Looking Back at the 2003 Detroit Tigers–The Awful Team That Turned Around the Franchise


Franchises often celebrate anniversaries of special teams of the past. For instance, the Detroit Tigers celebrate the 1968 and 1984 World Series teams at five-year intervals.

The 2003 season shook Mike Ilitch to his core, and made his realize that putting together a good team, and not a new stadium, brought on winning. Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

One anniversary that will not be celebrated this year, at least officially from the ball club, is the 10-year anniversary of the implosion of the franchise.

It’s hard to fathom that 10 years have passed since the 2003 Tigers set an American League record for losses (119) and missed out on tying, or breaking, the all-time mark for futility (120 losses) by taking three of the final four games of the season from the AL Central Champion Minnesota Twins.

Some fans may be shocked to remember the indignities the team suffered that season. I had completely forgotten (or repressed the memory) about the nine-game losing streak to start the season. Following a one-game winning streak, earned April 12 against the Chicago White Sox, they dropped the next eight games to fall to 1-17. It wasn’t until the second month of the season when Detroit won two straight. They actually won four straight, from May 4 to 7, in what would become the longest winning streak of the season.

When the dreadful season mercifully ended, it was hard to point to any hope for a franchise that had endured 119 losses, a postseason drought that reached 15 seasons, and 10 straight losing seasons (compiling a .356 winning percentage over that time).

It may be odd for today’s fans to consider that Mike Ilitch was not regarded very highly in Tiger fandom back then. Theories ranged from him not wanting to spend money on the Tigers because of the debts incurred while building Comerica Park, to “liking” his other team, the Detroit Red Wings, better and dumping all his money into that franchise.

While the latter argument is ridiculous (and is ironically something you may hear a disgruntled, hardcore Red Wing fans say about the Tigers), there may have been some glimmer of truth to the first argument, but from a slightly different angle.

Ilitch seemed to take the Field of Dreams mindset of “If You Build It, (They) Will Come.” Throughout his early ownership, he dreamed of having a gleaming new stadium (such as Camden Yards and Jacobs Field) that would attract fans regardless of the play on the field. Yet, unlike the Tigers, many teams with newer stadiums at that time, like the Baltimore Orioles and Cleveland Indians, were actually good. The novelty of any new stadium will wear off quickly when a team loses 83, 96, 106, and 119 games in the first four years playing there.

Many look at 2006 as the rebirth of the Detroit Tigers. They practically came out of nowhere to lead the AL Central for most of the season, salvage a Wild-Card, and head to the World Series–something that no fan in 2003 would have thought possible just three years later. But without 2003, there may not have been a 2006. It shook Mr I. to his core and made him realize money had to be spent to turn the team around.

The signing of Pudge Rodriguez showed the Tigers were changing their ways in the offseason leading up to 2004. Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

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 while it is not an anniversary the Detroit Tigers themselves will mark, it is important to remember how far the team had fallen, and how fortunate we are to not have a feeling of dread setting in on April 10.

Throughout the season, I will highlight the record the Tigers compiled during the same week 10 years prior. I will look at some of the colorful names that dotted the roster, and look at a game during that week that typified the season.

It should be a funny and disgusting experience at the same time.

By looking back, we can only hope that no fan of any team has to endure 119 losses again–unless, of course, that team is the White Sox.