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December 18, 2012
Remembering the 2003 Tigers
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Matt Sussman retired from the game of baseball after hitting .247 in third grade, walking away from potentially dozens of dollars. For the last seven years he has contributed to various websites and newspapers but mostly likes to make jokes on Twitter at @suss2hyphens.
In 2013 the Detroit Tigers will remain a team stocked with talent, stars, and some extra pounds they'll be happy to tuck snugly into their polyester pants. But the important part is that they won’t be awful. The front office will extol the goal of winning a World Series, and that's fine, because at least they'll be in the conversation.
See, next year they'll be 10 years removed from being the worst squad in AL history—and it's one that every young scholar of Tigers fandom had best study and memorize. It ought to be a law and there should be ScanTron tests. That way they'll never take "only" a playoff appearance for granted.
As the history books grimly dictate, the 2003 Detroit Tigers finished with a record of 43-119, 47 games out of first place in the AL Central. The lineup was basically Dmitri Young and a casino buffet of Triple-A players. The pitching staff was comprised of several starry-eyed 20-somethings who tried to keep their ERA below five, and a couple of them succeeded!
Naturally, with a lack of talent, losses happened early and often. Four games in, they’d already fallen to last place, where they'd remain all season. They began 0-9, then 1-17, 3-25, and so on. In my formative years (the ’90s), the Tigers were never really competitive, but these were new levels of badness. It was intriguing, not unlike how moths are captivated by buzzing bright lights.
They won a total of eight series. Eight! They were shut out 15 times. They finished worst in the AL in runs, hits, errors, OPS and strikeouts (batted and pitched). Their pitching staff: mercifully, only second worst at preventing runs. (Bless the Texas Rangers’ pitchers and the hitter’s park they played in.)
When the Yankees came to Detroit on June 1, 2003, Roger Clemens got the start with the hope of earning his 300th win. His opponent: Jeremy Bonderman, a 20-year-old pitcher who had no business being on a major-league roster. (In many ways, he wasn't.) The stars appeared aligned for that milestone to be reached, so I drove up to Comerica Park for the festivities.
The Yankees took a 7-1 lead into the bottom of the fifth inning, with a history almost certain to be made, only for the Tigers to somehow force extra innings. No win for Clemens. The game actually lasted 17 innings, with bonus ball turning into a battle of extra starting pitchers: Steve Sparks threw 7 2/3 innings of sparkling knuckleball relief while David Wells threw 5 2/3 innings. The Yankees eventually broke through, winning 10-9, proving once again: they couldn't even lose correctly.
I saw one other game that year, later that month vs. the Diamondbacks. A rain delay made it look like Detroit averted defeat in the most natural and logical way possible, but alas, the precipitation was temporary and Brandon Webb went the distance in a 7-0 D-Backs victory.
You can swing a bat at the Tigers’ schedule and find a weird loss. For example, they were one-hit by the Devil Rays and Joe Kennedy, whose ERA that year would finish above six. Then there was the game against the Indians wherein the game-winning run was scored by 38-year-old Omar Vizquel stealing home on Steve Avery, who didn't even attempt a throw.
The team also shattered the concept that records in one-run games mean something. They were 19-18 in such situations. (That same year, the 101-win Atlanta Braves were 17-25 in one-runners.)
Some of us may remember that Mike Maroth became the league's first 20-game loser in over 20 years. But Bonderman also lost 19 and… well, we'd need Dean Wormer to read off the rest of the rotation's record and ERA. But my favorite stat: saves. The Tigers team leader in saves was a tie between Franklyn German and Chris Mears with… five. Five saves. That same season, Eddie Guardado recorded five saves through the Twins' first six games. (Three of them were against the Tigers.) This was Mears' only major-league season, and he can say he led his team in saves. And he should say that, routinely, to everybody around him.
Weeks of head hanging and finger pointing later, a 12-6 loss to the Royals on September 22 put the Tigers at 118 losses, a new AL record. They were in dire danger of losing 120, tying the overall record owned by the expansion 1962 Mets. Avoiding this colossal fate required five wins in their final six games against the division champion Twins and actually-not-terrible-whoa-what-happened Royals. Around baseball, most playoff spots were locked up. With few other regular season mysteries left, I recall this becoming a national fascination.
As it turned out, they won five of their last six games. The starting pitcher in their finale: Maroth.
And with the sweet release of Game 162, the healing was able to begin. By healing I mean, of course, acquiring actual MLB players. Out of nowhere, Ivan Rodriguez signed with the team. The Tigers brought in Fernando Viña, Jason Johnson, and Rondell White and traded for Carlos Guillen. Not worldbeaters, but not Quadruple-A players either. They improved to 72-90. Hey, progress!
Some major players on that 2003 team remained key contributors on the World Series squad in 2006: Brandon Inge, Ramon Santiago, Craig Monroe and Omar Infante played in the field. Bonderman was one of their top pitchers; Mike Maroth also gave positive contributions during the regular season, as did Wil Ledezma, Jamie Walker, and Fernando Rodney. Others found success elsewhere: Cody Ross and Andres Torres later became important players on the 2010 Giants team that went all the way.
The death tarot card comes to mind regarding this terrible team. Typical thoughts of death invoke an actual loss of human life, but in the tarot world it's supposed to symbolize the end of an era, a rebirth, or a new chance. In the case of the Tigers, a raging tire fire was eventually doused, bulldozed, and salvaged for scrap—a less beautiful metaphor, but the thought behind it works. It's no shock that 2003 marked the first full season of Dave Dombrowski as their general manager, working to undo the gnarled remains left behind by exiled GM Randy Smith.
Further case in point: by virtue of losing 119 games, the Tigers earned the second overall pick in the following year's amateur draft. And that's how Justin Verlander joined the organization.