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Up from the ash heap

Sports | The Tigers go from worst to vying for first in only three seasons

Issue: "Too close to call," Oct. 28, 2006

After years of rebuilding missteps, the Detroit Tigers have finally built a winner. Prior to this year, the last time the Tigers even managed a winning season, Alan Trammel and "Sweet" Lou Whitaker patrolled the middle infield in Detroit.

In the dozen losing seasons following 1993, Detroit amassed an embarrassing 1,112 losses. But most remarkable: Just three years ago, the Tigers vied for the dubious honor of baseball's worst team ever. With a week left in the 2003 season the Tigers seemed like a lock to break the modern record of futility set by the New York Mets in 1962.

Amazingly, the Tigers won four of their last five and escaped with a remarkably bad 119 losses-but no MLB record. From the ash heap of that team, Detroit actually found foundational pieces for the 2006 powerhouse. While the biggest resurrection might be the franchise itself, the Tigers have made good with a roster of castoffs and some of baseball's most downtrodden:

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Tigers Manager Jim Leyland: Cynics branded Leyland a retread who only returned to the dugout as a way to pay for his subsequent retirement. Leyland, who managed Pittsburgh from 1986 to 1996, won a World Series with Florida in 1997 but retired after a one-year stint with Colorado in 1999. Like journeyman manager Jack McKeon, who instantly clicked with Florida in 2003 and won a World Series, Leyland has struck a chord with Tigers players in his first season.

Pitcher Kenny Rogers: Rogers finished 2005 in disgrace. As a pitcher for the Texas Rangers, he faded after the All-Star break, leading many to believe the aging veteran was out of gas. Rogers' assault on a cameraman in Texas only sped his exit from the Rangers. Rogers' 2006 season has been incident free, and the 41-year-old lefty even has proved he can be dominant in the post-season. In Rogers' two wins in the American League playoffs, he posted 15 shutout innings.

Right Fielder Magglio Ordonez: Ordonez's serious knee injury in 2004 as a member of the White Sox put quite a damper on the budding star's career. Prior to the injury, the White Sox right fielder had notched five consecutive seasons with 29 or more home runs. But Ordonez and the White Sox parted ways after the injury sidelined him for most of 2004. Now, Ordonez seems like he's nearly back to where he left off-he even hit the three-run walk-off home run to put the Tigers in the World Series.

Pitchers Jeremy Bonderman and Mike Maroth: Just 11 players from the 2006 Tigers squad played on the disastrous 2003 team and perhaps none more visibly than Bonderman and Maroth, 20 and 25 at the time, respectively. The pair combined for 40 losses in 2003 as the desperate Tigers stuck with the young, inexperienced pitchers hoping that someday the sink-or-swim experience would pay dividends. This season, Bonderman transitioned into a fine starter, winning 14 games and dropping his ERA. Maroth notched more than 50 solid innings in the regular season.

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