Six years ago, the Detroit Tigers’ playoff defeat of the New York Yankees was the apex of their season — even more than the World Series that followed. They had beaten the Yankees, the very symbol of baseball grandeur, marking the franchise’s return to relevancy.
The Tigers lost that World Series to St. Louis and then waited five long years before returning to the postseason. They beat the Yankees again in the 2011 playoffs but fell to the seemingly predestined Texas Rangers in the American League Championship Series.
Thursday, on a pristine autumn evening in the Midwest, the Tigers felled the Yankees in yet another October, with an 8-1 victory to clinch the pennant before a rollicking, towel-waving crowd of 42,477. This wasn’t the unexpected euphoria of 2006 or the throbbing drama of the winner-take-all victory at Yankee Stadium last year. This was a sweep. This was emphatic. This was an affirmation of what the Tigers are, rather than what they are trying to become.
“It’s different,” said Detroit ace Justin Verlander, a rookie six years ago. “In 2006, things were a whirlwind. It was almost easy. It seemed like we would do that every year. It’s been quite the awakening since then. I think I have a better appreciation for how tough it is to get here. That makes it all the sweeter.”
The Tigers savored the triumph into the night, sipping and splashing champagne, puffing on victory cigars, embracing their wives and children. Almost immediately after the final out, manager Jim Leyland called for his son, Patrick, to come down from the stands. Six years ago, Patrick was a high school freshman. Now he’s a catcher in the Tigers organization. On the field, the celebration raging all around them, Patrick’s dad wrapped him in a hug that seemed to last longer than the ninth inning itself. “You can’t describe that feeling,” a tearful Leyland said later.
But amid the revelry, it was clear the Tigers want more than a flag for center field that says “American League Champions.” They earned that six years ago. This is a very different team, with only Verlander and reserve infielder Ramon Santiago staying through the interregnum. These Tigers have three in-their-prime superstars — Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder — and one of the best postseason rotations in recent baseball history.
Detroit’s four starters — Verlander, Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez and Game 4 winner Max Scherzer — have combined for a 5-1 record and 1.02 ERA this postseason. Unexpected heroes are materializing by the game: serendipitous closer Phil Coke, sudden defensive whiz Jhonny Peralta, stud rookie outfielder Avisail Garcia, ALCS MVP Delmon Young. If there was ever a year for the Tigers to win their first world championship since 1984, this is it.
“This is the second time we’ve done this,” club president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said, at virtually the same spot on the infield where he spoke after the ’06 pennant clincher. “What you want to do is win the World Series. This is a big achievement, a big accomplishment. But you want that next step.”
Fielder is eager to play in his first World Series game. Verlander, who needs a warehouse to store his individual accolades, wants a ring. For Leyland, a second world championship may mean enshrinement at Cooperstown. But the man for whom four more victories mean the most is 83-year-old team owner Mike Ilitch, who bought the team two decades ago and has longed for a Commissioner’s Trophy to go along with his four Stanley Cups.
Ilitch is beloved in Detroit, for the way in which his sports and business investments have helped revitalize the downtown area. Fans appreciate that his largesse has kept a championship-caliber product on the field for the past seven seasons, while franchises in nearby markets (Cleveland, Pittsburgh) have smaller payrolls and losing records. The players, who see their boss only a couple times each year due to his advanced age, understand that he wants to win as badly as they do.
“What he’s done for the franchise, what he does for the city and the community — he’s always there to give us whatever we need and want,” Dombrowski said. “He supports us all the time. I remember he’s told me all along if there’s one thing he really would love to have, it would be that World Series ring. We had that conversation 11 years ago when I joined the franchise. Hopefully we can get that for him. I’ve never seen a man more dedicated to a community.”
It was fitting, then, that Fielder caught the pennant-clinching out — and emphatically so, with an exaggerated sweep of his enormous arms that told second baseman Omar Infante to stay the hell away. After Victor Martinez suffered a season-ending knee injury in a January workout, Ilitch reacted as a fan would have: He said the Tigers should sign the best hitter left on the market. That was Fielder. The difference between Ilitch and every other Detroit fan is that he had the authority to offer the $214 million contract that brought Fielder to the city where he spent part of his childhood while his father, Cecil, played for the Tigers.
Prince Fielder, whose Milwaukee Brewers were eliminated by the Cardinals in last year’s NLCS, hasn’t attended a World Series game since Game 6 in 1996 — the night his father won his only ring as a member of the New York Yankees. “I saw Charlie Hayes catch the last (out),” Fielder said. “I always wanted to catch one and feel like that.” Fielder, who was 12 at the time, remembers hanging out with Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera during that postseason. Thursday, his Tigers eliminated a Yankees team that was without Jeter and Rivera because of injuries.
“When I was growing up here, the Tigers weren’t winning much,” Fielder said amid the clubhouse celebration. “I’m just glad I can give them a different kind of memory. We get to go to the World Series.”
Fielder paused a moment, to let those last words — go to the World Series — hang in the moist air. He smiled.
“I never got to say that,” he said.
The Tigers almost didn’t get to the playoffs at all, falling short of expectations for much of the season and lagging three games behind the Chicago White Sox with only 15 to play. (A certain columnist — OK, me — wrote then that it was only a matter of time before the White Sox clinched the AL Central.) A porous defense consistently cost the Tigers games. Leyland’s job security was questioned in some corners.
But the White Sox faded as the Tigers coalesced, all of it happening at the last possible moment. Buttressed by Sanchez, a midseason acquisition from the Marlins, the starting rotation rolled down the backstretch. Leyland and Fielder — two strong-willed men with different personalities — came to understand each other. “I think it maybe took a little while,” observed third base coach Gene Lamont. “Jim has his way of handling players. It’s not the same as everybody else. Maybe Prince needed to get used to it, but I thought Prince blended in really well.”
In the end, two of Leyland’s most enduring characteristics — everyday toughness and certainty when faced with external doubt — rubbed off on his team. The season wasn’t a yearlong love affair between the team and its fan base, as it was in 2006. And maybe that’s a good thing. These Tigers are more battle-tested, with hardened resolve. They don’t want to settle now.
“We took a lot of hits this year, and we took a punch pretty good,” Leyland told me outside his office, as his players whooped down the hall. “From a personal standpoint, that means a lot.
“I think the guys did it all. I really do. I stayed out of the way. I let them play. I never panicked. I think if I did one thing that helped, we stayed the course when everybody thought we were out of it. Three games back with 16 to play, we just stayed the course. I kept reminding everybody, ‘Don’t get too quick to say we’re out of it, because we’re pretty good.’”
Leyland was right. He often is. Now, his focus turns to the five days of preparation before Game 1 — which sounds eerily similar to the layoff that stymied the Tigers against St. Louis six years ago. (With the Cardinals one win away from a rematch, the parallel is too obvious to ignore.) Dombrowski and Leyland said the team has a plan in place to keep its players sharper this time. They know that reaching the World Series is not the ultimate goal, in the same way that beating the Yankees in October is no longer a surprise.
That’s how it is, for the elite teams.
“You could call us that,” Fielder said, grinning. “I’m good with that.”