Tigers fighting history

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Orioles are on their way to an unprecedented sixth straight losing season, and maybe they should count their blessings.

They have some good young players and some money to spend in the offseason and, well, their dignity, which is a lot more than can be said for a certain downtrodden team in Detroit that may be about to put losing into a brand-new historical perspective.

The Tigers (38-113) could be on their way to replacing the 1962 New York Mets (40-120) as the team with the most losses in modern baseball history. It won't be easy. They need to win five of their last 11 games to fade instead into the more comfortable obscurity reserved for the second-worst of anything, and 43 wins is far from a foregone conclusion.

"I think guys at this point are physically and mentally gassed," said veteran outfielder Bobby Higginson recently. "It's going to take guys digging down deep to avoid 120 losses. The young guys don't know how to dig down, but they will have to or we'll pass 120."

The remaining schedule is crowded with critical games for two of their top division rivals. They wrap up a three-game series against the Toronto Blue Jays tonight before embarking on a six-game road trip to Minnesota and Kansas City. Their sixth-month descent into baseball oblivion finally, mercifully concludes with a four-game series at home against the Twins, who still figure to be trying to fend off the Chicago White Sox for the American League Central title.

It wouldn't be so bad if they were a hapless new expansion franchise, attempting to stay afloat with a collection of 26th players from the other major league teams. But the Tigers are one of the cornerstone franchises of the American League, and they're giving expansion a good name.

The only reason they aren't the butt of more jokes is because they don't have enough punch to make a good punch line anymore.

"Watching the Tigers at Yankee Stadium was like watching Keanu Reeves in Hamlet, wrote sports humorist Norman Chad recently. "In each case, the central figures were overmatched by their surroundings. It was tougher, though, watching the Tigers lose 15-5. The game lasted nine innings. Hamlet is over in just five acts."

The 1962 Mets were a lovable bunch who were expected to be among the worst teams in history. The Tigers are a frightening product of a long-term rebuilding effort gone wrong.

They started the season 1-17 and tied the 1988 Orioles for the worst 28-game start in history (3-25). They didn't challenge the Orioles' record 21-game season-opening skid, but more than made up for that with five losing streaks of eight games or more.

The Tigers surpassed the Orioles' 1988 loss total (107) with nearly three weeks left in the season. On Sunday, they became the first team in 34 years to lose as many as 110 games, setting a club record and matching the loss totals of the 1969 San Diego Padres and Montreal Expos, both of which were first-year expansion teams.

The '62 Mets played two fewer games than the Tigers are scheduled to play this season, so the Tigers conceivably could win one more game (41) and lose one more game (121) than the current standard bearer for baseball futility.

"At this point, the losses make no difference to me," Higginson said after loss No. 110. "It's just bad. We knew it was coming. If we end at 110 or 119 losses, I don't think it's going to make much of a difference. It's a lot of losses, either way. It's been a miserable year."

Now, there's nothing left to do but take a lesson from cheerful dubious hero Brian Kingman, who once dreaded the notoriety that came with being the last pitcher to lose 20 games but eventually realized that it's better to be remembered for something like that than not to be remembered at all.

Sometimes, you have to just go with it.

Kingman surrendered his hard-earned claim to fame earlier this month to Tigers pitcher Mike Maroth, the poster boy for a starting rotation that features three pitchers with at least 16 losses.

Maroth may be the losingest pitcher in 23 years, but there is a bright side. He's also the winningest pitcher on the Tigers staff at 7-20.

"It's more of a reflection on our year, not on Mike Maroth," Tigers manager Alan Trammell said. "That's what my stand is going to be through this whole ordeal and the last month of the season."

The record for losses is an understandably touchy subject, but the Tigers have had plenty of time to come to grips with the overall quality of the team. They rank at the bottom of the major leagues in a wide variety of statistical categories. They come by their record honestly.

"We don't want the focus or attention, but it's something we have to deal with," Maroth said. "There's not one person in here that wants to break that record."

There have been few highlights. Slugging first baseman Dmitri Young recovered from a slow start to enter the finale of the Toronto series with 28 home runs and 76 RBIs - leading the team in both departments - but those still are marginal offensive totals in the higher-scoring American League.

The Tigers have no other players with at least 20 home runs and only two other players with as many as 50 RBIs, but Young chided reporters recently for exagerating the gloom and doom in the Detroit clubhouse.

"This isn't a psychiatric ward," Young said. "Nobody's going to commit suicide. Nobody's beating their wives. It's not as drastic as people make it out to be."

Of course, the big question at this point of the season is what ownership will do to improve the situation before next year. The Tigers can't depend on the growth of a host of young players who have had their confidence beaten down for six months. They will need an infusion of outside talent to avoid a similarly torturous season in 2004, but no one is saying whether owner Mike Ilitch will approve a significant increase in the club's dwindling payroll.

In the meantime, Trammell must try to hold back history and figure out what it will take to get his undermanned team headed in the right direction.

"If I had an answer," Trammell said, "I'd have fixed it by now."

The Associated Press and other wire reports contributed to this article.

Bad and badder

Comparing some of the Tigers' stats this year with those of the 1962 Mets (Tigers' stats through Tuesday):

Stat Tigers Mets

Batting avg. .237 .240

On-base pct. .297 .320

Runs per game 3.5 3.8

ERA 5.24 5.05

Fielding pct. .978 .967

Errors 129 210

Most losses

The Detroit Tigers are threatening to break the New York Mets' major league record for most losses in one season.

Team Year W-L

N.Y Mets 1962 40-120

Philadelphia 1916 36-117

Athletics

Boston 1935 38-115

Braves

Washington 1904 38-113

Senators

Detroit 2003 38-113

Tigers

Pittsburgh 1952 42-112

Pirates

N.Y. Mets 1965 50-112

Boston 1932 43-111

Red Sox

St. Louis 1939 43-111

Browns

Philadelphia 1941 43-111

Phillies

N.Y. Mets 1963 51-111

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