Sports Nut

Tigers, Burning Kind of Bright

Has Detroit emerged from two decades of baseball hell?

Jeremy Bonderman

Until last week, I didn’t recognize my Detroit Tigers. That’s when the team with the majors’ best record started falling apart like a Buick built on the first day of deer season. The Tigers lost two to Minnesota and then got swept by Chicago in the baseball adaptation of The Lost Weekend. Suddenly, missing the playoffs seems quite possible. These are the Tigers I’ve learned to loathe, curse, and disown since the Dukakis campaign.

When did it all go south for the once-proud franchise? I’d say about 9:45 p.m. on Oct. 11, 1987. The Tigers were down two games to one to the humdrum 85-77 Twins in the ALCS. In Game 4, Detroit was a run down in the sixth inning with one out and Darrell Evans on third. This was pre-X Files, mind you, but Evans was known to bore teammates with his UFO beliefs. Some kind of extraterrestrial kerfuffle is the only thing that could explain what happened next: The 18-year vet was picked off third. Who gets picked off third?! It doesn’t even happen in the Special Olympics.

The Tigers lost the game, and, the next day, the series. From that moment on, Detroit fared worse than a used K-Car in the Kelley Blue Book. Sure, the Tigers contended in 1988, but they faded down the stretch, largely because second baseman Lou Whitaker was lost for September with a knee injury incurred while doing the hustle. That is not a misprint. The next year, the team lost 103 games.

Detroit went from a 1980s juggernaut featuring Gibson, Parrish, Morris, Trammell, and Whitaker to the worst team of the 1990s, all thanks to crappy management. After boring America for years with his New Year’s Day choking, former Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler was hired as the team’s president of baseball operations. This despite the fact that Schembechler had never worked a day in the baseball industry. It’s quite possible Bo never realized he wasn’t still on the gridiron. In the 1990 draft, he nabbed three future NFLers (including Kerry Collins and Rodney Peete) and exactly one guy who played for any length of time in the major leagues. Still, fans would have overlooked Bo’s idiocy if he hadn’t fired beloved broadcaster Ernie Harwell. It’s not hyperbole to say Harwell is Michigan’s most beloved man. After a foul ball, he’d always announce the hometown of the fan that snagged the ball—”A nice catch from a man from Grayling.” Never have I been more bummed than when my uncle told me that Ernie didn’t really know where the foul-ball catchers were from.

Ernie eventually returned to the team, but the franchise’s karma had already gone to a dark place. So-called wunderkind Randy Smith—think Theo Epstein without a brain—succeeded Schembechler and presided over a cavalcade of trades that would shame Isiah Thomas. The biggest Smith fiasco came in 2000, when he traded a bunch of promising players for Juan Gonzalez. Juan Gone spent most of his only year in Detroit whining about the faraway outfield fences in Comerica Park. Smith had the fences moved in and offered Gonzalez an eight-year, $140 million deal. The only break the Tigers got in the ‘90s is that Gonzo turned it down. But Smith didn’t learn his lesson and started doling out long-term contracts like a government-cheese program run amok. Dean Palmer earned $16.5 million in 2003 and 2004 and provided exactly zero home runs. In 2005, Bobby Higginson earned $8.85 million for a solitary RBI. Most remarkably, the Tigers paid $14 million to second baseman Damion Easley after he had been released. These were gargantuan, worthless payouts for a franchise whose yearly team salary rated in the bottom half of major league franchises.

Player morale and morals mirrored the team’s decay. In 2001, Lisa Kesner, a flight attendant on Tigers charters, filed a harassment suit against the team, alleging that players displayed pornographic material on their laptops and refused her request to stop smoking pot in the lavatory. But the most damning statement about the state of baseball in Detroit occurred before takeoff. Kesner told the Detroit Free Press that “During my safety briefing, someone yelled ‘Who cares? We’re all gonna die anyhow.’ ”

If only! The horror culminated in the humiliating 2003 season. The Tigers started 3-25, hit .184 in April, and Mike Maroth became the first hurler in a quarter-century to lose 20 games in a season. The squad lost 119 games and needed a final-day victory lest they tie the 1962 Mets’ infamous record. Unlike those Mets, the Tigers weren’t novel or cute, just sucky. A team  I followed to the point of going to a game in 1988 with a 103-degree fever had beaten the love out of me. Too bad Michigander Dr. Kevorkian was in prison: The organization needed to be euthanized.

Only three years later, the Tigers are miraculously on top of the majors’ toughest division. Even more shockingly, the team’s rise has come because of great management. The team hired Dave Dombrowski as general manager in late 2001, and the architect of the Marlins’ world championships has been kicking ass with great drafts and some spectacular heists. I’m particularly fond of his acquisition of blossoming ace Jeremy Bonderman. Baseball geeks might remember the name from Michael Lewis’ Moneyball. When A’s scouting director Grady Fuson drafted Bonderman in 2001, resident know-it-all/general manager Billy Beane threw a chair through a wall. The next year, Beane, the most admired man in baseball who hasn’t won anything, fired Fuson and traded Bonderman to the Tigers in a three-way transaction. The guy Oakland acquired, Ted Lilly, won 14 games for the A’s. Bonderman? He’s 23 and second in the American League in strikeouts. Then, in 2004, Dombrowski fleeced shortstop Carlos Guillen *  from the Mariners for Ramon Santiago. Guillen hit .319 in his first two years with the Tigers; Seattle released Santiago. Dombrowski also ignored fan chatter that he should take Stephen Drew in the 2004 draft and instead went with college pitcher Justin Verlander. Now Verlander is a Cy Young candidate.

While the Tigers are on the verge of the greatest three-year turnaround in the modern era, I’m still not quite buying in. Verlander has tired recently, and the sixth through ninth slots in the Tigers’ batting order wouldn’t scare the Long Island Ducks. It’s not that I don’t appreciate this year’s resurgence—after all, I still cherish a batting glove backup catcher Mike Heath tossed to me when I was, uh, 25. But Tigers fans like myself teeter between tentative joy—meaningful baseball past April 15!—and mucho skepticism— Kenny Rogers and Todd Jones in October? Of course, if Jason Williams and Antoine Walker can win an NBA title, maybe Rogers can win a World Series ring. Come October, I have just one request. Mr. Dombrowski, please don’t bring Darrell Evans back for a ceremonial first pitch. If you do, I’m breaking out Kevorkian and we’re going after Evans with a long, drippy needle.

Correction, Aug. 15: This story originally and incorrectly identified Carlos Guillen as a second baseman. He is a shortstop. (Return to the corrected sentence.)