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Mudville: April 20, 2024 8:59 am PDT

Tiger Fan Blues

In a blatant attempt for a little sympathy
I get commiserative looks, compassionate stares,
Pats on my shoulder, and heartfelt “We care’s
‘Cuz everybody knows there’s no hope in sight,
No light at the end of our tunnel, no shining white knight
Folks, as bad as it is, it’s as good as it gets,
When you’re one game better than the ’62 Mets
Win or lose, I’ve got them lifelong Tiger fan blues

 The Lifelong Tiger Fan Blues

by actor, singer, songwriter Jeff Daniels

Why would fans cheer a team that lost 119 games?

Because they didn’t lose 120.

The 2003 Detroit Tigers went 43-119, one less loss than the infamous 1962 New York Mets, who set the modern-day record with 120 defeats against 40 wins. That’s why the Tiger faithful applauded their club on the final day of the season; Detroit won their last game against the AL Central champion Minnesota Twins, 9-4.

The 18,959 fans at Comerica Park also cheered their team because it won three of its last four games to avoid the record.

The Twins had locked up the division title and rested most of their regulars during the final games against the Tigers. Still, it helped Detroit avoid one of the baseball’s most ignominious records. The team did set a new mark for losses by an American League team, besting the 117 defeats set by Connie Mack’s 1916 Philadelphia Athletics (who played only 153 games).

An ESPN article on the worst teams in the history of the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL chose the 2003 Tigers as the worst-ever baseball team: “Yes, the 1962 Mets went 40-120, but that was an expansion team,” the magazine stated. “This was an established franchise that had spent 10 seasons building to be historically awful. It somehow finished 13 games worse than the 2002 team, which lost 106 games. It earned this dubious achievement.”

The Tigers were on a downward spiral. They went 79-83 in 2000, but lost 96 games in 2001, and won only 55 in 2002. The club hired Dave Dombrowski as GM on April 8, 2002. Dombrowski had built a winning team in Montreal, but that club had a productive farm system. Detroit’s was among the worst in baseball, and Dombrowski could do little in the way of trades or signing quality free agents.

“Tommy Lasorda had an adage: you’re going to win 54 games and lose 54 games; what you do with the other 54 determines your season,” said Dombrowski. “We’d have been happy with 54 wins.”

As the team inched closer and closer to losing game 120, the media and fans “were always talking about it (the record),” he said. “It’s never easy to lose,” he said. “We knew we weren’t (very good). What we did not do was start changing our thinking of our long-term strategy.”

He was evaluating the players on the major league roster, examining the players in the minor league system, and thinking about trades and free-agent signings.

Here are some tidbits about just how bad the team was:

For the first time in MLB history, one team had the top three pitchers in losses in a season: Mike Maroth with 21, Jeremy Bonderman with 19, and Nate Cornejo with 17.

Detroit finished dead last in batting average (.240), on-base percentage (.300), slugging percentage (.375), and in runs, hits, total bases, and caught stealing, – although they finished fifth in stolen bases and third in triples (but last in doubles). They were outscored 928 to 591.

Dave Dombrowski. (Photo: Carlos Osorio / AP)

The pitching staff was next-to-last in ERA at 5.30, and starters managed only three complete games. Hurlers finished next-to-last in hits surrendered, earned runs allowed and were eleventh in home runs and walks. Pitchers were last in strike outs with 764, an average of only 4.71 per game. The club was also last in saves with only 27. Franklyn German and Chris Mears led the team with five each.

Cornejo was the only pitcher who started games with an ERA under 5.00 (4.67).

The Tigers lost their first nine games, won their first against the Chicago White Sox on April 12, then dropped eight in a row to fall to 1-17. The club lost 22 games in June against only five wins.

“We went out every day and found a way to lose,” said Bonderman, who was only 20 years old that season. He was inserted in the starting rotation. By September 19, he had 19 losses.

Manager Alan Trammel sent him to the bullpen so he wouldn’t lose 20 games. “I didn’t care, I just wanted to pitch, at that point it was just a number,” said Bonderman. “And I almost lost anyway in relief.

“I was just trying to salvage myself as a big leaguer (in 2003), trying to learn how to be a big leaguer,” he said. The losing “wasn’t fun,” Bonderman noted, but added that he and teammates were happy to be big-leaguers and even found ways to enjoy themselves after games.

Bonderman said players didn’t pay attention to stories about the club besting the Mets’ total: “We didn’t need anybody else to tell us about the (record).”

But as the losses mounted, Dombrowski and the organization began thinking about losing 120 or more games. “We didn’t want to set the record because we knew we’d be talked about,” he said. “We had to win five out of six (to avoid the record) and we hadn’t won five straight all year. It seemed like a foregone conclusion.”

Detroit Tigers pitcher Jeremy Bonderman. (Photo: Ezra Shaw)

For Michael Smith, a Detroit native and Tigers fan, the losing was difficult.

“Some of my feelings about that season were rooted in my memories of the Tigers of my youth, especially the ’68 and ’84 World Series teams,” said Smith. “My first games at the old Tiger Stadium were during the ’68 season, and I was in college at Central Michigan when the team won in ’84. I still have my Old English D cap from ’84, and a souvenir batting helmet from ’68.”

Despite a miserable 2002 season, Smith said he was optimistic about the 2003 season because the team had brought in some of the “royalty” of the 1984 season:  Alan Trammell as manager, Kirk Gibson and Lance Parrish as coaches.  “I’m not sure why I was so optimistic because I knew that the best players don’t always make the best coaches.  However, I had to believe in something,” said Smith, now a professor of public relations.

“I remember being impressed with Brandon Inge and hopeful about Jeremy Bonderman, but neither was able to compensate for the otherwise dismal talent. It is remarkable that many of the same players were part of the 2006 World Series team,” said Smith.

From September 13 to the 22nd, the Tigers lost 10 straight games, the final one a 12-6 loss to the Kansas City Royals, which left them with a record of 38-118.

Detroit defeated the Royals 15-6 on September 23, to keep the dubious record two games at bay. They defeated Kansas City again 4-3 on September 24, for their 40th win of the season.

Detroit’s last four games of the season were at home against Minnesota. While the Twins were resting their regulars for the upcoming playoffs, the Tigers would have to win three out of the four games to avoid the record.

On Thursday, September 25, Shane Halter hit a two-out home run in the bottom of the 11th inning for a 5-4 win. Detroit lost on Friday, September 26, 5-4 in 10 innings. It was the club’s 119th loss.

Then came the game of September 27, now known as “The Saturday Night Miracle.” Detroit scored eight runs in the last three innings to win 9-8, the winning run scoring when Warren Morris struck out on a wild pitch and Alex Sanchez came home.

Detroit still needed to win on Sunday, September 28, and Craig Monroe’s go-ahead home run in the sixth fueled the Tigers to a 9-4 victory.

In 2004, the club improved by a whopping 29 games. Was it the new players acquired by Dombrowski, or were the players on the 2003 squad getting better?

“A little bit of both,” said Bonderman, who won 11 games that season and led the American League with two complete games. He had 14 victories in 2005, but the club won one less game than the year before, and the Tigers let Trammell go, and replaced him with Jim Leyland. Things began to go the Tigers’ way the following year.

Bonderman’s 14 wins in 2006 were about one-third of Detroit’s total victories in 2003. He also led the league with 34 starts and pitched 214 innings in which he struck out 202 against only 64 walks.

They won the AL Central going 95-67 and made it to the 2006 World Series. Ten Tigers on that club had been on the 2003 team: Bonderman, Maroth,  Ramon Santiago and, (who spent 2004 and 2005 with the Seattle Mariners), Craig MonroeOmar Infante,  Nate RobertsonJamie WalkerWilfredo Ledezma, and Fernando Rodney.

Dombrowski said he could see some of the moves the club had made via free-agency and trades were having a positive effect. He said the club wasn’t thinking in 2003 and beyond that they’d reach the World Series in three years, but the moves they were making laid the foundation for the success of 2006.

“It was awesome, the experience of a lifetime,” said Bonderman, who added the team “didn’t really look back on the ’03 season.”

Jon Caroulis has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years. Many of his articles have been about "unusual" events or players. He is a graduate of Temple University.

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