The Detroit Tigers finished 43-119 in 2003, the second most losses by a team since 1900. The 2013 Detroit Tigers finished 93-69, lost to the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, and won the American League Central crown.
In 10 years, Detroit experienced revitalization in baseball. The team went from having three pitchers combine for 57 losses in 2003 to having three combine for 49 in 2013. Comerica Park would attract hardly over 10,000 fans per game in 2003, while it routinely sold out in 2013 as the fans flocked to support their own. Even with the dreadful 2003 season, the Detroit Tigers were still one of the most successful franchises in the last decade.
The 2003 Season of Sadness
The 2003 season saw the entrance of new manager and Tiger great Alan Trammell, but also the departure of much of the team’s talent in 2002. Damion Easley, Jeff Weaver, and Robert Fick, all key performers for 2002’s Tigers, all left during the offseason, leaving a void to be filled by the Tigers’ young talent.
The talent never quite emerged. The Tigers struggled, hitting .240 as a team and accumulating an astronomical 5.30 team ERA, both Major League worsts. They finished the season 20 games behind the next worst team, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Even through a dismal season, a few bright spots emerged. First baseman Dmitri Young proved to be a switch-hitting slugger, hitting .297 with 29 home runs, while reliever Jamie Walker appeared in 78 games (second in the Majors) and charting a 3.32 ERA.
The biggest bright spot occurred in the last week of the season, though. The Tigers finished their final week 5-2, avoiding breaking the 1962 New York Mets’ record for most losses in a season. The team was cheered off of the field while the tune of “Celebration” played over the speakers. They finished the season one loss shy of the most in the modern era.
The Revitalization of the Tigers
The 2003 offseason was key for the Tigers to reestablish the club as a force and not as an embarrassment. To do so, owner Mike Illitch needed a spark. He got it.
The Tigers made a splash, bringing all-star free agent Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez to Detroit, shocking the baseball world. Pudge wasn’t the only addition though, as Mr. I was integral in landing shortstop Carlos Guillen from the Seattle Mariners and signing outfielder Rondell White. Behind the strength of 11 players hitting 10 homeruns each, the Tigers improved to 72-90 in the 2004 season.
The 2005 season saw the addition of another major free agent: outfielder Magglio Ordonez. Ordonez was looking to reestablish himself after a knee injury derailed his 2004 campaign, and the Tigers were looking for a premier corner outfielder. Kismet.
Even with the addition of Ordonez and a midseason trade for second baseman Placido Polanco, the Tigers scuffled to a 71-91 finish. This prompted Tigers management to make a change. It also involved luring a big fish out of retirement.
The Jim Leyland Era
The Tigers managed to lure skipper Jim Leyland out of retirement in 2006. They also bolstered their rotation with the addition of southpaw Kenny Rogers. This season also saw the emergence of a new core of young talent, featuring the likes of Curtis Granderson, Marcus Thames and 2006 AL Rookie of the Year, Justin Verlander. Led by a core of stars, an impassioned Leyland, and a pitching staff that led the league in ERA and shutouts, the “Boys of Summer” were back. The 2006 team went on to earn their first playoff appearance since 1987, but fell to the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.
The next few seasons saw a consistent Tigers teamed buoyed by an influx of veterans, the emergence of young talent and a steady hand in Leyland. Arguably the biggest move was the 2007 acquisition of infielder Miguel Cabrera from the Florida Marlins. Adding Cabrera to an already potent lineup made the Tigers offense one of the most dangerous in the league. Cabrera also became the face of the franchise for a new generation of Tigers fans.
In 2011 the Tigers finally broke through and won their first American League Central Division Title since joining the league in 1998. This team also sent five players to the All Star Game, including newly acquired Victor Martinez and youngster Alex Avila. Ace Justin Verlander finished the season as the unanimous Cy Young Award winner, finishing with 24 wins and a 2.40 ERA. The Tigers went on to lose in the ALCS, though, falling to the Texas Rangers 4-2.
The 2012 season saw the arrival of a prince. Slugger Prince Fielder signed a massive contract with the Tigers, replacing the injured Victor Martinez in the cleanup spot. This season saw the Tigers repeat as AL Central Champions. It was marked by a less common occurrence, though: Miguel Cabrera winning MLB’s Triple Crown (leading the league in batting average, home runs, and RBIs). The Tigers also advanced to the World Series, but were swept by the San Francisco Giants four games to none.
The 2013 season marked 10 years since the disastrous, almost catastrophic 2003 season. The Tigers entered having signed veteran outfielder Torii Hunter, traded Fielder for second baseman Ian Kinsler, and locked up pitchers Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez to long-term deals. The team continued their dominance in the AL Central, earning their third consecutive division title, while Miguel Cabrera won the MVP award and Max Scherzer brought home the AL Cy Young Award. The “Boys of Summer” advanced to the ALCS, but were beaten by the Boston Red Sox.
After years of toiling at the bottom of the division, the Tigers had finally become a powerhouse. Earning multiple division championships, notching multiple World Series appearances, and having players bringing home consistent individual awards, they’d established themselves as a top organization. Through all of these successes, one thing still has eluded the Tigers, though: a World Series Championship. At the rate the wearers of the “Old English D” have been advancing, though, it’s easy to see how one could be in the near future.