by | Oct 8, 2006 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

In the end, the Yankees were a bunch of grumpy giants staring at a broken beanstalk. And the Tigers? They didn’t tiptoe past the richest team in baseball. They stomped it, kicked it and stole its jewelry, then waved a happy good-bye and headed on down the playoff road.

Yankees go home.

Tigers go on.

Read it and blink. Read it and shake your head. Read it and ask, “Who are these guys in the Detroit uniforms?” Read it and remember just three seasons ago, when this team was in danger of sinking below oblivion.

Read it and remember, because remembering is what made this happen.

Because Jeremy Bonderman remembers when he lost 19 games in that dismal season, and they stopped pitching him because they didn’t want him to be a 20-game loser as a rookie.

Because Kenny Rogers remembers all the years he was called a playoff failure and he’s too old to wear that tag anymore.

Because Todd Jones remembers when he was more interested in doing interviews than most Detroit reporters were.

Because Jim Leyland remembers how grateful he felt when the Tigers, the lowly Tigers, called and offered him a job. And here he was Saturday evening, being carried off the field on the shoulders of his players, like the father of the bride, like the Grandpa of Happiness.

Because you play with your body, but you win with your mind, the Detroit Tigers are in the American League Championship Series for the first time in 19 years, for the first time since hairy Kirk Gibson was thundering around the basepaths. This team may not look like the team last weekend that blew the Central Division title with a bellyflop, but then, that team didn’t look like the one that delighted Detroit so much of the spring and summer.

Who knows? Maybe you get nine lives in baseball, too. Whatever life the Tigers have been on since the fourth inning of Game 2 at Yankee Stadium last Thursday, they don’t want to move on. This is already heaven, right here, watching their pitchers return to magnificent dominance, watching their hitters take patient advantage of every opening, watching their fans delirious with the return of October fever.

“This is the greatest feeling in the world,” Bonderman told the TV cameras as Comerica Park exploded around him after the 8-3 clinching victory. “It’s gonna be a hell of a party, I know that.”

And well-earned. On Saturday, with Bonderman pitching a perfect game into the sixth inning, the Tigers hung runs on the scoreboard with surprising ease. It was 3-0 after the second and 4-0 after the third and 7-0 after the fifth and 8-0 after the sixth. The music thumped and the fans rocked and it had the feel of one of those NBA blowouts, where every basket becomes a celebratory dunk.

The last out, a grounder by Robinson Cano, sent the Tigers exploding from the dugout into a pile that kept moving – it didn’t stop at the pitchers mound, it was too explosive for that, it kept going to second base, to the outfield, back in again.

But when the fountains had finished exploding and the champagne had finished dousing and the Tigers were doing their itinerary for Oakland, next stop of the fairy tale express, the reality of this series was as startling as it was stark:

In four games, one more than the minimum required, Detroit beat the heavily favored Yankees, beat them close and beat them far, beat them with bats and with pitches, but mostly with hunger and fresh-scrubbed enthusiasm.

The Tigers, in this series, seemed as young and light as a barefoot kid heading to buy an ice cream, while the New Yorkers looked as heavy and troubled as a banker with millions worth of shaky loans.

Tigers go on.

Yankees go home.

Read it and blink.

The reality of the playoffs

“I told the guys each day is a whole new season in the postseason, if you win the next game you keep playing,” Leyland said.

“Today before the game I really emphasis, ‘Look, don’t think about a celebration.’ “

But he didn’t say anything about after the game.

Did you see the Tigers running around the stadium, taking a victory lap, slapping hands with the fans, waving and holding up champagne bottles? Could you imagine a scene like that when the season began?

Saturday’s victory was a tapestry of effort, but it was stitched, first and last, by Bonderman. The reticent young pitcher, who was drafted into baseball when he was an 11th-grader, has, at 23, already seen more than his share of disappointment. His rookie year they had to protect him from losing 20 games. Last weekend, he was The Man Who Couldn’t Finish, blowing a 6-0 lead and allowing Kansas City to come back and knock the Tigers off the Central Division throne.

“I stunk,” he said of his performance.

But six days after being asked to win the division, he was asked to win the division series. And the turnaround was everything the Tigers have been about. Bonderman completely neutered the mighty Yankees for six innings, striking out Gary Sheffield, the cleanup hitter; striking out Jorge Posada, who had been hitting .500 in the series; striking out the normally unflappable Derek Jeter, getting him to chase an outside pitch.

While the Tigers were taking rapt advantage of Jaret Wright – not the guy you want to have to depend on to save your season – Bonderman was busy hanging the Yankees over the snapping jaws of New York tabloid writers, turning their ground balls into outs and their fly balls into harmless catches.

As Rogers had done with his shutout innings the night before, Bonderman was giving his teammates the cushion to swing freely, to play from ahead.

And that’s what you call fun.

“Kenny and I talked before his start,” Bonderman said. “And I told him you go out and do your thing and I’ll do mind and we’ll take care of this. Kenny did it. And I just had to live up to my word. It’s a great thing that happened for us.”

When he finished, after 8 1/3 innings and 99 pitches (70 for strikes), he came off the mound and, uncharacteristically, waved his hat and shook it at the crowd. He was greeted in the dugout with a bear hug by – who else? – Rogers, still basking in his own standing ovation from the night before.

The guy who was too old to wear the loser tag and the guy who was too young to accept it, locked in an embrace.

How you gonna beat that?

Yankees go home.

Tigers go on.

The price of fame

“Did you think this would happen when you took the job?” someone asked Leyland.

“No, not this year. I thought we’d get better … but I thought for sure it would take a year or two.”

Detroit outscored the Yankees in this series, 22-12, and outpitched them three out of four times, beating veterans Mike Mussina and Randy Johnson along the way. But the series cannot be broken down into numbers. This was a contrast in all that money can and cannot buy:

Here is what money can buy: the Yankees’ magnificent roster, which has cost more than a billion dollars over the last six years and has now finished three of those seasons with a first-round exit and none of them with a World Series crown.

Here is what money cannot buy: Rogers choking up as he talked about winning his first playoff game at age 41; Leyland choking up when he talked about his players defying all odds to make the playoffs; Sean Casey gushing about how happy he was to get the call on trade deadline day that he was being dealt to Detroit.

Here is what money cannot buy: the exuberance of a Detroit crowd that had almost forgotten what it means to win a game in October, a high-pitched energy that drew standing ovations for two-strike counts and fly balls.

Here is what money cannot buy: a sudsy locker room full of first-timer playoff winners. And that happy victory lap around the stadium, spraying champagne at the fans. Not that many Tigers have ever been to the playoffs before and none of them wearing this uniform. It is the first time the Old English D has been soaked in alcohol since Tram popped a bottle on Lou and Morris popped a bottle on Petry.

“Spontaneous stuff is the best stuff,” Leyland said.

You want to hear something funny? Leyland couldn’t sleep Friday night. He kept seeing Yankees coming to the plate. “I was lying in bed with my wife,” he said, “and I was saying we have to face that lineup again in about 20 hours. It’s never-ending. … You can have nightmares. I was up at four o’clock eating M&M’s.”

He can now wash ’em down with bubbly – then hit the pillow soundly.

Yankees go home.

Tigers go on.

If this is a dream, don’t you dare wake Detroit up.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.


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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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