A new vintage of Detroit baseball was uncorked Sunday, a lovely bottle labeled "Tigers 2006."
It was the first splash of bubbly a dry and thirsty baseball town has savored in 19 years.
It tasted great, heavenly even, to a Tigers camp that has waited, often in anguish, for Detroit to become a playoff baseball team and renew the sense of merriment a proud baseball town often knew during its 100-year-plus history as a major-league charter member.
The party began at 5:11 p.m. Sunday when Tigers reliever Andrew Miller struck out Angel Sanchez to finish off Detroit's 11-4 victory over Kansas City at Kauffman Stadium.
At that moment, a city's baseball recovery was formalized. The Tigers, who were so bad in 2003 they nearly set a record for ineptitude with their 43-119 record, clinched a spot in the American League playoffs with one week remaining in the regular season.
"When you've lived through the World Series here in Detroit, and the earlier pennant races, and you've seen how bad the Tigers were for so many years afterward, you realize just how much Tigers baseball means to this city, and to the whole surrounding area," said Bill MacAdam, 65, a Bloomfield Hills businessman who is president of the Detroit Baseball Society, a fan-inspired celebration of baseball in Detroit.
Although the Tigers sewed up -- at the very least -- a wild card in the four-team league playoffs, they could still end up as American League Central Division champions. They maintain a 1 1/2 -game lead over the Twins with six games remaining. Their record after Sunday's game (94-62) puts the Tigers in position to accomplish the greatest three-year turnaround in big-league history.
In one sense, it hardly matters to a formerly battered big-league club whether it wins the Central Division or emerges as the American League wild card.
What matters to all who have suffered through Detroit's baseball Ice Age is that the Tigers are one of the league's four best teams heading into the three-tier playoff tournament that begins Oct. 3.
"I can remember driving up the Southfield Freeway in 1968 (Detroit won the '68 World Series) and kids would be holding banners over the expressway: 'Go Tigers,' " MacAdam said. "If you haven't been here when the Tigers were winners, I'm not sure it's easy to appreciate what it's been like for so long."
Tigers great Gates Brown, a glorious performer on the '68 Tigers team, felt Sunday as if he were back in the clubhouse, soaked in champagne, as he watched the 2006 Tigers celebrate.
"I couldn't be more delighted," Brown said, speaking from his Detroit home. "I'm happy for them. They deserve it after what they've been through and the organization deserves it. I'm really happy for (Tigers owner Mike Ilitch). I really am. He went through the hard times and never said a word, just kept trying to rebuild."
Disappointing history is erased
The Tigers took a figurative sledgehammer in 2006 to their recent dark history, which saw the team endure a 12-season string of losing from 1994-2005.
They torched their opponents from late April through the early weeks of May to move into first place in the Central Division, a position they have held for more than four months.
They climbed to a stunning 40 games over the .500 mark -- 77-37 -- in early August and later in August clinched their first winning record since 1993.
They struggled, however, from mid-August until last week, when they won two of three games against their most difficult-to-beat division rival, the Chicago White Sox. They then put together their first substantial winning streak since August when they swept the Royals.
Eight of baseball's 30 teams make it into the postseason that culminates in the World Series. It is a difficult echelon to reach, Brown admitted, when so many quality organizations are shooting for the same goal: a World Series ring.
"Tell me about it," Brown said, emphasizing the challenge. "But, man, they (the 2006 Tigers) showed people, they really did. Who would have thought it at the beginning of the season? That this team would win and be in the playoffs?
"It just goes to show that when a team plays together, anything can happen. And you can say that about this club. They have hardly anybody in the top 10 in hitting. But they win. That means everybody's contributing, top to bottom."
Everyone has reason to celebrate
The Tigers have ridden into the playoffs primarily because they have, statistically, the best pitching in baseball.
It ranks as a victory for Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers president, CEO and general manager, who was intent on pitching the framework for Detroit's reconstruction.
Ilitch also received some gratification Sunday 14 years after he purchased the Tigers, only to embark on the worst stretch of fortunes in the franchise's century-old annals.
It was Ilitch who invested heavily in Dombrowski (the highest salary for any executive in baseball), manager Jim Leyland, and, most notably, a string of free agents (Pudge Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, Kenny Rogers, Todd Jones, etc.) that also figured integrally in the renaissance.
Fans' wishes are fulfilled
The resurgence's effect on fans is either nostalgic or unprecedented, depending upon one's age.
Lindsay Viviano, 14, a freshman at Clarkston High, is a passionate Tigers fan who has accompanied her parents to Comerica Park for four games. She hopes to secure playoff tickets after losing out in last week's Internet lottery.
Sunday, she and her parents were busy taping the celebration on FSN.
"You have no idea how it is at our house," Lindsay said. "I can't tell you how overjoyed I am. I've been calling all my friends, and they think I'm insane. But I'm a Tigers fan."
Harris Frommer, 33, is a Manhattan financial executive who developed an attachment to the Tigers from afar, growing up in New Jersey during the 1980s, when the Tigers had the best record of any team in baseball that decade.
Frommer never believed in 1987, when Ronald Reagan was president, "Murphy Brown" was the hot show on television and the Cold War was still grinding, that a 14-year-old boy would not see his adopted team in the playoffs again until 2006.
"It's huge for me," Frommer said. "I went through it all these past few years: five straight 90-loss seasons, a couple of 100-loss years. I never thought we'd be talking about this day. It was always next year, next year."
Brown understands as only an ex-player can. He was experiencing the champagne Sunday, in spirit, anyway.
"Nineteen years," he said with a sigh. "Been a long time between drinks."