Monday, December 01, 2008

2003 Tigers Were Minor Leaguers In Big League Costumes

Baseball, like many sports, is great to play "what if?" with.

"What if Babe Ruth had played today? How big would he be?"

"What if Ted Williams played in New York, and Joe Dimaggio played in Boston, with the respective short porches in right and left?"

"What if Curt Flood hadn't slipped in center field chasing down Jim Northrup's hit in Game 7 of the 1968 World Series?"

Actually, that last one was answered defiantly by Northrup himself, to me, when I asked him about the hit several years ago.

"I hit that ball so hard and on a line, no way Flood woulda caught it, even if he didn't slip!," the Silver Fox growled at me.

There's been some talk lately about the 2003 Tigers in Detroit, as the football Lions plow ahead toward an ignominious, winless season. The comparison is apt because the Lions are trying to avoid setting an NFL record (no team has ever finished 0-16), just as the '03 Tigers tried to avoid eclipsing the 1962 New York Mets' loss total of 120.

The Tigers succeeded -- if you want to call it that. Well, they avoided the record, anyway. They only managed to lose 119 games.

Dimitri Young was one of the few 2003 Tigers who was a bona fide big leaguer

But those 2003 Tigers, I believe, were the answer to a rousing game of What If?

"What if a Triple-A team played 162 games in the big leagues?"

I'm not trying to be funny. The 2003 Tigers were barren of legitimate major league talent. Their roster was filled with players who either never played MLB beyond 2003, or who ONLY played in 2003, and only for the Tigers. In other words, players who had no business slipping on a big league jersey.

But the Tigers had to fill their 25-man roster, and with the door having just closed on the Randy Smith Era one year prior, the re-tooling was just beginning at the hands of Dave Dombrowski. Hence the hideously high number of players who simply were not big league material.

Teams don't win 100 games by accident, and they certainly don't lose 119 that way, either. The 2003 Tigers deserved every one of those 119 Ls -- don't kid yourself. Frankly, it's amazing that they managed to win 43.

This was an even more bizarre case study, because I doubt very highly if the '03 Tigers could have managed to finish within shouting distance of .500 if they played in the Triple A International League, where their farm team, Toledo, plays. They were that bad.

The '62 Mets, of course, had the excuse of being expansion in nature. The 2003 Tigers were in their 103rd season in the American League. Yet they somehow managed, thanks to former GM Smith's incompetence, to become so awful that after 156 games, they were an ungodly 80 games below .500 (38-118). I still can't believe that happened, but it did.

So the next time you wonder what would happen if a minor league team literally found itself in the big leagues for a full season, look no further than the 2003 Tigers. That's one "What if?" question that has been answered.


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