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Wednesday, March 30, 2005; Page H11

The Tigers' 72-90 record last season might not have looked like much, but it was a 29-game improvement over their humiliating 2003 mark. And they got better still this winter -- perhaps not 29 games better, but enough to give the Motor City the faintest ray of hope.

The Tigers were literally a joke in 2003 -- a frequent target of Jay Leno's monologues -- and knew it. Poor Mike Maroth became the first pitcher in 23 years to lose 20 games. Up until the final week of the season, they threatened to surpass the 1962 Mets as the worst team in modern history.

But the Tigers' brain trust believed the 2003 disaster was a necessary bottoming out of the rebuilding process, and that there were better things to come. And they were right.

Two winters ago, Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski waited out the market and wound up signing superstar catcher Ivan Rodriguez. They used the same strategy this past winter, and nabbed slugging right fielder Magglio Ordoñez. Better yet, they protected themselves in case Ordoñez's troublesome knee gives out, by insisting on a couple of out clauses in the contract.

In addition, new closer Troy Percival gives instant credibility to the back end of the Tigers' bullpen -- interestingly, he has a 0.00 ERA in 43 1/3 career innings against defending division champion Minnesota.

One still wonders how any team with Jason Johnson as its Opening Day starter can expect to win anything. But many of those survivors from 2003 are now productive big leaguers, and no one is making jokes about the Tigers anymore.

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