Tigers Respond To Leyland's Still-Potent Roar

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 9, 2006

DETROIT -- On April 17, following a blowout loss to the Cleveland Indians, the clubhouse door closed behind the Detroit Tigers, and Jim Leyland strode to the center of the room, the last wisp of a quick postgame cigarette -- or was that steam from his ears? -- trailing behind him.

For the next several minutes, Leyland tore into his players, and the sight of this 61-year-old man screaming and cussing and flailing is not something the Tigers would forget anytime soon. Which, of course, was precisely the point.

"Right there," said rookie pitcher Justin Verlander, "we knew what people meant when they said he had a lot of fire."

On the afternoon of their first Leyland tirade of the season, the Tigers were a middling 7-6 after a 5-0 start. But they won two nights later in Oakland, launching another five-game winning streak, and they arrive in Baltimore this week -- for a three-game series against the Orioles beginning Tuesday night -- with a 20-12 record that ranks second best in the American League.

One might begin to suspect the Tigers could be this year's version of the Chicago White Sox, who rode a similarly hot start all the way to the 2005 World Series championship -- except that the better pick as this year's White Sox may be the White Sox themselves, who lead the Tigers by 2 1/2 games in the AL Central and have not lost back-to-back games since the first week of the season.

Regardless, only three years removed from a 119-loss season that still haunts the 10 players who remain from that team -- and 13 years removed from the franchise's last winning season -- the Tigers have emerged as the biggest surprise in the AL, leaving observers inside and outside the organization to ponder the perennial question: Are they for real?

"We're okay. We're not bad," Leyland muttered in the classic, low-key manner of that vanishing breed known as the Grizzled Baseball Lifer, when the question was put to him before a recent game. "Got a long way to go. They're a good bunch. They're trying hard."

Certain traits of the Tigers give the impression that, indeed, they may not be disappearing anytime soon. Their fast start has been fueled primarily by pitching -- a rotation that leads the majors with a 3.47 ERA, and a bullpen that ranks third at 3.16. Until veteran closer Todd Jones blew a save Saturday in Minneapolis, the Tigers had gone 11 for 11 in save opportunities and had not lost a lead after the second inning since Opening Day.

Their offense, meantime, leads the majors with 50 homers -- 10 by redheaded sensation Chris Shelton -- despite playing their home games in a cavernous pitcher's park, Comerica Park.

"I think we have a quality club," General Manager Dave Dombrowski said. "Our starting pitching is very solid, which puts us in a position where we can compete on a daily basis, and we also have a very solid bullpen that allows us to shorten the game."

Dombrowski, 49, is perhaps best known as the architect of the 1997 World Series champion Florida Marlins, a team he built from the ground up beginning with its expansion season of 1993. That experience has served Dombrowski well in Detroit, as the franchise's horrific 2003 season was nothing if not expansion-esque.

And while many observers around the game, perhaps even some inside the organization, believed 2007 was the year the Tigers would truly arrive -- putting them on precisely the same time frame as the Marlins of a decade ago -- Dombrowski said his slow, painful transformation of the Tigers never had a deadline on it.

"There are just some shortcuts you can't take," he said. "Doing this takes time, and you just hope you don't run out of time before people's patience runs out."

Among those Tigers who were around to experience it, the scars from 2003 are worn proudly. Left-hander Mike Maroth, whose 21 losses made him the poster child of the historically awful campaign, recently congratulated an out-of-town reporter who had chronicled the 2003 woes for having the decency to return to Detroit to do another story now that times are infinitely better.

"One of things that got me through '03 was just knowing things were going to get better, and everyone [in the media] who came to Detroit to bury us would be coming back to praise us," said Maroth, who is 4-2 with a 2.55 ERA this season. "I wanted to be here to experience that, to experience the good times."

The Tigers began to show signs of turning the corner last season, when they were within one game of .500 as late as Aug. 23, only to stumble to a 10-29 finish that wound up getting manager Alan Trammell fired after three seasons on the bench.

Back in his Florida days, when Dombrowski believed the Marlins were ready to make a title run, he hired Leyland as his manager. Within a year, they had won a world championship together. In Detroit this winter, as Dombrowski added pieces to a Tigers team that had fought its way back from the nightmare of 2003, he again turned to Leyland.

This time, however, Leyland was not the managerial star he was in 1997. This time, he was coming off a six-year hiatus from managing, dating back to his failed stint with the Colorado Rockies in 1999, in which he walked away with two years and $4 million left on his contract, admitting he was too burned out to do the job.

For most of the next six years, Leyland stayed close to his home outside of Pittsburgh, working as a special-assignment scout for the St. Louis Cardinals and spending time with his wife, Katie, and their children Patrick, 14, and Kellie, 12. By the time Dombrowski called about the Tigers job -- a call that amounted to, "Let's get the band back together" -- Leyland was ready.

"I have found him to be a completely rejuvenated Jim Leyland, with the same passion he had at any point in his prime," Dombrowski said. "He's always had the leadership abilities. He's always been a great communicator. He knows the game inside and out. But I almost find him back to the point where he was in his heyday. It's almost like [managing] is new to him. He's as good as ever."

Well, certain parts of Leyland's game are still rusty, according to those who have witnessed his act in the past. After Leyland's clubhouse tirade April 17, one player turned to first base coach Andy Van Slyke, who played under Leyland for eight seasons in Pittsburgh, and asked whether that had been Leyland at his rampaging best.

"No," Van Slyke said matter-of-factly. "He had all his clothes on."

As it turns out, then, there is yet another level of Leyland tirade -- one involving the same screaming, cussing and flailing, but fewer articles of apparel -- of which the Tigers have yet to see.

And if they make it to the end of the season without witnessing one of those beauties, we should be able to say definitively that, yes, the Tigers were for real.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company