Jim Leyland stood next to FSN analyst Rod Allen on Sunday, away from the fray inside the Kansas City visitors clubhouse.
Leyland and the rest of the bunch could be forgiven for having a celebration with six games remaining and a Central Division title still on the line. It’s been too many years since baseball mattered in the Motor City, but it matters now. With a thunderous 11-4 victory over the Kansas City Royals, the Tigers clinched their first playoff appearance since 1987.
“Iâ€™ve been waiting 43 years,” Leyland told Allen. “This is really a thrill for me, this is a special day for me.”
Signed nearly 43 years ago to the day, Leyland hit .222 as a catcher bouncing around the minor leagues, knowing he would never have a long career in baseball behind the plate. He’d never be fearsome with a bat in his hand.
“I waited a long time for this, about 40 years,” Leyland said in an MLB.com article. “It wasn’t just this year. I was a Tiger in 1963 and had a dream of some day managing that team. I didn’t know it was going to take this long. I’m just thankful to God for the opportunity to come back home. To see this today, it’s awful special for the organization and Mr. Ilitch in particular. And selfishly, it’s one heckuva thrill for me.”
Maybe today, he’ll receive too much credit for what he did as the manager of a very talented team. Maybe you’ve disagreed with some of the moves the consensus pick for Manager of the Year has made. But it’s important not to forget the beginning of the season. It started off as a storybook in April. Chris Shelton homers could not be contained by any ballpark. The Tigers began the season by railing off five straight victories. But in mid-April, reality appeared to be crashing down, and Leyland made his move. “We stunk,” he said after a particularly ugly loss to Cleveland at the end of the first homestand. “It’s been going on here before, and it’s not going to happen here. If they won it was OK, if we lost it was OK, and that’s not good enough.”
Leyland served notice. He was going to pull, provoke, prod, or just plain will those Tigers that lost 119 games in 2003 as far as his 61-year-old body could take them. But on April 18, they stunk. Today, they took a chapagne shower.
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Mike Maroth lost 21 games in 2003. He celebrated today. Jeremy Bonderman lost 19. He celebrated, too. Nate Robertson, Jamie Walker, Wil Ledezma and Fernando Rodney were there, too.
As a catcher, Brandon Inge was great. As a batting catcher, Inge stunk. Today, he celebrated. So did Craig Monroe. And Ramon Santiago and Omar Infante.
All those guys saw action in 2003 on one of the worst baseball teams in history, and today, they celebrate a playoff berth.
This has got to feel extra special to them, as well as to Pudge Rodriguez, who stood at a press conference in 2004 and declared he would turn the organzation around. It took some help from some good veterans and great rookies, but he did.
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In 1987, I was eight. I don’t remember much about that year. I can tell you that I moved north from Detroit — just off Mack Avenue — around that time, but I can’t tell you much about the Tigers, their late September run, or their 4-1 playoff defeat at the hands of the Twins. I remember 1984 only in passing, only the knowledge that something cool had occured and it happened to my hometown.
My sports world came together in the late 80s forward. I remember watching the Pistons run to a repeat championship in 1990. I remember attending Tigers games as a kid every trip back to town, sneaking into sections we shouldn’t have been because that’s what kids do. I remember trying to stay awake as the Fab Five went for a national championship and falling asleep, only to wake up to the postmortem of the disaster. I remember backyard baseball — over the garden was a home run. My friends and I each had a ballpark and we’d play 2-on-2 or 3-on-3. I listened to games, sat in a chair next to the stereo to hear Cecil Fielder hit his 50th home run. I remember watching Major League 2 at some point and thinking “If the Indians can be featured in a movie and start winning, why can’t we? We just need a movie!”
I watched the Red Wings rise, fall, rise. I didn’t much like hockey, but it was Detroit and it was winning. Michigan won a national championshp in football.
And then the Pistons improbably won again.
All that, and more, since 1987. Today was a momentous day. It ranks high up there in my sports memories. Hopefully the Tigers make a few more in the coming weeks.