Tigers By the Tale | Left Field | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Tigers By the Tale

A baseball story you have to love, for a change

How can you not love a baseball team that came off a 2005 record of 71-91 -- only to dominate the league for most of the following season? A franchise that is in the playoffs after posting three 100-loss seasons in the past decade: 1996, 2002 and 2003? Those are just a few reasons to love the Detroit Tigers, and to root for them this postseason.

It's doesn't get much more fun than watching former Pirate and all-around good guy Sean Casey getting six hits and four RBIs against the Yankees in the playoffs. Exploits like that should warm the heart of just about every Yankee-hating fan -- i.e., anybody outside the 212 area code. It's probably said too often that Sean is a super guy. But in an era of toxic personalities like Barry Bonds and Randy Johnson, and of steroid cheaters like Jason Grimsley and Jason Giambi, it would be nice for a good guy to finish first for once.

Meanwhile, skipper Jim Leyland is proving once again that he can manage at a stratospheric level. Somehow, his going out to check on pitchers instead of sending the pitching coach doesn't come off as self-important. Nor does it smack of the escapades of micromanager and self-proclaimed genius Tony LaRussa.

Not to mention that Leyland looks like at least five of your dad's buddies.

In 2001, ESPN's Bill Simmons wrote that Leyland was one of only five managers who really make a difference to a major-league team. And Leyland wasn't even working at the time. Even Mike Lupica, N.Y. Daily News columnist and Reggie Jackson biographer, writes glowingly about Leyland.

During his years in Pittsburgh, Leyland was the only manager to successfully handle Barry Bonds and his world-renowned ego. And talent. Leyland has also provided Kenny Rogers with the kind of team he needs to get some redemption. That Rogers poured champagne on a Comerica Park cop to celebrate toppling the Yankees is particularly fitting, given his previous dealings with peace officers just a little over a year ago.

Jim Leyland's players would lay down in traffic for him. Just look how many former Pirates have stuck by him.

First-base coach Andy Van Slyke looks like he's still in playing shape. Add to that hitting coach Don Slaught, and it's a veritable stroll through the last good times for Pirates fans. The only thing that could be better would be Jose Lind coaching the infielders.

These Tigers play on barely restrained emotion and smoked the "all business, all the time" Yankees. New Yorkers can whine about Alex Rodriguez all they want, but they might give a little credit to the David of the Rust Belt, which refused to be intimidated by the MVP awards and All-Stars in Goliath's line-up. In vanquishing Little Lord Steinbrenner's most expensive toy in so convincing a fashion, Detroit once again proved that talent and teamwork overcome a me-first roster of prima donnas every time.

The pitching staff miraculously came together around Rogers, a prickly 41-year-old, and young flame-throwers Jeremy Bonderman, Justin Verlander and Joel Zuymaya, a rotation that had the lowest ERA in baseball this year.

Detroit boasts a line-up of guys with great Latino names, like Maglio Ordonez and Placido Polanco, complemented by old-timey names like Curtis Granderson and Sean Casey. Those guys could have played with Honus Wagner or Christy Mathewson.

And the Tiger's uniforms haven't changed in about a century.

But mostly, I just like underdogs. The city of Detroit is the butt of every easy joke -- including some of mine, and I've never even been there. (Really, its fans are too much like us to make fun of them. If the proverbial "Shitsburgh" hit the fan around here over some B-list actress whom I literally never heard of, imagine how Detroit denizens feel on a daily basis.)

Finally, I'm rooting for the Tigers because they give me hope that a long-standing baseball team, struggling in a dwindling market and mired in years of failure, can win with great young pitching and a few key elements garnered through smart trades and free-agent acquisitions.

Maybe the Pirates will never match that feat. But I can live vicariously, if only for a little while.

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