Tigers (finally) find improbable formula for success

In baseball terms, their lead starting pitcher is ancient, the equivalent of a '97 Taurus wagon with 200,000 miles.

Their batting style is straight out of recreation league softball: Swing at everything that doesn't bounce before it reaches home plate.

Their manager looks like the guy who takes your check at the auto body shop.

Yet the Detroit Tigers – a team that hasn't had a winning season since phones had cords – is, improbably, going to the World Series. For Michiganders from Menominee to Muskegon, and for all those in the great state diaspora who can show where they used to live by using their hand as a map and pointing, it's time to wear the old English "D" with pride.

Somewhere, Ty Cobb is poking Babe Ruth in the ribs.

"It's a great franchise," said Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski Saturday night. "The people around this city, the state ... it's just what they deserve."

In 2003 the Tigers were the laughingstock of baseball. That year only a late season surge kept them from surpassing the 1962 Mets as the game's losingest team.

Yet this year they won 95 games, and only a late season swoon kept them from winning the American League Central Division. As the wild-card entry in the playoffs, they trussed up the Yankees like a rotisserie chicken, then swept the Athletics. Now they have a week off to await the outcome of the National League Championship Series.

In truth the turnaround isn't a complete surprise. Pizza baron Mike Ilitch has won three Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings, and in the process he learned what it takes to produce championship teams. Now he appears to have applied that formula to the Tigers, which he bought in 1992.

The formula might be summed up like this:

First, acquire people who've won before. Dombrowksi put together the Florida Marlins team that won the World Series in 1997. Tigers field manager Jim Leyland was the Marlins' manager.

Leyland is a wizened baseball lifer, the Tigers' Dumbledore, a source of wisdom and inspiration who is skilled at motivating everyone from raw rookies to Ivan Gonzalez, the catcher who is the team's one sure Hall of Famer. Against Oakland he yanked prize rookie starter Justin Verlander not just in the middle of an inning, but in the middle of pitching to one batter. He started little-used outfielder Alexis Gomez, who proceeded to almost match his season total for RBIs in one game.

His managerial touch has been so sure that closer Todd Jones said if Leyland penciled him in as cleanup batter, "I'd expect to get a hit."

Second, the Tigers have made the most of their home-field advantage. The field at Comerica Park is large by baseball standards, and the team is built around defense and pitching. In recent years Dombrowski has assembled, via draft and trades, perhaps the hardest-throwing bunch of pitchers ever. Verlander routinely reaches the upper 90-mile-per-hour mark on the radar gun, while fellow rookie Joel Zumaya can hit 103, a speed at which, to a batter, the ball appears to dissolve into its constituent atoms.

Lead starter Kenny Rogers is a soft-tosser by comparison and over 40 as well. Yet he has given the youngsters a veteran example to follow.

Against the Athletics the Tiger starters' Earned Run Average was a sterling 2.59. The A's starters, by contrast, had an ERA of 7.97.

Third, when all else fails, throw money. The Tigers overpaid to attract Ivan Rodriguez as a free agent. Gimpy slugger Magglio Ordonez has a five-year contract.

In some ways the offense is akin to the Tiger teams of the early 1990s, when the Tabbies had so many strikeout-prone players they were known as the "Sultans of Swish." But it has produced more than enough runs so far to back up the great pitching.

Now the World Series awaits. For a state with cold weather and a dreary 7.1 percent unemployment rate, it will be a welcome fall diversion.

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