Detroit's repair job rolling

Tigers: Baseball's worst team spent the winter signing free agents, and the early result is five wins in its first seven games.


April 14, 2004|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

DETROIT - These are heady days at Comerica Park. The Detroit Tigers, who flirted with the worst season in major league history last September, are sitting atop the American League Central after winning five of their first seven games.

They swept the Toronto Blue Jays on the road to open the season and they gave better than they got in their home-opening series against the Minnesota Twins. It was enough to give a chronic last-place team delusions of adequacy, but manager Alan Trammell isn't even allowing himself to savor the moment, which is too bad because there's no guarantee that there will be anything to savor a week or a month from now.

"It's premature to make any statements," Trammell said before last night's 7-5 loss to the Blue Jays. "We've gotten off to a good start, but I'm not surprised. We were hoping that would be the case."

Of course, such a scenario required slightly more than mere hope. The Tigers were so bad last year that it still requires an Evel Knievel-like leap of the imagination to envision them finishing 2004 with a .500 record.

They lost 119 games last year and needed to win five of the last six games of 2003 just to avoid superseding the 1962 Mets as the losingest team ever. But from the depths of that debacle came the financial commitment to climb back to respectability, and out of baseball's depressed free-agent market came the opportunity to accelerate a rebuilding program that was in progress.

The Tigers signed veteran infielders Fernando Vina and Carlos Guillen, outfielder Rondell White, Gold Glove catcher Ivan Rodriguez and former Orioles pitcher Jason Johnson, which clearly changed the chemistry in the clubhouse, even if the large influx of experience and talent did not - on paper - change the short-term prospects of the team.

They also lured closer Ugueth Urbina out of self-imposed exile late in spring training and are expected to activate him today.

Let's get real here. The Tigers could tie the major league record for season-to-season improvement (38 wins by the 1903 New York Giants) and they still would not finish with a winning record. It's really more about the direction that the franchise is going.

"You can't go anywhere but up after last year," said Johnson, who was non-tendered by the Orioles in December and turned up as the Tigers' Opening Day starter after signing a two-year, $7 million deal. "That's the way we're all looking at it.

"When you're a baseball player, you don't look back. It's about what is going to happen this year, not what happened last year."

Johnson pitched well on Opening Day at Toronto's SkyDome, and the Tigers haven't looked back yet. They won as many games in the season-opening series against the Blue Jays as they won in all of April last year, and last night set a club record by scoring at least five runs in their first seven games of the season.

The team was upbeat in spring training, but there was no sign of any dynamic change of fortune. The Tigers didn't have a winning record during the exhibition season (14-17-2), and they still had much of the same pitching staff that took such a pounding over the course of the previous year.

The arrival of several veterans from successful backgrounds may have helped change the subject, but Trammell had done a good job of convincing the holdovers from last year to keep their focus on the future.

It wasn't easy, not after young starter Mike Maroth became the first pitcher in a generation to lose 20 games. Not after the Tigers ranked dead last in the league in every major offensive category except home runs and posted a 5.30 team ERA that ranked 29th in the major leagues.

"They way I look at it, last year is gone. ... It really is," Trammell said. "Good or bad, you have to turn the page. Last year is over. ... We don't dwell on that. If you had a bad year, you wouldn't bring it up every chance you got, either."

Trammell's positive approach carried enough weight that the new players saw little evidence in spring training that the Tigers were coming off such a cataclysmic season.

"Nobody really brought it up," said Vina, who signed a two-year contract in December on the promise that more quality players would follow. "A lot of us weren't here last year, so we didn't think about what happened last year. We were focused on what's ahead of us. We wanted to start off with a fresh new attitude.

"Obviously, it's just the first week and you can't get too fired up about that, but let's be honest: The first week the last few years has been pretty bad around here. Regardless of what happens the rest of the year, things have changed."

Perhaps the amazing thing is that the Tigers were able to convince some pretty good players to help them climb out of that hole.

Rodriguez accepted a four-year contract after negotiations fell through with the Orioles, but he appears to be anything but a reluctant Tiger. He helped lead the Florida Marlins to an unlikely world title last year and insists that it's possible he will play in the World Series with the Tigers before his contract is up.

"Last year in Florida, I didn't know any of the players and we ended up in the World Series," Rodriguez said. "I see the same kind of players here, guys who come out early and work hard and play the game.

"It's always great to start off winning. We just have to keep doing the same thing. We have to concentrate on one game at a time."

Declawed Tigers Since going 85-77 in 1993, the Tigers have had a string of losing seasons (starting in 1998, the Tigers moved from the American League East to the Central):

Year W-L Finish

1994 53-62 5th

1995 60-84 4th

1996 53-109 5th

1997 79-83 3rd

1998 65-97 5th

1999 69-92 3rd

2000 79-83 3rd

2001 66-96 4th

2002 55-106 5th

2003 43-119 5th

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