K'S PER 9 INNINGS
leftfielder Craig Monroe was wolfing down a pregame bowl of some brownish
homemade coagulant called Frito pie last Friday night, when manager Jim
Leyland, making one of his usual pulse-taking sweeps of the clubhouse, told him
to go find whatever substance he had consumed the day before, when he banged
out four hits. " Mr. Dombrowski and Mr. Ilitch, their computers were blowing
up with the arbitration numbers you're putting up," Leyland said, referring
to general manager Dave Dombrowski and owner Mike Ilitch. � Monroe let out a
belly laugh and went back to shoveling in the mixture of beef, chili, nacho
cheese sauce and corn chips, which had the consistency of freshly churned
cement. Life these days for the Tigers is one big bowl of Frito pie: They've
got a little bit of everything, and the end result is better than you think.
They are stick-to-the-ribs good. � So good are the Tigers that on their way to
an 8-3 win over the Cleveland Indians later that day, a fan raced down a
field-level aisle at Comerica Park holding a sign that read, WHEN DO PLAYOFF
TICKETS GO ON SALE? Said Leyland, "My cigarettes have filters on them. I'm
not sure that guy's cigarettes have filters on them." � Actually, the fan
did have a lucid point. At 35-15 through Sunday, Detroit became only the 45th
team in major league history to win at least 35 of its first 50 games and only
the third to do so after losing 90 games the previous season. All but six of
the Tigers' 44 predecessors went on to the playoffs.
sniffed the playoffs since 1987 and hasn't had a winning season since '93 in a
town that has fallen hard for the Pistons and the Red Wings. But Tigers fans
awoke last Saturday to find this bit of news splashed across the front page of
the Detroit Free Press: IT'S A BASEBALL TOWN AFTER ALL.
it, after the misery this town has been through with baseball the last 15
years," closer Todd Jones says. " Mr. Ilitch told me, 'You think they
make the whole Hockeytown thing a big deal here? You wait until the Tigers win.
It'll blow that away. And you won't even be able to lug around the rings we'll
Amid the gush of
optimism, however, there are rumblings of doubt. Of Detroit's first 35 wins,
skeptics point out that only five came against teams that had winning records
at week's end, and even those teams, the Cincinnati Reds and the Texas Rangers,
don't qualify as heavyweights. Beginning on Memorial Day, however, Detroit was
scheduled to play 13 consecutive games against the three AL East contenders
(the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays) and the team hot
on its heels in the AL Central, the defending world champion Chicago White Sox.
"I disagree with the people who say, 'Now we'll find out if they're for
real,'" Leyland says. "We're for real. Are we going to keep up with
this torrid pace? No. People will think it's because of the teams we play. No.
We can't keep up this torrid pace no matter who we play. But we're legit. We're
not some fluke team."
They may not be
fluky--not with the best pitching staff in baseball (3.36 team ERA)--but the
Tigers are oddly fascinating. Powered by Frito pie, KitKat bars, two rookies
who throw 101 mph, a lineup that leads the league in home runs and strikeouts,
and a chain-smoking manager who is as apt to weep on camera, as he did after
the Friday night win, as he is to publicly rip his team, as he did in an
infamous postgame blowup on April 17, the Tigers are Cinderella on a nicotine
jag. "The manager is the one who makes this whole thing work, like the
yeast that makes everything rise," says first base coach Andy Van Slyke, a
Pirates outfielder during Leyland's stint as Pittsburgh skipper from 1986
"I knew he was a good manager, but I never knew the difference a manager
could make. He's won at least 10 games for us, not just with decisions in
games, but mostly in how he runs this team. He has a knack for pushing the
Leyland, 61, had
not managed since quitting after a disastrous and dispirited one-year, 90-loss
run with the Colorado Rockies in 1999. A scout for the St. Louis Cardinals
after that, Leyland was rejected in favor of Charlie Manuel for the
Philadelphia Phillies' managerial job following the 2004 season. "If I
never managed again, I would have been happy," he says. "But I missed
the competition. The job is an incredible grind that only managers can
appreciate, but the best part, the most fun, is still the three hours when the
game is played."
Leyland after last season, when Alan Trammell became the third Detroit manager
fired in a five-year period during which the team averaged 100 losses.
Dombrowski and Leyland had won a championship together in Florida with the 1997
Marlins. Dombrowski promised Leyland the Tigers had money to spend--the G.M.
would sign free-agent pitchers Jones and Kenny Rogers--and young arms on the
rise. Leyland liked the idea of being close to his Pittsburgh home and to his
Perrysburg, Ohio, roots while returning to the organization that signed him to
his first pro contract, in 1963. ( Leyland hit .222 as a minor league catcher,
never rising above Double A.)
It didn't take long for Leyland to see that rookie pitchers Justin Verlander
and Joel Zumaya could help him immediately. "If you can throw 98, 99 in
Lakeland, you can throw 98, 99 in Detroit," he says.
Two and a half
weeks before Opening Day, Leyland told Zumaya, an 11th-round draft pick in '02,
that he had made the team as a reliever, but he ordered the 21-year-old not to
tell anyone because he wanted the other pitchers to think they were still
competing for roster spots. "I had to bite my tongue," Zumaya says.
"Every day I would talk to my mom and dad, and they'd ask me how things
were going. I couldn't tell them."
23-year-old Verlander, the second player picked in the 2004 draft, nailed down
the fifth spot in the rotation despite having made only 20 starts in the
minors. Both Zumaya, a solid 6'3" and 210 pounds, and Verlander, a rakish
6'5" and 200, have been clocked as high as 101 mph this year.