DETROIT -- Ivan Rodriguez, the All-Star catcher who left a World Series winner in Florida to join a 119-game loser in Detroit three years ago, stood 5 feet up the third base line last night and furiously waved his arms in circles, like a child playing airplane.
Rodriguez jumped and twirled, jumped and twirled while the hero of the night, Tigers outfielder Magglio Ordonez, another star who took Rodriguez's lead and came to Detroit as a free agent two years ago, rounded third and headed toward a jubilant home plate crowded with euphoric teammates.
With one swing of Ordonez's powerful bat in the bottom of the ninth, the no-way, no-how Detroit Tigers had beaten the Oakland Athletics, 6-3, to sweep the American League Championship Series in four games and cement their return to the World Series after a 22-year layoff.
Ordonez's two-out, three-run homer to left, his second of the night, came against A's closer Huston Street, who was pitching in his third inning, his longest stint of the year. He tired, and Ordonez took advantage of a fat fastball.
As soon as the 385-foot shot left the right-hander's bat, the sold-out crowd of 42,967 bounced to its feet, the players in the home dugout jumped to the railing and the relievers wearing their inside-out rally caps rushed to the bullpen door.
Fittingly, though, it was Rodriguez who was ahead of the pack on Ordonez's crazy run home. For he was the first established veteran to give moribund Detroit a shot, followed by Ordonez in 2005 and starter Kenny Rogers and closer Todd Jones this year.
"If [Rodriguez] doesn't sign here then Mags probably doesn't sign here," Jones said. "And if those two guys don't sign here, then the other guys probably don't. It all just kind of snowballed."
As for Rodriguez, he wasn't looking for any special symbolism. He had a simple reason for positioning himself ahead of the pack of giddy Tigers.
"I was waiting for [Ordonez] to touch home plate so I could jump on his [butt]," Rodriguez joked.
Moments later, in a new "American League Champions" T-shirt, Rodriguez led a victory parade around the outfield grass, pointing and recognizing the rollicking fans.
"It was fun. When you win it's fun and [the fans] all deserved it," Rodriguez said. "It was a very special moment for me. It was awesome."
Early on, it didn't look as if champagne corks would pop last night. The A's, desperate for a win, took a 3-0 lead on two RBI doubles in the first inning and a Jay Payton bases-empty homer in the fourth against Tigers starter Jeremy Bonderman. Meanwhile, the Tigers had just two hits off Oakland starter Dan Haren until the fifth, when Curtis Granderson and Craig Monroe hit RBI doubles to close the gap to 3-2.
In the sixth, Ordonez tied it with his first homer to left. But nothing could prepare him for his series clincher.
"It's hard to describe. It's an unbelievable feeling, when you're going to the World Series," Ordonez said. "We worked hard all year, and nobody believed in this team, and we got here."
Even near the end, there was skepticism. With two outs in the eighth, Tigers reliever Jason Grilli threw 12 consecutive balls to walk the bases loaded. When Wilfredo Ledezma broke the streak with a strike on the 14th pitch, the crowd cheered in jest. Ledezma eventually induced a foul pop-up to Rodriguez to keep the score tied.
In 2003, 12 straight balls from a Tigers pitcher would have spelled trouble. Not now, not with these Tigers. There are holdovers, but this a different team.
"We understand how far we've actually come," said third baseman Brandon Inge, who was a starter on that 119-loss club. "People can say, 'Wow, they had a bad season,' but if you didn't play there and you didn't go through that, you don't understand."
So for these guys the cheers seemed louder, the champagne sweeter.
"It was the richest shower I ever got," joked club owner and pizza baron Mike Ilitch, who was dripping with bubbly after being doused by Ordonez.
Now the Tigers are heading to the World Series, nearly three years after the rebuilding started with a bow-legged catcher coming off a championship.
"I was the first one to come here and [Ilitch] told me that he was going to bring a winning team together and he did it," Rodriguez said. "They did what they told me."
The Tigers are the eighth wild card to reach the World Series since nondivision winners were allowed into the postseason in 1995. Here's how the first seven fared in the Series:
Year Team Fared
2005 Astros Lost to White Sox, 4-0
2004 Red Sox Beat Cardinals, 4-0
2003 Marlins Beat Yankees, 4-2
2002 Angels Beat Giants, 4-3
2002 Giants Lost to Angels, 4-3
2000 Mets Lost to Yankees, 4-1
1997 Marlins Beat Indians, 4-3
Home runs that have ended postseason series:
Hitter Winner Loser Year Series Gm. Inn. Pitcher
Magglio Ordonez Tigers Athletics 2006 ALCS 4 9th Huston Street
Chris Burke Astros Braves 2005 NLDS 4 18th Joey Devine
David Ortiz Red Sox Angels 2004 ALDS 3 10th Jarrod Washburn
Aaron Boone Yankees Red Sox 2003 ALCS 7 11th Tim Wakefield
Todd Pratt Mets D'backs 1999 NLDS 4 10th Matt Mantei
Joe Carter Blue Jays Phillies 1993 W. Series 6 9th Mitch Williams
Chris Chambliss Yankees Royals 1976 ALCS 5 9th Mark Littell
Bill Mazeroski Pirates Yankees 1960 W. Series 7 9th Ralph Terry
Note: Bobby Thomson's ninth-inning home run off Ralph Branca in Game 3 of the 1951 NL playoff series that gave the Giants the pennant over the Dodgers was officially part of the regular season.