by | Oct 1, 2003 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

You don’t interrupt a child’s birthday party to remind him of a dentist appointment. So we did not interrupt the Tigers’ jubilant celebration for losing only 119 games this year to remind them that they still do, to be honest, stink.

But the party’s over.

The players are gone. The locker room is empty. The stadium crew is prepping the grass for winter. In all my years of sports, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything as strange as the Tigers mobbing each other Sunday in unfettered glee after avoiding the modern-day season loss record set by the expansion Mets in 1962.

If the scene had been a comic strip, the bubble coming up from their happy pile would have read, “We’re not the worst! We’re not the worst!”

That hardly seems worth celebrating.

Especially not today. Not when, once again, you pick up your morning paper and read results from the playoff games — exciting, autumn baseball — and you realize, once again, Detroit is not there and has no realistic plan to get back.

In the happy locker room Sunday, Tigers pitcher Mike Maroth said, “It’s how you finish.”

Well, Mike, you finished last. Dead, dead last. If the Tigers, in avoiding loss No. 120, felt reason to cheer, here are some playoff reasons to be depressed:

Excellent role models

The Florida Marlins. This team won the 1997 World Series the old-fashioned way: It bought it. Florida was Imelda Marcos in a shoe store. A top-flight free agent? Wrap it up and charge it! Then, once the championship was won, the team became an outlet mall. The owner marked everything down. Players were slashed. The Marlins sank. They lost 108 games the year after the championship. But . . .

They changed ownership. And they slowly came back. The Marlins signed Pudge Rodriguez from Texas and traded for speedy Juan Pierre from Colorado. They developed young pitchers and have a 21-year-old star in Dontrelle Willis. What 21-year-old is doing anything for the Tigers? Besides the ballboys?

Florida rebuilt, got faster, played great defense, and is back in the playoffs
— with a payroll not much bigger than Detroit’s. And all this — the championship, the collapse, the rebuilding — happened over the past six years, while the Tigers were still looking for a winning season.

The Minnesota Twins: Remember the song, “I Got Plenty of Nuthin?” The Twins and the Tigers could both sing that tune when it comes to making money. But only the Tigers sing it when it comes to talent.

The Twins are again in the playoffs, thanks to a gradual rebuilding from four straight 90-plus loss seasons, the last coming three years ago. They developed pitchers Johan Santana, Eric Milton and Brad Radke, got a budding power star in Torii Hunter, played good defense, and made the league championship series last season. Their Opening Day payroll was 15th in the majors, middle of the pack (just eight slots ahead of Detroit) and they regularly lose between $10 million and $15 million a year. This was a team Bud Selig tried to squeeze out of existence, remember?

Guess what? They’re still here, still in the red — and still in the playoffs.

The Tigers are on the beach.

Cubs made the right moves

The Chicago Cubs. You know how the hare felt when the tortoise passed him? Imagine if that tortoise passed another tortoise! That’s how the Tigers should feel watching the Cubs in the playoffs. There are few more hapless franchises in history than the one that plays at Wrigley Field. They were the Rodney Dangerfield of baseball. Mike Royko, the legendary Chicago columnist, once said, “There were years when the groundskeepers were better athletes that the Cubs players.”

But what did the Cubs do last year, after losing a Tigers-like 95 games? They hired manager Dusty Baker, who had just steered the Giants to the lip of the World Series title. Meanwhile, the Tigers hired Alan Trammell, a guy we all like who had no managerial experience.

Look at the results.

You tell me who made the better move.

Of course, the Cubs also groomed great pitching and have a bona fide superstar in Sammy Sosa. But they’re the Cubs, for Pete’s sake! In the playoffs?

And I haven’t even mentioned the Yankees or Red Sox, who will continue to outspend the Tigers the way Bill Gates outspends Billie Jean King. Or the Atlanta Braves and Oakland A’s, whose player development operations make the Tigers’ look like a lemonade stand.

“A few years from now,” Dmitri Young said Sunday, “I’ll look back and say this was the beginning of a dynasty.”

Why? Because you lost one less game than the worst team ever? I don’t want to spoil the party, but here’s your dentist appointment: 119 isn’t the number the Tigers should be concerned about. The number is 29 — which, as of this morning, is how many of the 30 major league teams are better than they are.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. He will sign “The Five People You Meet In Heaven” at 12:30 p.m. today at RenCen Waldenbooks, Detroit; at 7:30 p.m. today at Borders, 3527 Washtenaw, Ann Arbor; and at 12:30 p.m. Sunday at Little Professor, Dearborn.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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