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Tigers return to the promised land

Tigers return to the promised land

DETROIT -- After years of wandering through the baseball wilderness, the Detroit Tigers have reached the Promised Land -- the World Series.

The Tigers won the American League championship Saturday, with a performance that was determined, gritty and totally typical of the team they have become. They came from behind against the Oakland Athletics, to win, 6-3. And in the process, they swept a good, solid Oakland club right out of the American League Championship Series.

This is a blue-collar, Rust Belt team, 25 people all pulling in the same direction all the time. There are no superstars here, but there is also an absence of individual egos. Everybody contributes; no one's contribution is discounted. This is a team, in the largest and best sense of the word, the collective result counting for so much more than the individual numbers.

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The whole thing is tied together by a mastermind who has everything but pretensions. Manager Jim Leyland is perfect in this role; Midwestern, working-class origins, straight-talking, incapable of being anything other than honest. He was the catalyst for this team's success, getting these players to believe that, even after long years of defeat, all things were possible. And he was right.

"Well, my team, I think early on in Spring Training we had a lot of good players," Leyland said Saturday night. "We didn't have a good team. And today I can make the statement that we've got a good team, and that's the thing I'm proudest of."

That is the other half of the Tigers' splendid 2006 story. It had been a while since a Detroit baseball team could be termed as anything like "good." Where the Tigers are now is light years away from where they were just the blink of an eye ago. Before this year, this franchise had not had a winning season since 1993. And in the early years of the new millennium, it was only getting worse.

In the last five seasons, the Tigers lost 502 games, including 119 in the depths of the 2003 season. In those five seasons, the Tigers finished an average of 32 games out of first place.

All of this defeat just made what happened at Comerica Park on Saturday night all the more special. There were no great expectations for the 2006 season. Leyland suggested that, coming out of Spring Training, a lot of people still regarded the Tigers as "laughingstocks." Now, in October, when it matters most, people will have to regard the Tigers as American League champions.

The Tigers may have been written off again after finishing the season on a five-game losing streak, dropping a final three games to the Kansas City Royals at home, and, on the last day of the season, dropping out of first place in the AL Central for the first time since mid-May.

In those circumstances, they were supposed to pose no particular threat to the mighty New York Yankees in the Division Series. The Tigers lost the opener of that Series, but then they came back to win three straight from the Yankees.

And after it happened, you realized that it was no upset, no surprise at all. The Tigers had better pitching than the Yankees, and better pitching is supposed to win in the postseason. And the Tigers were a much more cohesive unit than the Yankees. Maybe they had fewer high-profile names, but they played more like an actual baseball team.

And then the Tigers came up against the A's, a team that mirrored them in some ways, built around solid pitching, able to hit for power, sound defensively. But these Tigers were rolling. They turned what was supposed to be a tightly-contested ALCS into a sweep, a triumphant march to the Fall Classic.

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In three straight games, they clearly outpitched the A's. That was one thing, but Game 4 was another. The clincher Saturday was the best game of the Series, and might have been the best game of many series. The Tigers, trailed, 3-0, by the fourth inning and it looked like the Athletics were, at the very least, going to prevent the sweep.

But Detroit starter Jeremy Bonderman, after some early difficulties, managed to hold the fort and pitch into the seventh. In the meantime, Detroit's offense, baffled by Dan Haren over the first four innings, struck for two runs in the fifth and tied it in the sixth on a home run by Magglio Ordonez.

Wilfredo Ledezma is not generally thought of as being on the A list of Detroit relievers, but then, for Leyland, everybody on the staff has to get outs at some point, so one pitcher is as important as another. Here, Ledezma got the Tigers out of a bases-loaded jam in the eighth and pitched a scoreless ninth.

That set up the most dramatic moment of this series. Two-out singles by Craig Monroe and the eventual MVP, Placido Polanco, brought up Ordonez again. On a 1-0 fastball, Ordonez hit a towering drive to left, up, up and out.

In that moment, the Detroit Tigers ended years of frustration for this franchise. And Comerica Park exploded in the kind of baseball joy that only triumph in October can bring.

Not only had the Tigers come back from baseball oblivion, they were returning to the World Series for the first time in 22 years. For everybody among the Detroit faithful who still wore the Olde English "D" through all the lean years, the loyalty and devotion had been repaid.

The Tigers, what their manager calls "a meat and potatoes" team, were back on top. It wasn't an easy climb, and maybe, the way the regular season ended, it wasn't even a likely climb. But this richly deserving Tigers ballclub had brought the 2006 American League pennant back to Detroit, with a stretch of terrific, purely unbeatable baseball. At the end, it was no surprise. The Detroit Tigers were so good in the baseball essentials that they were supposed to be on top.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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