Constructing the Tigers required patience, risk, luck

DETROIT -- The Mayo Smith Society, the Detroit Tigers' No. 1 fan club, consists of about 800 Tiger-maniacs who can cite you chapter and verse on the life and times of Ray Oyler and Don Wert.

The group's membership includes Tigers general manager David Dombrowski, who paid the $20 annual fee and is perfectly happy to engage in give-and-take. In August, Dombrowski and closer Todd Jones spoke to the group before an audience of 200 at the Henry Ford museum.

"I just think it's great," Dombrowski said. "There are a lot of longtime Tiger fans, and if you can be part of that, it's a plus."

A case could be made that baseball fans in Pittsburgh and Kansas City have endured more prolonged and acute suffering in recent years than Tiger backers. But for pure, unadulterated embarrassment, nothing compares to what Detroit fans experienced in 2003, when their team needed a life preserver to avoid rock bottom.

Manager Alan Trammell's club had to win five of its last six games to finish with 119 losses, one short of the 1962 Mets' modern-day record. After the Tigers beat Minnesota 9-4 in the season finale, the word "Victory!" flashed on the Comerica Park scoreboard and Kool and the Gang's "Celebration" played over the loudspeakers.

Aesthetically speaking, the 2003 season was a 162-game bad hair day in Detroit. Mike Maroth became the first big-league pitcher since Brian Kingman to lose 20 games, and catcher Brandon Inge hit .203 with a .265 on-base percentage. Bobby Higginson averaged one RBI for every $227,884 in salary, and Alex Sanchez generated lots of yuks with his "run till you're out" baserunning technique.

And lest we forget, the Tigers carried not one but three Rule 5 pitchers -- Wilfredo Ledezma, Matt Roney and Chris Spurling.

Three years later, the love and cheers raining down from the Comerica Park stands after Detroit's American League pennant-clinching victory over Oakland are a testament to the rebirth of baseball in this city. The Tigers have been so dominant they almost got two opposing managers fired in the playoffs.

So how did it happen? What's the preeminent theme? This Detroit club isn't a band of happy-go-lucky "idiots." It's lacking in star power, and it doesn't play in the shadow of Disneyland. But the front office has done a masterful job of assembling talent through trades, free-agent acquisitions, the draft and an international signing or two, and manager Jim Leyland has an uncanny feel for tapping into what makes all 25 players tick.

If the Tigers win the World Series, it will be the second title for Dombrowski, who built a championship club with Florida in 1997. You could argue that Dombrowski has been preparing for this moment his entire life -- or at least since 1978, when he wrote an honors thesis on the job of the Major League Baseball general manager as a student at Western Michigan University.

Maybe this Detroit team won't generate a best seller or great TV ratings, but it might earn Dombrowski another ring. How did things come together for the 2006 Tigers? Here are six lessons that Dombrowski can pass along:

Listen to your people
After reserve outfielder Alexis Gomez homered to beat Oakland in the ALCS, Dombrowski was quick to point out that the Tigers had acquired Gomez on waivers from Kansas City on the recommendation of scout Scott Bream, who raved about the kid's raw power and tools.

This is a recurrent theme in Detroit. When the Tigers claimed Craig Monroe on waivers from Texas, it was on the recommendation of scout Dick Egan. Former minor league manager Phil Regan gets credit for urging the Tigers to select Ledezma from Boston in the 2002 Rule 5 draft. And former Detroit executive Ricky Bennett, now with Houston, pushed for the team to sign Marcus Thames as a six-year free agent.

Dombrowski relies heavily on input from two trusted and respected assistants, Al Avila and Scott Reid. "It's all about having quality people around you that you can trust," Dombrowski said.

Heck, even Jim Leyland's brother got into the act this year. Larry Leyland is a regular at Toledo Mud Hens games, and after watching Detroit's Triple-A club for two seasons, he told his brother that Thames could hit 30 homers in 400-500 big-league at-bats. The Tigers kept Thames out of spring training, and he hit 26 homers in 348 at-bats for the big club.

Act decisively
When reliever Ugueth Urbina alienated his teammates with an outburst on a plane in the summer of 2005, the Tigers packed him off to Philadelphia in a deal for Placido Polanco -- this year's ALCS Most Valuable Player.

When it was apparent the Tigers couldn't sign reliever Kyle Farnsworth to a multiyear deal last season, they sent him to Atlanta for pitchers Zach Miner and Roman Colon. Miner made 16 starts this season and went 7-6 to help bail out the staff when Maroth underwent elbow surgery.

And in September, when the Tigers determined that Dmitri Young was becoming a problem in the clubhouse, they abruptly released him. The explanation that Young was jettisoned for "performance reasons" didn't wash with many people, but the Tigers certainly haven't suffered in his absence.

Take risks, and overpay if necessary
After the 2003 season the Tigers made a run at Miguel Tejada, only to lose out to the Orioles. So they spent their money on Rondell White, Fernando Vina and Al Levine.

"It was tough," Dombrowski said. "When you've been losing for an extended period, people aren't knocking down your door. Sometimes you have to pay a little more than you want. You kind of cringe and say, 'Geez, I wish we didn't have to do that.' But you're not going to get better if you don't have the players."

Losing isn't the only issue in Detroit. While the city's downtown is making a comeback, the sight of boarded-up buildings can be a turnoff to free agents being lured by competitors in New York, Chicago and Boston. The Tigers have found that it helps to emphasize life in the scenic suburbs and the wonders of Comerica Park.

Agent Scott Boras, who represents Magglio Ordonez, Pudge Rodriguez and Kenny Rogers, acknowledged that the Tigers have some obstacles to overcome. He made that plain while developing a rapport with Tigers owner Mike Ilitch.

"In Detroit, because American players have such a negative view of the city, my advice to Mike was, 'Build your core around Latin players who don't have that view,' " Boras said. "They don't look at Detroit as a negative. They like the ballpark and the suburbs."

Money helps, too. Dombrowski signed Rodriguez to a four-year, $40 million contract and Ordonez to a five-year, $75 million deal, but used some creativity with Boras to leave the team with some protection in the event that Rodriguez had problems with his back or Ordonez suffered a recurrence of knee trouble.

In some front offices, Ilitch is no doubt viewed as another Boras pigeon who just happened to be luckier than Texas' Tom Hicks. But it's hard to argue with the results.

"You have to give Mike credit because he went to places where no other owner would go," Boras said. "The way he turned around this franchise is unprecedented. Maybe the lesson is that the other owners let him do it, particularly in the AL Central."

Stockpile young pitching
The Tigers haven't raided other teams' systems for pitching the way that, say, Florida did last winter. But it's telling that Dombrowski acquired a young fastballer named Jeremy Bonderman from Oakland for Jeff Weaver in his very first deal as Detroit general manager.

"When you've been losing for an extended period, people aren't knocking down your door. Sometimes you have to pay a little more than you want. You kind of cringe and say, 'Geez, I wish we didn't have to do that.' But you're not going to get better if you don't have the players."
-- Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski

Sometimes it pays to shop in bulk. In 2003, Dombrowski traded Mark Redman, a mediocre, arbitration-eligible lefty, to Florida for three minor-league pitchers -- Rob Henkel, Gary Knotts and Nate Robertson.

Robertson, the least hyped of the three at the time, didn't even make Baseball America's list of Detroit's top 30 prospects three years ago. But he's won 32 games and averaged 200 innings over the past three seasons, while Knotts and Henkel faded from sight.

Be patient
The Detroit farm system hasn't exactly been bountiful in recent years. Eric Munson, Kenny Baugh, Kyle Sleeth and Matt Wheatland are among Detroit's first-round picks who failed to develop for one reason or another.

But the Tigers have produced enough impact players to complement their veteran core. They resisted overtures to trade Justin Verlander to Florida for Josh Beckett, nurtured Curtis Granderson through his minor-league growing pains, and found Joel Zumaya and his soon-to-be 100 mph fastball in the 11th round.

At this year's trade deadline, Dombrowski passed when Washington GM Jim Bowden wanted star prospect Cameron Maybin and/or pitcher Humberto Sanchez for two months' worth of Alfonso Soriano.

Get lucky
Sure, the decision to give Troy Percival two years and $12 million was a mistake. But it could have been worse.

Wonder where the Tigers might be if Juan Gonzalez had accepted that $140 million offer in 2000, or Rich Aurilia had signed a multiyear deal to play shortstop, or Carl Pavano had been swayed by his power lunch with Al Kaline and spurned the Yankees' offer to sign with Detroit?

More often than not, Dombrowski's acquisitions have been on the mark. The Tigers stole Carlos Guillen from Seattle in a trade. They exercised patience with Inge, watching him mature from an offensive black hole at catcher to a 27-homer man at third base. And they signed Todd Jones and Kenny Rogers to two-year deals while being ridiculed by much of the industry.

Moves like this help explain how a club goes from 43 wins to 95 in a three-year span. Too bad Dombrowski wasn't around to clean up after the Exxon Valdez.

"When he came in, I looked at some of his moves and I was thinking, 'What's his thought process here?' " said Inge, a Tiger since 2001. "I didn't doubt him, but I wondered. At this point right now, you understand what he was thinking and what he was doing. That's why he's in the front office and we're not."

And that's why Detroit is absolutely wild over baseball this October. The folks at the Mayo Smith Society just might learn to get used to this.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.