The year of the bag-over-your-head Tigers

DETROIT — The 2003 Detroit Tigers are a team to remember, but not the kind that prompts bringing them all back for a 10-year reunion.

They were the bag-over-your-head Tigers, the ones who lost an American League record 119 games.

Oddly enough, two of the players on the Tigers’ 2013 roster were in the starting lineup on March 31, 2003, Opening Day against the Minnesota Twins at Comerica Park. Omar Infante, who will start this season at second base, was the starting shortstop. And long-time utility infielder Ramon Santiago was the starting second baseman 10 years ago.

Gene Kingsale — I swear I cannot remember this guy — led off and played center field.  He ended up batting .208 with only 120 at-bats.

But the rest of that lineup doesn’t sound like one that would experience the worst record in league history. Infante batted second, and was followed by left fielder Dmitri Young, right fielder Bobby Higginson, designated hitter Dean Palmer, first baseman Carlos Pena, third baseman Eric Munson, catcher Brandon Inge and Santiago. Mike Maroth started and suffered the first of his league-high 21 losses.

There were six players on the team who had or would make All-Star teams; however, three were young and unreliable in 2003: Infante, Inge and Pena. And two were well past their primes, playing in their final seasons: Palmer and Steve Avery, who was 2-0 with a 5.63 ERA for his hometown team.

The only player having a big year in his prime was Young, who represented that team in the All-Star Game.  And so they faltered, sputtered, crashed and burned. Detroit was a combined 11-45 in June and August, and lost by five or more runs 40 times. They were equally inept at home (23-58) and on the road (20-61).

Those 1962 New York Mets that the Tigers nearly eclipsed are generally accepted as the most pathetic team in the history of professional sports. They went 40-120 but had an excuse. They were a first-year expansion team that became lovable losers.

There really was no excuse for the 2003 Tigers going 43-119. They had moved into Comerica Park in 2000, attracted sellout crowds and appeared to be a franchise on the move.

Instead, they went into a sorry spiral triggered by the signing of free-agent disaster Juan Gonzalez, countless horrible amateur drafts and no commitment to a competitive payroll.

The 2003 Tigers had the three pitchers with the most losses in the majors: Mike Maroth (9-21), Jeremy Bonderman (6-19) and Nate Cornejo (6-17). Cornejo, with a 4.67 ERA, was the only starter under 5.56 on a team with a 5.30 ERA.

They were outscored, 928-591, and escaped matching or surpassing the Mets by winning five of the last six games. A sort of bizzaro playoffs occurred at Comerica Park, with the Tigers playing against the ghosts of the Mets of “Marvelous” Marv Throneberry, Choo Choo Coleman and one-time Detroit pitching coach Roger Craig, who was 10-24 in 1962.

The Tigers trailed, 8-0, in the next-to-last game of the season, against the Minnesota Twins, but rallied and eventually scored the winning run on a walk-off strikeout in the ninth inning.

I’m not making this up.

Tigers center fielder Alex Sanchez raced home with the winning run after Warren Morris struck out on a low pitch from Jesse Orosco that skidded past catcher Rob Bowen for a wild pitch.

They could no longer surpass the Mets’ futility now but could still match it. Improbable as it seemed, though, the Tigers won again the next day and let the Mets keep the infamous record for themselves.

In the final game, the Tigers beat the AL Central Division champion Twins, 9-4. And so a team that won five games the entire month of June won five times in one week to avoid the most losses ever.

Maroth pitched six strong innings for a victory in that final game and still suffered the most losses by any pitcher in baseball since 1974. Bill Bonham of the Chicago Cubs and Randy Jones of the San Diego Padres both lost 22 that season. Maroth also led the league in homers surrender, 34,and 123 earned-runs allowed, 123.

On the day he lost No. 20, Maroth’s grandmother died. Manager Alan Trammell’s mother died during the season’s final weeks. It was a miserable year in so many ways.

“Nobody likes to lose and we were losing every day,” Dave Dombrowski, Detroit’s president and general manager since 2001, once told me. “But the way we finished told you that there was still fight in the team. We could’ve folded, but battled back and won. It was exciting to win those last two games.”

Young, who led that team by hitting .297 with 29 homers and 85 RBIs, made a strange but prophetic comment after winning that last game.

“A few years down the road, I can look back and say this was the beginning of a dynasty,” he said. “This was the beginning of a rebuilding process. We started from scratch with flour, eggs and sugar.”

The hopes of rekindling the magic of the 1984 World Series champion Tigers with Trammell and coaches Kirk Gibson and Lance Parrish never were realized with that core group.

But Inge, Santiago, Bonderman, outfielder Craig Monroe, pitchers Nate Robertson, Fernando Rodney, Jamie Walker and Wil Ledezma, Dombrowski and owner Mike Ilitch all endured to reach the 2006 World Series.

The signing of free-agent All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez that winter fast-forwarded the turnaround, and future league batting champion Magglio Ordonez signed for 2005.

The next season, they won the AL pennant. The Tigers reached the World Series again in 2012, and that season of futility 10 years ago didn’t end up becoming the beginning of the end.

It was simply the end of the road for forgettable baseball in Detroit.