Many share in Tigers' ALCS triumph
Owner, GM, manager, players all help get Detroit back to Fall Classic
DETROIT -- This American League pennant was for the owner, Mike Ilitch, who worked tirelessly to make it possible. He hired first-rate people and gave them the resources to construct these Detroit Tigers. He never wavered during a season when they were tested almost from beginning to end.
The people who care about the Tigers owe him big-time for this wild ride of a season that has gotten their favorite team into the World Series for the third time in 43 years after finishing a sweep of the AL Championship Series with an 8-1 victory over the Yankees on Thursday at Comerica Park.
It's also for the president/general manager, the brilliant, swing-for-the-fences Dave Dombrowski who built a great organization by hiring gifted people and then empowering them to do their jobs.
Dombrowski didn't just make trades, he made big trades, trades that opened him up for second-guessing, the kind of trades that either energize a franchise or haunt it for years to come.
His deals for Miguel Cabrera, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, Austin Jackson, Omar Infante, Phil Coke and Anibal Sanchez were not all openly embraced at the time because he was forced to give up young talent and pay a price others might not have. Today, he wears the smile of a man who has led his team to the World Series twice in seven seasons.
World Series bound
He believed there was a window of opportunity for this franchise, and he and his staff saw things in players -- Fister was 12-30 with the Mariners -- other teams apparently didn't. He could make those deals because he'd thrown talent and resources into building a productive farm system.
It's also for the manager, the wise one, Jim Leyland, whose 48th year in professional baseball has been both one of his most difficult and also one of his most rewarding. Long respected by his peers, he guided the Tigers through a season of expectations that was at times derailed by injuries, slumps and a relentless division race with the Chicago White Sox.
Finally, it's for all those players, especially for the best pitcher on earth, Justin Verlander, and for the best hitter on earth, Cabrera, the AL Triple Crown winner. Prince Fielder delivered huge numbers after Ilitch signed him to a $214 million contract last winter.
When the Tigers needed their stars to step up, they did just that down the stretch. The Detroit rotation gave up two earned runs -- yes, two whole earned runs -- in four games against the Yankees.
There was a great blend in the clubhouse, including wise veterans like catcher Alex Avila and kids like 21-year-old Avisail Garcia, who didn't make his Major League debut until the end of the August.
Outfielder Quintin Berry was summoned from the farm system in late May. Second baseman Infante and right-handed starter Sanchez came in late July. Center fielder Jackson spent time on the disabled list. So did Fister, outfielder Andy Dirks and Avila.
The Tigers didn't even clear .500 for good until the 85th game of the season and trailed the White Sox by three games with 15 to play. They finally passed them for good in the 155th game. Leyland says he never lost faith and pleaded with others to do the same.
There was no turning point for these AL champions. No moment when the Tigers knew they'd be able to write their own ending. Championship teams sometimes look back at the journey and point to a game that energized them or a team meeting that motivated them. These Tigers weren't into that stuff. They were a blue-collar team in a blue-collar city, and that may be their ultimate legacy.
"It's hard to explain," Fielder said. "We just started winning. It wasn't our pitching. It had been great all year. Then once we won the division, I thought we had a great shot."
Some of it was luck. Once Fister returned from the disabled list and Scherzer got completely healthy, the Tigers had baseball's best rotation. Beyond that, though, was an attitude of simply showing up each day and playing hard.
"I think they just kept grinding," Dombrowski said. "I don't think you can say there was something specific that took place. We knew we had a talented group, but we never got on that roll. It was more of a grind."
He was speaking a few steps outside a clubhouse where a wild party of champagne showers and bear hugs was going on. It wasn't the smooth ride some thought it would be, but this next step couldn't have been any sweeter.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.