Pudge turns Tigers into believers

LAKELAND, Fla. -- On the one hand, Alan Trammell sometimes feels like he is entering his fourth or fifth year as the Detroit Tigers' manager, not his second.

"I may only have one year of experience, but it was more than one year, believe me," Trammell says.

On the other hand, he admits he could be put to some new tests in 2004.

"Probably the least thing I did last year was manage games," Trammell said. "I'm looking forward to doing that more this year. There's not much of a chance to manage when you fall behind so many games early, but I'm looking forward to this year."

Indeed, there is life after 119 losses with Detroit.

Few camps in Florida or Arizona are as upbeat as the one Trammell presides over. The arrival of Ivan Rodriguez, fresh off his unexpected World Series season in Florida, brings hope to a franchise that has had little over the last decade.

When Rodriguez signed a four-year, $40 million deal with the Tigers, eyes rolled at the curious marriage of a future Hall of Famer in his prime and a team coming off a horrible season of historic proportions. But Rodriguez doesn't envision himself simply collecting paychecks with a last-place team.

"Nobody was talking about us winning a World Series last spring," Rodriguez said of the Marlins. "They had lost [83] games the year before and then we won 91 games and the Series. These guys lost [119] games last year, but that doesn't mean we can't win the Series ... Last year is over."

Rodriguez might not have signed in Detroit had he been the only upgrade to a lineup that produced a majors-low 3.6 runs per game last year. But before he arrived, general manager Dave Dombrowski had traded for shortstop Carlos Guillen and signed second baseman Fernando Vina, outfielder Rondell White and right-hander Jason Johnson.

"We have some genuine, authentic, actual ballplayers," Tigers designated hitter Dmitri Young told Booth Newspapers' Danny Knobler. "Not some fake, imitation, B-rated [crap]."

Nobody figures to benefit more from the infusion of veterans than the Tigers' relatively inexperienced regulars, including third baseman Eric Munson, center fielder Alex Sanchez and left fielder Craig Monroe. The young starting rotation, which includes 21-game loser Mike Maroth, 19-game loser Jeremy Bonderman and 17-game loser Nate Cornejo, should see some losses turn into wins as the lineup produces one or two more runs per game.

"It's instant credibility when you have a track record," says Trammell, who was the shortstop when the Tigers won the 1984 World Series. "Your peers watch, they know. We're trying to change the attitude around here ... This organization has been around a long time, had some good years, we slipped a little bit but we're trying to turn around the organization and the image we've had for a while. Bringing in guys like Pudge, Vina, that's part of it."

If anyone questioned whether Rodriguez would embrace the challenge, he answered the doubters by being the last player off the field and out of the weight room in the early days of camp, as well as with his rhetoric.

"I'm a winner, not a loser," Rodriguez said. "I love to win games. When I'm losing, I'm p----- off. I love to win. That's what I want to bring here, a winning attitude. These guys here are good players. They are going to work very hard to win."

Trammell believes the Tigers' turnaround began before the offseason push to add veterans. He is rightfully proud of the way his team finished 2003.

Having lost 10 games in a row, the Tigers took a 38-117 record into the last week of the season. They dropped the first game of a three-game series at Kansas City and seemed certain to become baseball's all-time biggest loser, surpassing the 120 losses of the 1962 New York Mets.

But then something clicked. Detroit won its last two games of the Royals series before coming home to Comerica Park, where it took three of four against Minnesota. On the next-to-last day of their endless season, they rallied from an 8-0 deficit to beat the Twins 9-8.

Never before had a team with so many losses had such a good reason to celebrate.

"That was huge," Trammell said of the finish. "Nobody, except the '62 Mets, can ever compare to what we went through. Who can, except for them? We endured a lot of negatives in many different areas. It would have been so easy to give up, quit. To win five of six, how we did it, I don't know ... It was a great feeling, to be honest."

Trammell believes Bonderman, Maroth and Cornejo will benefit from the experience they gained by getting a full, if nightmarish, season as starters a year ago. They'll be joined by Johnson, who was non-tendered after a 10-10 season in Baltimore, and possibly Gary Knotts, Esteban Yan or Ariel Prieto.

The bullpen is a major question mark, with setup man Alan Levine the only significant addition from outside the organization. Trammell is using spring training to try out potential closers in a group that includes Fernando Rodney, Matt Anderson and Franklyn German.

"I think the hitting on this team is going to be fine," Rodriguez said. "What we need to do is get the pitching staff together and we'll be fine. That's my job."

Rodriguez, 32, admits Detroit was the only club that offered him the four-year deal he was seeking. He says he had one- or two-year offers from the Cubs, Los Angeles, Seattle and Baltimore.

Handling a staff hasn't been considered among Rodriguez's strengths; he appears headed to the Hall of Fame on the strength of 10 Gold Glove awards and .304 career batting average. But he took charge of a young staff in Florida, helping Josh Beckett and Brad Penny turn a corner.

"There are some great arms here," Rodriguez said. "There are guys who can pitch, who can be as good as Josh, as good as Brad Penny. We have to keep working with them, and they'll be better."

Baltimore started 0-21 en route to a 54-107 season in 1988. It improved 33 games the following season, going 87-75 to finish only two games behind Toronto in one of the most unlikely division races ever.

Can the Tigers make that big of a leap? They need only a 72-win season to match it in terms of victories.

"Hopefully we can get off to a good start and our confidence keeps building," said White, whose attitude has kept him in demand despite his frequent injuries. "We have to look at it like we won 100 games [last year], not lost 100 games. It's all in your mind. I think we're going to surprise a lot of people."

There's nowhere to go but up.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.