a souvenir and converted into a flower bed in his wife's garden.

Losing in spectacular fashion, of course, has been a staple of Tigers teams of recent vintage. In 2002, they opened the season 0-11. The next year, under new manager and longtime Tiger favorite Alan Trammell, they lost their first nine games, won one, then lost the next eight. On May Day, they were 3-23 with a .189 team batting average, and by season's end they had lost 119 games, most ever in the American League.

Tigers fans are conditioned to losing. That happens when your team has had four seasons of 100 or more losses since 1989, hasn't been to the playoffs since 1987, and last won a World Series in 1984, when Kirk Gibson had not yet gone Hollywood with the Dodgers (before coming back as a coach and getting cashiered last winter along with Trammell after two more seasons of 90-plus losses).

``It's hard -- it's hard for this city," said Hall of Famer Al Kaline, who has a locker in the home clubhouse and serves as special assistant to owner Mike Ilitch (imagine Yaz still having a locker in the Fens and John W. Henry leaning on him for advice, and you get the picture).

``It's a very proud city," Kaline said, ``a city where people work really hard for their money. To put that kind of team on the field hurt everybody who lives here, especially the former players who still make their home here. It just seemed like the pride wasn't there, for whatever reason."

But even as the Tigers fell behind, 5-0, after three innings last night, the Yankees catching gifted Tigers rookie Justin Verlander on a rare off night -- ``I think that was a little bit because of the Yankee mystique," Leyland said. ``He got out of his strengths. He was pitching careful instead of pitching aggressive." -- any resemblance between this Tigers team and its disastrous predecessors quickly evaporated. Just as they'd done two nights earlier, fighting back from a 6-1 deficit to tie the score before losing in extra innings to the Bombers, the Tigers did not roll over, finally overtaking the Yankees on Carlos Guillen's single off Kyle Farnsworth.

The Red Sox, who make their only visit to Detroit this weekend, should know they will have their hands full. Under Leyland, coaxed back to managing by president and general manager Dave Dombrowski, who had hired Leyland once before and won a World Series in Florida in 1997, these Tigers are eager to prove that their 36-18 record in the first third of the season, the best in the majors, is not Motown smoke and mirrors.

A team that won 14 of 15 games earlier this season and has the best earned run average of any team in the majors -- 3.60, more than a full percentage point better than the Red Sox (4.64) -- is in a stretch where they're playing the Indians, Yankees, Red Sox, and White Sox. So far, they're holding their own.

``Maybe at some point somebody will say, `Hey, we're not too bad,' instead of saying, `Well, this is it, they've got to play these teams now,' " Leyland said.

``We're not done. We're not as good as the Yankees yet. No question about that. We're working our way toward that. That's what we're trying to get to. But that doesn't mean we're not going to play our [backsides] off."

And in a city where building a new ballpark in 2000 provided only a temporary spike in attendance, the fans are coming back. This may still be Hockeytown, and the Pistons are a force in the NBA, but the near-capacity crowds expected for this weekend's series may just be the start of a summer-long renaissance.

``I believe this is a baseball town," Kaline said, ``even though people can only put up with so much. We've had 10 lousy years here.

``But the way we started off this season, everybody's talking about us again. And once school's out, this place will fill up all the time. If we stay close and be competitive, we're going to have a great year."

The manager, All-Star catcher Pudge Rodriguez said, deserves much of the credit. Last year, Rodriguez had a miserable season, going through a traumatic divorce, feuding openly with Trammell, showing an indifference to his performance manifested most dramatically in the number of walks he drew -- just 11 all season, compared to 93 strikeouts. Granted, I-Rod had always been a free swinger, but that was ridiculous.

He said he knew it would be different under Leyland.

``The best thing is Jimmy is doing a good job," said Rodriguez, who had three hits last night, scored the winning run, and is batting .308. ``He's keeping us very confident, day in and day out, telling us always to focus on the job. A manager like that, win or lose, keeps us on the right track. We play the game hard. Win or lose, even if it's by a lot of runs, we play hard for nine innings."

Leyland had not managed since 1999, when he walked away from the Rockies after a 72-90 season. But a man described by Andy Van Slyke, his former player with the Pirates and now his first base coach, as a ``type A personality, an old-school baseball man who holds players to the same values now as he did when I was playing," was receptive to the call from Dombrowski, who lured Leyland back to the organization where he'd been a minor league player and also managed in the minors for 11 years.

``If I didn't manage again, it would never have bothered me," Leyland said, ``but I always missed the competition. I just didn't miss everything else that went along with it.

``But I'm having a ball. I know I'm into it because I'm putting out all the little fires. My last year in Colorado, I just didn't do that, and you can't manage like that."

Within a three-day span last winter, Dombrowski made two key moves. Acting on the advice of longtime scout Dick Egan, he signed lefthander Kenny Rogers, who at 41 is still capable of getting people out. He also signed Todd Jones, who in Boston looked like he was at the end of the line -- in a three-season span he played for six teams -- but saved 40 games for the Marlins last season and has converted 16 of 17 save opportunities this season.

``I'm really glad I went through what I went through," Jones said. ``It helps me appreciate everything I did the last couple of years. I had a great time in Boston. If I write a book, a lot will be about my time in Boston. Such great memories there, and a lot of fun. I wish I'd been more part of the team, but I got pigeonholed pretty early."

With the return to health of shortstop Guillen and outfielder Magglio Ordonez, the Tigers have a strong core of veterans. First baseman Chris Shelton, a Rule 5 pickup from Pittsburgh, knocked Haverhill's Carlos Pena out of a job, then exploded at the start of the season with five home runs in his first six games. He's cooled since -- Leyland sat him last night after he went 0 for 9 in the first three games of the Yankee series -- but he is still hitting over .300.

But the real excitement centers on two rookies -- Verlander and reliever Joel Zumaya. Both have pushed radar guns to triple digits this season. Jones likens them to Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett of the Sox and Blue Jays, respectively.

``Beckett's more like Zumaya because they've got that powering, boring four-seam fastball," Jones said. ``Verlander is like A.J. It's electric, all over the place. They're two distinctly different fastballs, but equally hard to hit.

``Verlander's got great stuff. You ain't going to believe it. Josh has a better curveball, Josh can throw a slurve, Josh can locate better, Josh is more of a polished pitcher. But Justin might have a little bit higher ceiling. He was in Oakland in late April and his 98th pitch of the game was 101.

``Zumaya? Zumaya throws 101 with a slide step. No one throws 101 with a slide step."

The Sox will see for themselves. ``I just got through looking at A-Rod [Alex Rodriguez], [Jason] Giambi, and [Gary] Sheffield," said Leyland, who last night beat a Yankees team that was missing Derek Jeter, Sheffield, and Mariano Rivera (back spasms). ``Now I get to look at Manny [Ramírez] and David Ortiz.

``But I like our team. We got holes, but show me a perfect team. We came out of the gate so fast I think expectations are a little too high, but we can play."

http://www.boston.com/sports/b aseball/articles/2006/06/02/ch anging_stripes/
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Username: Paulmcall

Post Number: 689
Registered: 05-2004
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Posted on Saturday, June 03, 2006 - 5:06 pm:   Edit PostDelete Post   Move Post (Moderator/Admin Only)

Now if they can get Todd Jones from giving up too many meatballs, we'll be ok.

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