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Tigers rose from 2003 abyss, but O's just keep foundering

The Baltimore Sun

DETROIT-- --Before the first pitch last night, a mist moved over downtown. The aging battery of Kenny Rogers and Ivan Rodriguez had somehow given Tigers fans something to cheer about on a cold day in Detroit.

Clearly, neither player ever listened to the baseball experts, the ones who said that it'd be a cold day in hell before the Tigers ever played ball in October again.

And so here they are now, riding the fumes coming off Rogers' left arm into Game 3 with the series tied at a game apiece. Last night's two-hit performance by Rogers was as inspired as it was inspiring, and as he and Rodriguez effortlessly played catch for eight shutout innings, it didn't seem so surprising that the Tigers suddenly find themselves on sport's biggest stage.

The cold, the mist and a close-up of Eric Byrnes' anarchic hair is how Hollywood special-effects artists would cue a flashback sequence. So as the World Series moves to St. Louis tomorrow, let's flash back - to 2003, the year the Tigers broke a league record with 119 losses and the Orioles broke a league of hearts with 91.

Each team entered the offseason that year intent on turning around its fortunes, flashing big bucks for big names in the free-agent market. The Orioles and Tigers initially targeted the same two players - Rodriguez and Miguel Tejada - to build a winning team around. Each organization had plenty of cash but not a lot of cachet, faced with the task of luring talent to a losing franchise.

At the winter meetings, the Tigers had hoped to make a bid for Tejada, but the Orioles locked him up early. Both teams were still chasing Pudge, though. Rodriguez and his agent, Scott Boras, promptly rejected the Orioles' three-year, $21 million offer. (The Orioles eventually signed Javy Lopez for three years, $23 million.)

Rodriguez left the World Series champion Florida Marlins and signed with the last-place Tigers - a preposterous four-year, $40 million contract. The Tigers had no choice - they were desperate to make a big signing and ignored the expected criticism.

"Having considered lucrative offers from teams in Siberia, Iraq and Hell, Marlins superhero Pudge Rodriguez opted instead Monday for Detroit," wrote columnist Dan Le Batard. "Reached exclusively by The Miami Herald at his home Monday, a heartbroken but reasonable Satan said, 'I just couldn't guarantee a catcher his age a four-year contract. I'm evil, dude, not crazy.'"

Now, three years later, Rodriguez finds himself crouched behind the plate in the World Series. He's the one credited with changing the Tigers' tide. And the man throwing to him last night, signed two years later, was considered the final piece of the puzzle.

(Tejada has turned out to be a good signing for the Orioles but certainly couldn't alter a losing culture the way Rodriguez did. In the past three seasons, Tejada has stirred as much controversy as success and has been able to take vacation time every autumn without anyone noticing.)

Part of what makes the postseason fun is that it gives us the opportunity each October to analyze the latest blueprints for success. This year's Tigers squad will be talked about for years because it provides hope to struggling teams and their fans.

Nearly one-third of the Tigers' World Series roster played on that horrid 2003 team. And nearly one-third of the roster is homegrown, drafted and raised in Detroit's system. The other parts were added the past couple of offseasons - Rodriguez first, then Magglio Ordonez the next year and finally reliever Todd Jones and Rogers last offseason.

It's why when you peel back the layers, you realize the Tigers didn't suddenly find success - their win last night was their first in the World Series in 22 seasons - they prepared for it with a series of calculated risks.

Who in baseball would've predicted a few years ago that Rogers would be pitching to Rodriguez in the World Series? That the pitcher would have 23 scoreless innings this postseason? That Jones would get the save, and that they'd all be doing it wearing a "D" on their caps?

Certainly, in the flashback sequence, entering the 2004 season it seemed the Orioles, not the Tigers, had invested in their future.

And who knows today whether Detroit would still be playing if they invested their big bucks in Tejada instead of Rodriguez, or if like so many other teams, they decided that Rogers was ready to play senior softball. We'll never know, and in truth, it really doesn't matter.

Even though Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski says Rodriguez was the first piece, and even though Rogers showed again in Game 2 that he's the last piece, no single player changed everything. Not completely.

The way to make an impact and the way to fix a bad team's fortunes hinges completely on the people in charge. As surprising as the Tigers' current run may seem, they've merely proved the same baseball truth that gets reconfirmed every October: talent at the top stockpiles talent for the bottom.

It's why the Tigers and Orioles were situated similarly in 2003, and why they're now worlds apart just three years later.

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