Detroit Tiger Baseball has always been a focal point of the Detroit experience. From Ty Cobb to Mickey Cochrane to Hank Greenberg, the early Tigers were among baseball's greats.
Al Kaline, Willie Horton, and Mickey Lolich were some of the faces of Detroit through the 20th century, along with Alan Trammel, Lou Whitaker and Kirk Gibson through the eighties.
This town is a baseball mecca, always remaining competitive right up until the nineties; where the Tigers did not post a winning-record from 1994-2005. Ultimately, their fate would change.
In October of 2005, David Dombrowski, General Manager of the Detroit Tigers, selected his final piece to the franchise’s rebuilding efforts.
He hired Jim Leyland to manage the ball club, a manager who Dombrowski experienced success with when both were members of the Marlins organization, including World Series title in 1997.
This 2006 team would go from cellar dwellers to the cream of the crop with veterans such as Kenny Rogers, Ivan Rodriguez and Todd Jones along with young stars including Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, Curtis Granderson and Brandon Inge.
Despite the team being unable to clinch the American League Central Division, the Tigers managed to beat the Yankees in four games and sweep the Athletics, which featured a walk-off home run by Magglio Ordonez, a highlight that is played on television and radio stations across the state of Michigan to this day.
Unfortunately, the Tigers’ Cinderella story was halted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.
Following the 2006 storybook season, expectations were higher than ever. The offseason was filled with action, which included trading for Gary Sheffield, extending many of the key pieces to that World Series team and grooming two of the top prospects in Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin.
However, injuries plagued the Tigers in the 2007 season. Kenny Rogers did not pitch until after the all-star break due to a blood clot, Joel Zumaya suffered his first of many injuries to his throwing arm, and nothing seemed to go right for the club.
Ultimately, the Tigers were unable to punch their postseason ticket.
The 2008 offseason would be the most expensive in Detroit Tiger Baseball history. They traded both Miller and Maybin for big name stars, Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera, a move that set the standards for success higher than any team in Major League Baseball.
Along with the blockbuster with the Marlins, the Tigers traded prospect, Jair Jurrjens, for Edgar Renteria; a move that would allow Carlos Guillen to move to first base to savor his arm.
The 2008 season was painful to watch. A season which included Jeremy Bonderman suffering a season-ending injury due to a blood clot, Zumaya visiting the IR again, and a poor season for Justin Verlander
Before the trade deadline, the Tigers traded Ivan Rodriguez for Kyle Farnsworth; a move that raised controversy and some questioned whether the team was giving up.
Despite the disconsolate season, all was not lost. Armando Galarraga, a minor-league pitcher who was not expected to make the rotation, had a breakout season following Dontrelle Willis’s demotion, recording a 13-7 record. He was the one bright spot in the Tigers’ pitching staff.
With the team’s payroll at a staggering $138 Million, there was no excuse for last season’s failure to produce a playoff team, let alone a winning record.
There were numerous rumors cycling through the grapevine about Jim Leyland’s future within the organization, and it seems as though Dombrowski will give this team another chance to right their wrongs and prove that this team can win.
The moral of the story is quite simple. Money can’t buy success. The New York Yankees are a great example. For a team boasting a payroll over $200 Million, they failed to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1994 and haven’t won a playoff series since 2004.
The Yankees have something that is not common within professional sports. They have an owner that wants to win. Through December of 2008, the Steinbrenner’s have managed to reel in All-Star pitchers, C.C. Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett.
That’s the difference between George and Hank Steinbrenner and Tigers owner, Mike Illitch. While Illitch has been praised for his success with the Red Wings, and Dombrowski has traded for big name players, the Tigers future is not what it once was, boasting prospects such as Maybin, Miller, Jurrjens, etc.
The Tigers’ roster is full of veterans and egos, and was done so at the expense of their best prospects. The Tigers have managed to hang onto elite prospect, Rick Porcello. This kid’s going to be something one day; possibly sooner than later.
There’s more to a team than signing the best players. Team chemistry plays just an important of a role, maybe more, depending on whom you ask. The 2008 Tigers don’t have the swagger that the 2006 team played with. There’s not as much excitement to go out every day and play.
This 2009 season is going to be most crucial. It will be the final opportunity for a veteran team to prove that the risk was worth the reward. There will be expiring contracts that will allow the team to make some noise in the free agency market, if they choose to do so.
But, we must focus on the present. This team will be forced to play as a team and forget their egos, something rarely seen of in the world of sports today, but if they can do that, they’ll have a better chance at being an elite team in Major League Baseball, again.
Otherwise, it's going to be a long summer.