Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

A Final Look Back at the 2003 Detroit Tigers (43-119)

Sept. 22 to 28 (Weekly Record 5-2, Season Record 43-119)

The number the 2003 Detroit Tigers were looking to avoid was 120. As in 120 losses. They finished the previous week with no wins and pushed their loss total to 117. How on Earth would this team avoid earning three or four losses in the final seven games? Hell, a 3-4 week would be a good week by 2003 standards but would still give them 121 losses, the worst mark of all time.

It would be a tough road for the Tigers this week. While they played okay against Chicago and Cleveland within their division (8 and 7 wins respectively), their final two opponents–Kansas City and Minnesota were a different story. For much of the 2003 season Kansas City kept close with Minnesota, but faded down the stretch, allowing the Twins to win their second-straight divisional title.

By losing the first game of the week to the Royals, the Tigers record against them fell to 2-14. But staring loss 119 in the face, they rallied for a 15-6 blowout on Tuesday. The Tigers’ bats picked up right where they left off the next day, pushing across four runs in the first inning. Though that would be the end of Detroit’s scoring for the day, the pitchers limited KC to three runs, winning the game and the series while staying at 118 losses.

The next opponent who had Detroit’s number was the 2003 AL Central champion Minnesota Twins.  Heading into this four-game series, the Tigers had gone 1-14 against the Twins. They’d get their second win in dramatic fashion on Thursday night when Shane Halter crossed home plate in the bottom of the 11th to clinch a 5-4 win. Detroit showed guts, coming from behind twice to push the game to extras.

The next night was a mirror image, with a 5-4, 11-inning victory going to Minnesota after Detroit blew a pair of leads. They tied it up in the 10th when the Twins went ahead, but a Michael Cuddyer solo shot off Franklyn German ended the three-game winning streak and pushed the Tigers one win from 120.

Awful Best Game of the Week Year–September 27: Twins at Tigers

The Tigers showed a lot of guts to play above themselves to avoid the all-time loss mark in the season’s final week, but midway through this Saturday night game, it appeared the new goal would to be avoid loss 121, not 120 when Detroit found themselves behind 8-0 in the fifth. The Tigers would not accept their fate.

Craig Monroe jumped started the offense, singling in Bobby Higginson for the first run in the fifth. Two innings later, he started a three-run seventh by doubling in Warren Morris. In the bottom of the eighth, a bases loaded walk to Dmitri Young scored Alex Sanchez. Monroe came through again by singling in Morris, and Carlos Pena finished the job, knocking in Higginson and Young with the tying run. 8-8 heading into the ninth.

Fernando Rodney threw a scoreless ninth. In the bottom of that inning Warren Morris came home on a wild pitch and the Tigers completed a remarkable, improbable and inspiring victory.

Final: Detroit 9, Minnesota 8 

So they wouldn’t be the worst team in baseball history, but the Tigers still could tie for the worst mark in the season finale. Higginson got the scoring started in the first with a solo shot. It would stay one-zip until the Twins scored a pair in the fifth. The Tigers tied it in the bottom half of that inning, and took a lead they would not relinquish.

Monroe hit a two-run homer and his teammates tacked on a few more runs, cruising to a 9-4 win.

The horror that was the 2003 season was mercifully over. The statistics would be there forever–finishing 47 games behind Minnesota in the division, and even finishing 20 games behind the second-worst team in baseball, Tampa Bay. But finally, there was a bit of a positive spin to the end of the season.

Many Tigers’ fans can remember the excitement of starting the 2004 season at 3-0 and beating the hated Twins in the home opener to run their record to 4-0. For comparison, it took a full month for the Tigers to win their fourth game in 2003 (May 4). Though the bottom would fall out of 2004, the start would give Tigers’ fans a winning feeling that had long been absent.

Conclusion

Its hard to believe that Mike Ilitch was once not beloved by Tigers’ fans, particularly after the ashes of 2003. The man who helped resurrect the “Dead Things” into Stanley Cup winners three times by the time 2003 rolled around was thought to love his one “child,” the Red Wings, more than the other.

Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

2003 was a horrible time to be a Detroit Tigers’ fans. The hardcore fans were there, but for many this may have been the last straw for a team that had just two winning seasons from 1989 to 2003. That streak would stretch until 2005 and see the firing of a legend, Alan Trammell.

2003 may have been the best thing for the once proud, but fledgling franchise. The Tigers we know today were born on Sept. 29, 2003–the day after the season ended. They became aggressive in free agency, as was seen with Ivan Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez, and made great trades that may not have happened prior to 2003, such as picking up Carlos Guillen and Placido Polanco.

So well we all prepare for a fourth trip to the postseason since 2006 (fifth if you count 2009), we should remember that this run of great baseball started post-2003.

It is still quite amazing that a decade ago, the Detroit Tigers celebrated losing only 119 games, and today most fans will be disappointed if the franchise doesn’t clinch its fifth World Series title.

Times have certainly changed.

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