- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 14, 2003

BALTIMORE.— The Detroit Tigers arrived for yesterday afternoon’s activities at Camden Yards with a three-game winning streak, the rounders equivalent of Hilary Duff winning an Academy Award as best actress, or maybe Al Sharpton being elected president.

By rising just a tad from the ashes of a 3-25 start, the Tigers were showing that you can’t lose them all — it just seemed that way to what remains of their fan base. How bad is this painfully young, painfully undertalented team? So bad that it would have to go 49-81 just to match last season’s 55-106 disaster that got two managers, Phil Garner and Luis Pujols, mercifully fired.

Ordinarily, such a record over the final 130 games would not appear hard to achieve, if that’s the word, but consider this: The resulting percentage of .377 would dwarf Detroit’s .194 mark before yesterday — by far the major leagues’ worst. Earlier this week, the Pussycats were last in so many American League categories that, were they a soccer team, they might be relegated to Class AAA before Memorial Day.

And now the award for the luckiest Tiger of 2003 — to legendary broadcaster Ernie Harwell, who had the good sense to retire last fall after 40-odd years behind the mike.

What’s that rumbling sound emanating from the Motor City — perhaps Hall of Famers Ty Cobb, Charlie Gehringer and Hank Greenberg revolving underground? Or maybe the stomach of club owner Mike Ilitch, the Little Caesars pizza man who has seen his baseball life turn into a bed of anchovies?

Yet in the Tigers’ clubhouse before yesterday’s game, no moans or groans were evident. In one corner, three players kicked about a green beach ball like kids at a picnic. In another, Bobby Higginson and Franklyn German wrestled playfully. You almost expected to see coach Kirk Gibson, a refugee from the good old days, doing another double fist pump.

And in the manager’s office, first-year victim Alan Trammell was — gasp! — smiling. On the cover of the Tigers’ media guide, Trammell’s face is lined and seamed like that of a latter-day Dorian Gray. In person, though, it appears remarkably untroubled.

Trammell, who played shortstop for the Tigers’ World Series championship team of 1984 and 19 other Detroit clubs in a superb career, makes Pollyanna look like a pessimist. The Tigers made him a rookie manager at 45 because (a) he is a link to their successful past and (b) possibly nobody else would take the job. When it comes to spinning, this guy outdoes a whole boatload of political flacks.

“Our young guys [meaning virtually the whole team] aren’t hanging their heads,” Trammell said. “We’re teaching them the right way to be professionals, win or lose. They’re learning how to bounce back from adversity.”

A man asked, “Do you ever wake up in the morning and wonder how you got involved in this thing?”

Trammell grinned. “Heck, yes,” he said. “But you know, I’m doing what I did as a player, just trying to be consistent. We want to prepare the right way every day, just as though we were 25-6 instead of 6-25. Our attitude should be the same.”

Outside Trammell’s office, Tigers Hall of Famer Al Kaline was saying nice things about the manager.

“He’s kept this team going out and playing hard,” said Kaline, now a special assistant to president/general manager Dave Dombrowski. “When ‘Tram’ was a player, all the guys went to him, so he’s perfect for the job of managing a young team.”

One of the Tigers’ bright young prospects is left-hander Mike Maroth, despite his 0-7 record and 5.40 ERA. Last week Maroth lost a no-hitter against the Orioles in the eighth inning, then lost his shutout and the game. Yet he remains upbeat because “I want to be like Tram, who always finds something positive to say. It’ll turn around. After all, we’re starting to hit well now …”

Yesterday they continued to hit well, rapping 12 safeties in a 9-4 victory that gave them an improbable series sweep of the Orioles and their second-rate pitching staff. Included were a pair of home runs by a catcher named Brandon Inge, who came in batting .127.

And if Brandon Inge can turn slugger, why not his equally anonymous teammates?

Of course, there is no guarantee that things will get much better in what is certain to be a 10th straight losing season for one of baseball’s oldest and proudest franchises. Despite this week’s mini-uprising, the highlight of the Tigers’ season figures to be Sept.28, when they play their final game.

Let’s see: That’s roughly 150 days, 3,600 hours, 216,000 minutes or 12,960,000 seconds from now. For the Tigers, already buried and merely twitching in the first week of May, it might seem much longer.

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