Tuesday, September 9, 2003

DETROIT — Most athletes and teams shoot for records.

The Detroit Tigers are trying to avoid one — the post-1900 record of 120 losses set by the 1962 New York Mets.

“We don’t want the focus or attention, but it’s something we have to deal with,” pitcher Mike Maroth said. “There’s not one person in here that wants to break that record.”

The Mets’ single-season record is not the only mark the Tigers are closing in on.

Detroit could have the first pair of 20-game losers since 1973 when Wilbur Wood and Stan Bahnsen did it for the Chicago White Sox.

With Friday night’s 8-6 loss at Toronto, Maroth became the first to lose 20 games since Oakland’s Brian Kingman in 1980. Manager Alan Trammell took rookie Jeremy Bonderman (6-18) out of the rotation — for at least one week — but said he likely will start again this season.

Detroit already became the first team since the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics to clinch last place in a full season before the end of August. San Diego, the next-worst team in baseball, has won nearly 60 games while Detroit is struggling to reach 40 victories.

And, the Tigers, 37-105, could surpass the worst two-year record set by the Mets in 1962-63 with 231 losses.

They were not expected to be good this season after dropping 106 games last year, their ninth straight losing season. Detroit began the year by becoming the first team in major league history to start 0-9 two straight years and things haven’t gotten much better.

Early in the season, the Tigers were pitching and fielding relatively well, but were not hitting at all. Just when they started scoring more runs, poor pitching and fielding negated the improvements at the plate.

The Tigers rank last — or are close to it — in the major league in an assortment of categories: runs, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, ERA, fielding percentage and errors.

Dmitri Young is the only player having a solid year, despite not seeing many good pitches. Detroit’s lone All-Star said people who think the Tigers are mired in misery are wrong.

“This isn’t a psychiatric ward,” Young said. “Nobody’s going to commit suicide. Nobody’s beating their wives. It’s not as drastic as people make it out to be.”

Detroit has been on pace to at least threaten the Mets’ record all season and that probably will not change. The Tigers have two more games scheduled than the Mets played and they still have to face playoff-contending teams.

The Tigers travel to play the New York Yankees this week. Then they come home to face Kansas City and the Blue Jays before playing Minnesota and the Royals on the road. Detroit’s season — mercifully — closes with a four-game homestand in three weeks against the Twins.

Unlike the Mets, who were an expansion team in 1962, the Tigers have been around since 1901.

Detroit, which has produced numerous Hall of Famers, has won four World Series in nine appearances and had winning seasons from 1978 to ‘88.

Trammell was hired along with coaches Kirk Gibson and Lance Parrish before the season, but the former Tiger stars have not been able to work miracles with a collection of rushed prospects and overpaid veterans.

Tram, Gibby and Lance helped Detroit win 35 of their first 40 games in 1984. This year, it took the Tigers 137 games to win 35.

It bothers Parrish to see a once-proud franchise become a laughingstock.

“It’s not fun being the butt of everybody’s jokes,” Parrish said.

Even when Detroit wins, it loses.

In last Tuesday’s win against Cleveland, Cody Ross hit a grand slam — his first major league home run — in the third inning, but tore a knee ligament in the eighth.

“Symbolic of our year? I would say yes,” Trammell said. “You just have to say, ‘Wow.’”

Hall of Famer Al Kaline said the embarrassment the franchise has suffered through this year should force some changes.

“We were looking at a lot of these young kids to be the backbone of this franchise, but now we’re not so sure they can be because they’ve failed,” said Kaline, a special assistant to team president Dave Dombrowski. “I don’t know how we’ll figure out things for next year, but hopefully, we’ll sign a few veteran hitters.

“I’d hate to go into next year saying what we have here, and in the minor leagues, is all we’re going to have. That would be very disappointing.”

Tigers owner Mike Ilitch is the only person who can say whether the team will spend the roughly $17million it will have off its payroll on next year’s team. He did not respond to an interview request by the Associated Press.

Dombrowski said he didn’t anticipate discussing next year’s budget with Ilitch until after this season.

Trammell, who has kept his composure this season, was willing to talk about anything regarding the Tigers with two exceptions: the modern-day record for losses and the unwanted attention the Tigers have attracted this summer.

“I’m really not ready to get into that, to be honest with you,” Trammell said. “I prefer to just see what happens. I’m going to be asked about this a lot and I’m just not ready for it yet in early September.”

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