WHO’S YOUR TIGER? THIS YEAR, IT WAS ALL OF ‘EM! IT ENDED SADLY, BUT …

“Where you going?”

It was manager Jim Leyland yelling from his small office in the visitors’ clubhouse. This was late Friday night, after his team had lost the World Series in a sometimes embarrassing fashion, throwing balls over players’ heads, getting caught in rundowns, losing wild pitches. It had been a great ride but a bumpy finish, and Leyland was sitting silently now in the office with several coaches staring at the floor or the walls, so I continued past, out of respect.

“Where you going?”

I stepped back to the door frame.

“Well, I thought you might want some privacy.”

“Nah, heck, come in.”

His feet were bare and hoisted on the desk. A cigarette burned in an ashtray. A thin glass of wine was half-consumed. For a good stretch then, Leyland spoke in a deep but somber voice, like a proud father who had watched his kids stumble but knew this was just part of life.

“I’ve been to two World Series now, I’ve won one and I’ve lost one, and I can tell you,” he said, “as long as I have a butt, this game is gonna be played by human beings.”

And human beings will make mistakes. But human beings also will do amazing things, things that inspire and excite, things that convince you that surprise is one of the best parts of life.

And weren’t we surprised by the Tigers?

Where you going? No need to jump off a wagon. No need to throw the book away because you didn’t like the last few pages. This team was the story of the Detroit sports year, maybe the story of the year in baseball, the long-feeble cousin who suddenly takes over the family table, the plow horse that shucks off its cart and goes running in the Kentucky Derby.

For 18 years, this franchise couldn’t even get to a playoff series. Then a stunning collection of kids and discarded veterans won two such series, beat the evil Yankees, captured a pennant and challenged for the biggest title of all.

We liked them. And they liked each other.

“I told the players tonight, and since spring training I believe this,” Leyland said, “I hope me and the coaches were as good as teammates to you as you were to us.”

When was the last time you heard that from a losing team?

Where you going?

Bad defense, limited offense

Around the corner, the Tigers were pulling on jackets and ties, pushing back their wet hair, zipping their bags. It was subdued, but it wasn’t depressed. Perhaps it is the hubris of youth that lets most of them believe this will be an annual thing, they will be back, next time better and less nervous.

Justin Verlander stood near his locker, sometimes shrugging, sometimes even chuckling, like a teenager who’d smacked up the car but escaped unfazed. Verlander lost two World Series games and made two throwing errors that contributed to each defeat. Still, his eyes were on next season.

“Just the experience of having these situations under your belt,” he said, “it has to be a building block.

“Making it here this year was big for us. Obviously we should have – not we should have, we wish we would have won.”

The correction is worth noting. In sports, it is usually the team that believes it should win that does – forget talent or regular-season record. The St. Louis Cardinals, with just 83 victories, were still that team. They had lost a World Series two years ago. They are regularly in the playoffs. From the first game of this Fall Classic, they seemed to be marching with a laser focus toward one thing – a championship. The Tigers seemed to be looking around at the scenery.

And, at times, they were intimidated by it. They swung too desperately. They threw too quickly. The things they did best they suddenly forgot how to do.

The most significant of these was hitting. Oh, we’ll get to the Keystone Cop errors in a second. But had the Tigers hit the way they had all season, they might have won despite throwing the ball like a bottle rocket. Detroit hit just .199 for this series, the lowest World Series batting average in 23 years. It got to the point where you cringed when Magglio Ordonez came to the plate with men on.

And he was the cleanup hitter.

“I don’t care what anybody tells you,” Leyland said, “at one point, we had some key guys hitting something like 0-for-77. That ain’t gonna work.”

A case of fumblitis

All right. About those errors. Eight total, including five botches by the pitchers, one a game, two by Verlander. It was like some fraternity prank where everyone had to pull his pants down, like it or not. How can men who get paid to whip a ball to a pin’s head suddenly be incapable of throwing it to a barn?

“Contagious,” is how Leyland described it.

“You gotta field your position,” said closer Todd Jones.

“I can’t explain it,” said third baseman Brandon Inge.

“Like a cold,” Verlander said. “We spread it around.”

Verlander was the most glaring example. Verlander, a 23-year-old rookie, overthrew his first baseman in Game 1, putting this hex in motion. Then, Friday night, in the Game 5 finale, he grabbed an easy bunt in the fourth inning and threw it a mile from Inge at third, allowing the tying run to score.

“I can’t remember a time I’ve ever thrown that ball away,” Verlander said. “My job was to turn things around for us. Instead, I did the same thing again.”

He shrugged.

“I kind of cut my own throat.”

The shame is that the world was watching, and some newspaper accounts of this World Series already refer to Detroit as the “bumbling Tigers.” That is not who they were all year. But then, if they had been who they were all year, they would likely be world champions now.

And the world would know them that way.

Instead, they will have to settle for knowing themselves.

Winning isn’t everything

Which is enough. Take Kenny Rogers. After a few private words with Leyland, Rogers was by his locker, getting ready to go. He is 41 years old. He pitched the only victory for his team, and even though it was marred by a controversy over whatever alleged substance he had on the base of his thumb in the first inning, nonetheless, the books will show he pitched eight shutout innings and gave his team its biggest ray of hope.

This was his second World Series, and at his age, it might be his last. But when I asked about missed chances, Rogers set his prominent jaw, looked me in the eye and said this:

“I wouldn’t trade places right now with anybody in St. Louis.”

Really?

“Really. I enjoyed these guys so much. I couldn’t have asked to be in a better place, better teammates, a better coaching staff, a better manager.

“Yes, it’s nice to win a championship, but I think I gained a lot more than that. And at this stage of my career I value that even more than a World Series ring.”

How often do you hear that from the losers’ locker room?

Where you going?

Can’t wait till next year

Across the room, Craig Monroe was talking quickly. One of the few Tigers on this roster who still remember the skinless years, the 119-loss season, Monroe seemed ready to start spring training tomorrow.

“You put this franchise back on the map,” a TV reporter said.

“And that’s something we want to continue,” Monroe said. “I tell you what, the off-season will go fast. … There’s that taste in your mouth in not bringing home that championship that makes you hungry, makes you want to go back there … makes you want to work even harder.”

A few lockers away, Inge pulled on a sports coat. He, too, remembers the ugly years, the empty seats, the hapless performances.

“I understand how hard it is to get here,” he said, “but you never want to get here and lose.

“Still, we can carry it over to next year. As long as they don’t tear it down and rebuild it, we should expect to be better next year.”

Tear it down? It finally got built up. Nobody needs to rebuild it. Nobody needs to be shipped out because he proved to be such a liability. Yes, the Tigers will look to enhance the roster, add some free agents, build a thicker bench perhaps (which was glaringly thin in the National League games this series, when pinch hitters were at a premium).

But the attitude is right, the direction is right, and for once, Mike Ilitch can be more concerned about the roster and direction of his hockey team than his baseball team. Dave Dombrowski has done a splendid job since his arrival, and the homegrown talent is testament to that.

“The good thing about it is Mr. Ilitch now has a good thing to build on,” Jones said. “This’ll be the new sexy place to come if you’re a free agent –- be it Barry Zito, Jeff Suppan, Alfonso Soriano, you name it.”

Really? Has Detroit become … a destination?

“I’ll tell you what,” Tony La Russa told me during this series, “no other team and no other manager could have done what the Tigers did to the Yankees. That was big. … Detroit has some great young pitchers. And there’s more coming.”

By the way. La Russa is with St. Louis.

Where you going?

A new sport in town

And so, before we officially enter the frozen tundra of the Lions’ season, take a moment to remember the crescendos of this season. Ordonez’s walk-off home run to win the pennant. Rogers’ exorcism of his Yankee curse on that wild Comerica Park night. The magnificent lap the players took around the stadium after New York was defeated, spritzing fans with champagne, whooping it up to the pulsing music, walking in circles, staying on the field, as if staying there might preserve the youthful joy forever.

Baseball returned to Detroit this year. We were a three-sport town with a dull lifeless summer team that was usually finished by July. Now we can’t wait until March. Do you realize how fast that happened?

“What was your highlight moment?” I asked Jones. He was here once before, when you could shoot a cannon through certain sections of the ballpark and never hit a soul.

“For me, it was just coming to the ballpark every night during July and August, and watching how much fun the fans can have. … You just know that we played on a team that meant a lot to a lot of people.”

Across the way, Rogers – the other “old man” on the roster – said much the same thing.

“I hope the fans understand that the mistakes we made were not for lack of effort or desire. They’re probably for the opposite reason. You try too hard. You try to make something out of nothing.

“But I’m sure they’ll be behind us like they have been. And without a doubt, I couldn’t trade it for a better city, no matter what anyone says. What the fans of Detroit have – I’ve seen it. I got to be a part of it. It’s fantastic.”

So where you going? It was a great spring, a great summer, a great early fall, a great tapestry of unexpected baseball.

Let’s end then back in Leyland’s office – not Friday night, but five nights earlier, in Detroit, after the Tigers enjoyed what would be their only victory of the Fall Classic. It was well after the final out, and most of the players had headed for the bus to the plane that would take them to wet and cold St. Louis. No one knew, at the time, that that trip would be their last games of the year. Trunks were being wheeled out. The halls were still buzzing with possibility.

I walked down to Leyland’s office, figuring he was gone. But there he was, all by himself, feet bare, up on the desk, the cigarette going, the half-glass of wine by his side.

“Come on in,” he said again.

And he talked calmly and proudly about the players down the hall. He was in no hurry, even though everyone else was. Perhaps he knew that at his age, at his stage, you savor the good moments when you can.

Finally, after giving a few details of the night’s performance, he took a drag on his cigarette and allowed a small head nod.

“We done pretty good here from 71 wins, huh?” he said.

Pretty good indeed. Take a page from the manager. Put your feet up, have a beverage. Think about all the stinking fun we had this year with baseball. Yes, baseball. Repeat after Rogers. I’ve seen it. I got to be a part of it. It’s fantastic.

It is. Whe

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