Friday, May 26, 2006

Marveling at Motown

I'm going to give you the answer to a trivia question:
Los Angeles, 1988.
The question is, "What is the last city to hold the NBA and World Series titles at the same time?" How is this relevant to anything? It's not yet. But Detroit could be making it relevant by the end of October.
The Pistons are the given. With San Antonio now ousted from the NBA playoffs, it's hard to imagine Miami, Dallas or Phoenix getting the best of Detroit over a seven-game series. Their coronation might come with a measure of difficulty, but it should still come, on schedule, in June.
The utterly flabbergasting surprise is the Tigers, owners of baseball's best record at 33-14. It's starting to dawn on everyone that they are having a charmed season much like the White Sox had last year.
As Matt Sussman points out, they are a statistically balanced team excelling both on the mound and at the plate. They play with the same opportunistic approach that the White Sox made their calling card last year, legging out singles, moving runners over, scoring on groundouts. Then the pitching protects the leads the offense gives them.
And it all stems from one man: manager Jim Leyland, who might truly cement himself as one of the greatest managers of all time this year.
Think about the towering inferno Leyland inherited. A team that hadn't even finished above .500 since 1993. A team that hadn't made the playoffs since 1987. A team that had spent the past 10 years with a revolving door of post-Sparky Anderson managers yielding the same awful results: Buddy Bell, Larry Parrish and Alan Trammell, to name the ones who absorbed the brunt of the impact.
This was the team that pinned its revival on Cecil Fielder, the team that traded for pull-hitting slugger Juan Gonzalez the same winter they were preparing to move into Comerica Park, which featured a cow pasture for an outfield.
And then, as if he was Neo starting to believe in "The Matrix," Leyland came in, held up his hand, and the bullets stopped flying.
On April 17, the Tigers lost a 10-2 blowout to the Indians to fall to 7-6. Jim Leyland fumed at the way his team played, snapped at the press, and probably did worse to his players. Detroit lost the next game at Oakland to fall to 7-7. Since then, they are 26-7.
No one but Leyland and his players know what was said at the pivotal point. But two things can be assumed: Jim Leyland takes crap from no one, and when he talks, his players listen.
The 119-loss Tigers of 2003 found out how losing perpetuates itself. These Tigers are finding out the same thing about winning. If a team wins consistently, it finds out how to win in all kinds of situations. Pretty soon, a team expects to win every time it steps onto the field.
It's still early, but I don't foresee a massive coming-back-to-Earth party for the Tigers. Leyland won't allow it. Their first over-.500 season in 13 years can be assumed. The playoffs are a distinct possibility. And with Leyland's World Series pedigree, if the Tigers make the playoffs, Detroit might be hosting another championship parade before the Pistons' confetti even stops falling.

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