Tigers pitchers Al Alburquerque, left, and Doug Fister celebrate Wednesday night's victory over the Twins in Minneapolis, which clinched the American League Central Division title. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
Miami — The first of how many?
The Tigers are no strangers to celebrating, and as parties go, the one they threw Wednesday night in Minneapolis after winning the American League Central was a dandy.
“It was awesome,” right fielder Torii Hunter said. “We had fun, but didn’t get too crazy.”
Think of what it featured, though:
■Jim Leyland moonwalking. No, for those who missed it, he’s not going to repeat it on a trip to the mound, but don’t bet against it happening again if the Tigers give themselves another reason to celebrate.
■Hunter picking up Leyland and carrying him into the mayhem to get drenched. It had to be one of the great moments of Leyland’s career, a show of respect from the players feeling, as Hunter did, “that, you’re the man, we want you in here with us.”
■Max Scherzer wearing blue-and-brown goggles, matching the color of his eyes.
■And an overall ferocity that made this celebration the most intense of the three the Tigers have enjoyed after clinching the division the last three years
This is how the postseason usually starts, with an explosion of emotion for climbing the first rung of the ladder.
To the Tigers, that’s what winning the division was, the first rung. Just earning a playoff spot, as they did before clinching the Central, was nice, but not special.
“Special” is doing what you expect of yourself, and the Tigers expected of themselves what everyone else did: That they should win the division again.
“I have to congratulate Cleveland and Kansas City, they made it awfully tough, particularly Cleveland,” Leyland said. “But we showed our toughness, too.
“From the day we started spring training, it was almost as if the only thing we could really do was fail, because people had such high expectations. That’s what I talked about (with the players), don’t get caught up in the expectations, get caught up in how you’re going to live up to them.”
In that case, so far, so good , complete with hugs from the players for Leyland as each one left the field after the final out.
“That’s something you treasure,” Leyland said in his office as tears rolled down his cheeks. “They know how I feel about them.”
But in all the joy after the final out, and with all the mirth of the moment, the Tigers didn’t lose sight of what they need to do next.
“I came here to win that World Series and this is the first step,” said Hunter, whose exuberance has filled the void Octavio Dotel once noticed and spoke about.
“But we have a lot of work to do. We’ll enjoy this great feeling, this great moment, but come (today), it’s back to work to get ahead of Oakland. We’re still looking way ahead.”
The Tigers lacked fire at times last year. They eventually found it, and put it to good use.
It hadn’t always been there. It’s been there this year, though.
You could see it in the extra togetherness on the field after the final out against the Twins. You could hear through the doors and walls of the clubhouse when it was the team inside by itself before the media were allowed to enter.
This isn’t a quiet team anymore.
Soft-spoken, perhaps, but teams are measured more by the effectiveness of their deeds, not by the volume of their daily comments.
So it was an important glimpse into the psyche of this team, as a focused team, to hear Hunter looking ahead during the celebration.
As one of the more vocal Tigers, he wasn’t speaking just for himself. He was speaking for those who are quieter, but thinking the same thing.
And that thought is this: As much fun as the Tigers had, and for as much wild video as came out of that celebration, they’re going to be bummed if that’s the only time they get to go through it.
“Eleven more,” Hunter said as he hugged Scherzer, whom he nicknamed “Blackjack” for his 21 wins. “Eleven more.”
Who’s counting? The Tigers are counting. And counting down.
In fact, while cigar smoke filled the room, and the identity of those celebrating became blurred — they all were soaked, they all wore the same “We Own The Central” T-shirts, and they all were wearing goggles — the countdown hadn’t begun.
It had resumed.
Eleven more ...
Three to win the Division Series.
Four to win the Championship Series.
Four to win World Series.
Some teams give lip service to thinking they’re capable of moving on, once they get into the playoffs. But the Tigers were built to continue.
The expectation all year was that they would do what they’ve just done, but not stop there.
“I think we’ve gotten to the status where we’re a team that every spring can legitimately say our goal is to win the World Series,” Leyland said.
C’mon, you might be saying at this point, let ’em fully enjoy the division title before looking ahead.
It’s not that one undermines the other, though. Teams on a mission can celebrate, even watch their manager dance, and look ahead at the same time.
The Tigers just did.