Once lost, Tigers find cause

Leyland motivates Detroit, eliminates attitudes of defeat


October 10, 2006|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,Sun reporter

Make no mistake about it: The Detroit Tigers were losers.

It showed in their record - the club lost 119 games just three years ago.

It showed in their recent history - no winning seasons since 1993, no playoff berth since 1987.

And it showed in their clubhouse, in their mannerisms, in the ominous cloud that seemingly followed this squad all around the country.

"It really was here a long time," third baseman Brandon Inge, drafted by the Tigers in 1998, said about the losing mentality. "Then we got [manager Jim] Leyland here and we got some guys healthy with some talent. And then, all of a sudden, you start winning some ballgames and you start to believe, `Hey, we're not a bad team. We can play with anyone.'

"And once it gets to that point, it just takes off."

That's why there was no panic last week, when, after the Tigers dropped three straight to the lowly Kansas City Royals and lost the American League Central title on the final day of the regular season, they opened the postseason with a sloppy loss to the New York Yankees.

It seemed the Tigers' fairy-tale season had pumpkined out. But this resilient club, led by Leyland, won three straight against the Yankees to capture its Division Series. And, starting tonight in Oakland, the Tigers will face another overlooked team, the Athletics, in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series, with the winner representing the AL in the World Series.

"We are all together as a team," said All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez, the only true household name on the club. "This team is very close to each other, and when we go out there, we do our best. We play hard and try to do the little things to win games. That's what we do here."

It all starts with the no-nonsense Leyland, who hadn't managed since burning out in Colorado in 1999. Leyland, 61, said he knew his team wasn't as good as it was in early August, when it was 40 games over .500. He also knew it wasn't as bad as it was in September, when it limped to the finish line.

Through it all, Leyland, in his Marlboro rasp, kept preaching about an even keel - not to get too high or low. And his players listened.

"Jim knows how to deal with those situations; he has been through it before," said Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski, who hired Leyland in Florida and watched him guide the Marlins to the 1997 World Series championship. "So at a time when people might flounder a little bit and wonder whether they need to reach deep down, he doesn't panic. He has a hold of things. I think he excels in those situations."

Leyland also knows how to reach his players individually. He might not always say what a millionaire wants to hear, but he's not going to back-stab a player either.

"He's a 100 percent straight shooter," Inge said. "He doesn't lie to you. If he thinks you are terrible, he is going to tell you right to your face. If he thinks you are doing a good job, he is going to tell you right to your face. There is nothing fake about him, and that's what you need in a manager."

Dombrowski, who became Tigers club president in November 2001 and GM the next April, fired Detroit favorite Alan Trammell last season. Leyland, who was a finalist the year before for the opening in Philadelphia, was atop Dombrowski's wish list.

"To me, once you know Jim Leyland is available and has the passion and fire back, well there is not anybody that compares," Dombrowski said.

Although he defers credit to his own staff and to Leyland, Dombrowski deserves praise for the turnaround, which he has done with an $80 million-plus payroll. He is the one who added the right veteran pieces - Rodriguez in 2004, outfielder Magglio Ordonez in 2005 and closer Todd Jones and starter Kenny Rogers this season - to a growing list of young stars.

The Tigers drafted several of their key cogs, such as starter and likely AL Rookie of the Year recipient Justin Verlander, rookie reliever Joel Zumaya and center fielder Curtis Granderson. And Dombrowski traded for starting pitchers Nate Robertson and Jeremy Bonderman, among others.

"Coming into spring training, I knew we had talent, but there were a lot of variables on how things would go. Such as me and Joel [Zumaya]," Bonderman said. "But coming out of spring training, I felt like we bonded really well. You got a feel for the manager and the players and how we fit in as a group. And I think coming out of spring, everybody was pretty confident."

Now they have a chance to do what seemed so outlandish in April. Knock off the Yankees and the dangerous A's - a similar club with few stars but plenty of ability - and get to their first World Series since 1984. dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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