The Passion of the Tigers

I met with the team’s new manager, deep in the bowels of the stadium, a few weeks before the start of spring training. He embodied the game’s old-time, blue-collar roots—candid, colorful (and a wee bit profane), still chain-smoking and, still, after so many years, remarkably astute about the modern game. “You don’t manage teams any more,” he told me. “You manage individuals and try to mold them into a team.” He noted that his job would be to discover not only what his players could do, but—just as important—“what they can’t do.”

While he was sensitive to all the complex nuances of the modern clubhouse and very respectful of his players, he was unwilling to cede power to them. He was, unmistakably, a buck-stops-here guy. “I’m the man in charge,” said the manager, then newly hired by general manager Dave Dombrowski. “That’s not ego. That’s a fact.” Perhaps most remarkably, given that he had inherited a perpetually sub-.500 team, he had no doubt that he would be successful. “Everybody’s expectations should be high, because mine sure are,” he said. “I fully expect to win.”

Though none of the experts shared those expectations, the veteran manager quickly made good on them. His team captured the wild-card spot in the postseason fray, steamrolled some favored teams to get the World Series and … well, what kind of story would this be if the team didn’t win? And win it did. That manager was, of course, Jimmy Leyland, but the team was not his red-hot 2006 Detroit Tigers, but the 1997 Florida Marlins, capturing the franchise’s first championship.

Those of us who love baseball singularly, mostly those of us above a certain age, cherish the idea that no matter how much the game changes on the surface, there are some eternal verities and virtues. What worked 10 years ago—and we like to think perhaps even 100 years ago—can still work today. And nobody embodies those verities and virtues better than the 61-year-old Leyland, who, in his inaugural campaign year in Detroit, is now poised to usher the Tigers to their first championship in 22 years.

Of course, the 1984 season—the Tigers won 104 games, then swept the Kansas City Royals before spanking the San Diego Padres in the World Series—seems like yesterday compared to the dry spells suffered by the last two series champions, the Boston Red Sox (86 years) and the Chicago White Sox (88 years). However, Detroit’s recent woes—no winning season since 1993 and its 119-loss season just three years ago—coupled with the economic and emotional blight that afflicts the city of Detroit makes the Tigers’ tale every bit as compelling as those that preceded it.

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A number of readers have chided me for not devoting enough attention to the Tigers while obsessing about the East Coast powerhouses and archrivals, Yankees and Red Sox, in my backyard. While I view it as fair criticism, I write back to these folks saying that just as tragedy is more interesting than comedy (think Shakespeare), failure—especially big-money failure—is often more interesting than success. The Tigers are clearly a success story now, and I expect it to have a happy ending. I have always regarded the 2006 series as a mortal lock for any American League entry. But it is the Tigers’ success on the heels of extraordinary failure that makes this season such a singular sensation.

Indeed, redemption may be America’s favorite story line in most everything, especially in sports. There’s nothing that can make grown men weepy quite like redemption played out on the field, court, or, of course, ice. Little surprise that despite America’s dwindling interest in hockey, the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” remains this country’s favorite sports saga of all time. And this season’s Tigers stand as an embodiment of that story line. They were expected to finish a distant fourth in their division, ahead of only Kansas City. So imagine a “Hoosiers”-like against-all-odds yarn (with Gene Hackman playing Leyland).

Then top of that, the Tigers provide us with a remarkable redemption-within-a-redemption story. I give you the most unlikely heir to Kirk Gibson’s legacy, Kenny Rogers. In a career spanning 18 seasons, Rogers has won 207 games—ninth on the active list tied with the oft-lauded Curt Schilling—and lost only 139, a stellar winning percentage of almost .600, just below the career marks of Schilling and another revered veteran, Tom Glavine, and just ahead of Chris Carpenter, who is odds-on to win his second straight NL Cy Young Award. But despite those achievements, as well as a standout 17-8 season this year at age 41, Rogers is viewed as a second-rank pitcher who can’t win on the big stage or the big game. And that dismissive view is compounded by his image as a bully, stemming from last year when, with the Texas Rangers, Rogers lost his temper and got physical with a couple of TV cameramen. It earned him a 13-game suspension and a stint in anger-management classes.

But the pitching rap against Rogers has little to do with his boorish behavior. There are a whole host of numbers in Rogers’s career record that go a long way to offsetting those starrier ones. Rogers has never won more than 18 games and his lifetime ERA is a less-than-sparkling 4.19. He has had a peripatetic career, pitching for six teams, including three separate stints with the Texas Rangers, suggesting that a number of teams have questioned his value. Moreover, in two seasons with powerhouse Yankees teams in the mid-'90s, he managed a record of just 18-15. And in that second season he wound up consigned to the bullpen and out of the Yankees postseason plans. He has, however, pitched in the postseason—with a stunning lack of success. Prior to this season, he had appeared in nine postseason games (with the Yankees, Mets and Twins), starting five of them. He lost three, didn’t win one and his numbers stood as the very antithesis of clutch pitching. In just 20 and a third wretched innings, he surrendered an incredible 32 hits and 18 walks. His ERA hovered around 9.00.

Which is why his extraordinary performance this postseason comes as such a shock. It borders on Mickey Lolich reincarnate. (Lolich won three games in the 1968 World Series to lead Detroit over St. Louis.) In two starts and 15 innings, Rogers not only won both games, but he hasn’t allowed a run and has been extraordinarily stingy with baserunners—just seven hits and four walks. I confess I couldn’t be more shocked if Jeff Weaver had won a game in the NL Championship Series. (He did? You’re kidding!)

Quite honestly, every time I write “Rogers” in this “great performances” context, I feel as if it would only make sense if I were writing “Roger” instead. But somehow it is Kenny Rogers who has not only pitched superbly, but has pitched with a passion that could stand as an enduring symbol of the privilege of competing at that level for those stakes. If Rogers can sustain it for another week, he will stand as well as another remarkable symbol of American reinvention.

As for me—and I know that is the reader’s primary concern—I think back to my own life of extraordinary privilege and that long, intoxicating baseball bull session with Jimmy Leyland a decade ago. And it helps me to understand from whence this new Rogers comes. Because if Leyland has a credo—and he would never admit to any such high-falutin’ thing—it is professionalism blended with passion. It happens to be a credo I admire, one I aspire to in my own job (and even occasionally live up to.) It has worked for Leyland for a long time and now has the Tigers on the verge of a historic triumph. I for one couldn’t be more delighted for the man, for the team and for the town. I suspect I am not alone there.

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