The owner is 84, wearied by the hunt but determined to finish it. The manager has been in baseball half a century, and tears might fill the crinkle of his eyes when discussing his team. The fans have watched in staggering numbers and waited for staggering years, 29 and counting.
Detroit’s World Series pursuit technically begins Friday night in Oakland, in the opener of the five-game Division Series. But it formed in many places and grew in many ways, one of those quests that deserves a quenching. Of course, it doesn’t work that way in baseball — wanting more and chasing longer don’t guarantee anything.
For the Tigers, this is a postseason shaped by the most basic motivations, heightened by the march of time. Mike Ilitch has displayed increasing urgency in his 21 years as owner, and even during Detroit’s downtrodden times, has trusted general manager Dave Dombrowski to push the payroll higher, to win now. Ilitch hasn’t been as visible lately and was notably absent for the annual team photo, but his unspoken influence is strong.
Jim Leyland has managed here eight seasons and is in the playoffs for the third consecutive time, and the only thing left to do is do it all, capture the team’s first championship since 1984. The World Series-or-bust mandate isn’t completely fair because this is a fickle game and star-packed favorites often fall short. Just look at the last two World Series appearances by the Tigers, beaten by overlooked upstarts — the Cardinals in 2006 and the Giants last fall.
This isn’t a perfect team and it does encounter baffling hitting funks. But it’s also pushed by powerful forces, by the potentially dominant pitching of Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez, by the incomparable Miguel Cabrera (even slowed by injuries), by the persistence of fans who packed Comerica Park at 3 million-plus.
The wonderful scene after the Tigers clinched the Central Division, when Torii Hunter dragged a sobbing Leyland into the clubhouse celebration for an impromptu dance, said plenty. It’s obvious what a championship would mean to the 68-year-old manager, but he tries not to overstate it.
“I don’t think this team wants to win the World Series any more than the team did last year — how could you want to win it more?” Leyland said. “The thing I’m proudest of — and I can’t predict what somebody else feels about the World Series-or-bust stuff — is when you have that kind of pressure and you withstand it and win. This team has had probably more pressure on it than any team I’ve had here.”
'Desire is deeper'
Pitching and slugging stars have a way of easing pressure. Cabrera is battling a groin injury that has sapped his power, but not his determination. And there’s something to be said for the steady calm of veteran players during a season of enormous expectations.
In a corner of the Tigers clubhouse, Hunter and Victor Martinez sit across from each other, and although neither shows his age, both see the clock. Hunter arrived as a missing piece and brought a charisma almost as uplifting as his .304 average. He’s 38 and in the playoffs for the seventh time, still chasing his first big ring.
“The desire is deeper,” Hunter said. “I’m pretty sure everybody wants it, but the longer you play this game and been so close, you want that ultimate goal. It’s not the ALDS, it’s not the ALCS, it’s the World Series.”
Martinez, 34, missed a full year with a knee injury and started slowly, then became one of the league’s hottest hitters. It was an amazing recovery, really, and now one motivation (the comeback) is replaced by another (his first title).
“Last year was the worst year in my career, but at the same time it was the best year of my life, because I was able to spend time with my kids,” Martinez said. “Now we’re in the spot we want to be. I like our chances big time, but in the playoffs, anything can happen.”
Living with expectations
That’s the charm of the playoffs and the curse for favorites, although the A’s are picked by many to win. They clobbered the Tigers in a late-August series in Detroit, with dangerous hitters such as Coco Crisp, Brandon Moss and Josh Donaldson.
The Tigers are in the playoffs for the fourth time in eight seasons and know how quickly things turn. Ask Jhonny Peralta, who returned from a 50-game suspension and is grateful for a second chance. Ask Scherzer, the unassuming ace who broke out with a 21-3 record. Ask Joaquin Benoit, the closer who quietly filled a gaping hole, or Prince Fielder, the prodigal son returning.
Dombrowski and Leyland won a championship in 1997 with Florida, but as feverishly as Ilitch has pushed, and as desperately as fans have clamored, this would trump it. Cabrera also won a World Series in Florida in 2003 when he was a rookie. Now he’s a 30-year-old superstar, gamely fighting through pain.
“We don’t worry about expectations because people say a lot of things,” Cabrera said. “They say Toronto was going to win. They say Washington was going to win, and they don’t do it. It’s a lot of expectations, but we can live with it.”
It’s hard to suggest the Tigers want it more than anyone else. But you could argue, for the fans and the owner and the times, they need it more than anyone else.