Series title or bust? In today's game, it's tall order

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit – You could make a case the Tigers are in the middle of the longest stretch of prosperity in franchise history.

They're in the postseason for the fifth time in nine seasons, and they've won four consecutive American League Central championships.

But they have yet to win the big one. And that's a black eye many fans aren't willing to overlook.

The Tigers, they get it.

"This team's been built for something bigger," Victor Martinez said the other day. "And we all know that."

Owner Mike Ilitch has spent and spent and spent to get that elusive World Series ring. He signed Pudge Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, Kenny Rogers, Victor Martinez, Torii Hunter, Joe Nathan and many others. He authorized big-boy extensions for Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera, and tried to do the same with Max Scherzer.

All told, the Tigers payroll today is right around $170 million, one of the highest budgets in the sport – surely out of whack for a middle market – and nearly double that of the Royals, who, after their thrilling victory over the A's late Tuesday night, are joining the Tigers in the Division Series round of the playoffs.

But baseball, it's a funny game. Nothing is guaranteed. Just ask the A's, who not long ago had the best record in baseball, then went out and traded for stud pitches Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. They then took leads in the first, sixth and 12th innings of Tuesday's wild-card game. But they're still going home.

The baseball playoffs are a thing of a beauty. They're also very difficult. The two thoughts go hand in hand. Unlike in so many other sports, the favorites fall a lot of the time.

The Tigers know this all too well. They were favored in the 2006 World Series and again in 2012, and they won just one game, total, against the Cardinals and Giants. All of a sudden, the Tigers are starting to draw whispered comparisons to the Braves teams that won those 14 division titles in a row, only to have just a single World Series title to show for it.

"It is hard. It's really hard to win a World Series," said Martinez, who's entering his fifth postseason – just like Ilitch, still looking for his first ring. "As fans, they are expecting a lot from us. And don't get me wrong, we expect a lot from ourselves.

"I think that combination can be a little dangerous," he said, with a laugh.

Baseball has evolved over the years.

Back in the 1960s, when the Tigers won the third of their four world championships, it was harder to get into the playoffs. Heck, in 1961, they won 101 games, and finished eight games back of the Yankees for the American League pennant.

But once you got into the postseason, the road was easier. Until the early 1970s, league winners went right to the World Series. In the 1970s, five-game league Championship Series were created. Eventually those became seven games. Then in the 1990s, five-game league Division Series were created. And last year, a one-game wild-card round was added in each league.

In short, in the 1960s, you needed four playoff wins for a World Series. Today, you need at least 11, and as many as 12. Certainly, we can agree it's easier to get four wins than 12 wins.

There also are a lot more major-league teams today, and the parity is as good as it's ever been, thanks to such innovations as revenue sharing and compensatory draft picks.

Now, don't mistake this. The fact the Tigers haven't won the World Series since 1984 is a major void, especially since they've come so close so many times in the last decade. But that's baseball. Nothing's certain. This isn't your grandfather's MLB, which is why while fans can say this team is World Series or bust, the Tigers can't get caught up in that.

"This game is too tough to be putting any extra pressure on yourself," said Martinez, whose Tigers open their first-round series in Baltimore early Thursday evening. "We're playing another big-league ballclub on the other side.

"They're in the playoffs for a reason."