The day the Tigers clinched their first playoff berth since 1987, their starting pitcher was a 23-year-old rookie who picked up his 17th win. The pitcher on the mound for the final out was an undergrad at the University of North Carolina on Opening Day.
As president/general manager Dave Dombrowski celebrated, he recalled a conversation with new Royals GM Dayton Moore over the weekend.
"We spent a long time talking," Dombrowski said, "and basically I said, 'It's not easy.' People now look at this and think it's easy. It's not. And a lot of people were involved, because there's an evaluation process, there's a growth process, there's a change of attitude of process. It's just all part of it. Kansas City's like we were. We lost [for] a lot of years in a row.
"I felt all along we knew what we were doing. We didn't want to take any shortcuts. We wanted to be in a position where when we get good, we can be good for a lot of years. So I think that's where we are. We're not done this year. We've got a long way to go this season, but I think we can be good for a lot of years."
Given how much had to be done, it's hard to see how it could've been done easily. Not only were the Tigers well into what would be a 12-year stretch of losing seasons, but the young players they had signed to long-term deals didn't progress as planned. Worse, Detroit was viewed among the least desirable markets by players around the league according to a Sports Illustrated survey.
Several moves and plenty of prospects were to come before the Tigers could reach this point. But in some ways, the Tigers might not be where they are now if not for where they were then.
"It doesn't seem that far away," Brandon Inge said. "The mindset and the attitude seem long gone, but that season is fresh on my mind. I will never, ever forget or want to go through a season like that ever again. I wouldn't wish it on anyone. It's no fun coming to the ballpark just getting beat around every single day. I appreciate this much more [because of it]."
Though the 119-loss season of 2003 was the low point, it was already Stage 1 of the rebuilding phase. Dombrowski spent 2002 evaluating the entire system, and his first big trade provided the first cog. After deciding Jeff Weaver was the only Tiger that could draw valuable prospects in a trade, Dombrowski dealt him to Oakland. Part of the return package was Jeremy Bonderman, then a 19-year-old kid with a good fastball and nasty slider who was later referenced in Moneyball as a mistake draft pick.
Bonderman's jump from Class A ball to the Tigers rotation was a sign of where the franchise was headed. If they were going to lose big, they were going to give their youngsters experience doing it. A fair number of youngsters survived, especially in the rotation. The Tigers would need help filling the rest.
Arguably the biggest move was a consolation prize. Detroit went hard after Rich Aurilia, but Seattle was more attractive. While signing Aurilia, however, the Mariners shipped their injury-plagued incumbent shortstop, Carlos Guillen, to Detroit for Ramon Santiago and a Minor Leaguer.
Around that time, the Tigers turned their attention towards Ivan Rodriguez, still on the open market despite helping the Marlins to the 2003 World Series title. It was a risk given Rodriguez's injury history. Yet, given the Tigers' situation, it was worth taking. Detroit wooed him with a four-year, $40 million contract and a promise from Mike Ilitch.
"Mr. Ilitch told me he's going to put together a winning team in the next few years," Rodriguez recalled. "That's when I got to respect Mr. Ilitch, because he told me that. He said, 'Come here, we're going to do everything to get this team to win.'"
From there on, the Tigers targeted their signings. They needed a hitter to anchor the middle of their order the next winter, and took another chance on an injured star with Magglio Ordonez still on the market. They grabbed another team's spare middle infielder by dealing for Placido Polanco.
Long gone, no pun intended, are the days when the Tigers' home confines were known as Comerica National Park. The dimensions are definitely pitcher-friendly, and line drives into the gaps can seemingly go forever, but home-run hitters can find their power if they hit the ball toward the lines. More than pure power, however, the big outfield is beautiful territory for hitters who can slash the gaps and leg out triples, which is why guys like Carlos Guillen and Brandon Inge are so dangerous at home.
Surprisingly, however, it has never been a great place for fly-ball pitchers. Detroit has based its pitching prowess around starters who are more successful keeping the ball on the ground. Shots off the fence are pretty true for outfielders, but the dimensions require an instinctive center fielder who makes quick reads and takes solid routes, especially in day games, when the glare can be treacherous. Fly balls tend to carry more in the summer than late in the year, especially to left. Right-field shots are pretty consistent.
The Tigers' success has finally given everyone a chance to judge what the park is like with a packed, enthusiastic crowd. It proves surprisingly loud for such an open facility.
The finishing touches came last offseason, when the Tigers wanted to add more of a veteran presence on their pitching staff. Detroit didn't go big for top arms, but instead went aggressively after Kenny Rogers. They brought back Todd Jones after going through a half-dozen closers since trading him in 2001.
The one thread that runs through most of the deals was chemistry. The players didn't all have to be leaders, but they had to be a positive clubhouse presence. Rogers not only did that, defying his reputation last year, but he also proved he can still pitch.
"It's more important to make a splash in July, August and September," manager Jim Leyland said, "than it is in January."
Yet all the additions are a moot point unless Detroit's foundation of young players developed. The common base through all the additions was a pitching staff centered around Bonderman, Nate Robertson and Mike Maroth. The progress was slow, but anticipated. The 2006 season, former pitching coach Bob Cluck predicted, would be the year the pitching staff became the strength of the club.
Bonderman and Maroth combined for 40 losses in 2003. A year later, Bonderman was one of baseball's most dominant pitchers over the final two months of 2004, after Robertson was a borderline All-Star in the first half. Maroth broke through with a .500 season in 2005, two years after his 21-loss season in 2003.
"A lot of guys have shown they've graduated to being guys that are everyday, legitimate big-league players responding to everyday big-league situations," Robertson said. "That's been one of the funnest things to see. You bring guys in, you assemble a team and you don't know exactly what you've got just yet, and people see something in you."
The other big addition was the one reward the Tigers received for their troubles in 2003. They used the second overall pick in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft on hard-throwing college righty Justin Verlander. Along with fellow flamethrower Joel Zumaya, Detroit's once-moribund farm system finally began paying dividends from Dombrowski's plan to stockpile arms.
The young pitchers were developing, and the veteran talent was piling up. The one piece to put it all together was the manager.
"I think those guys out there made me pretty good this year," Leyland said. "I just hope they don't make me look pretty bad next year."
His players don't buy it.
"That's the reason that we have [so many] wins right now," Rodriguez said. "We started in Spring Training, and Jim told us to give him the best effort that we possibly can give in the field, and that's what we did for him. When you see a manager care about us and support us for 6-7 months, it's very special."
It took three years to put it all together. The goal, win or lose this October, is to have the Tigers contend at least that long.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.