SALISBURY — When the lowly 2003 Detroit Tigers won their last game to avoid the infamy of becoming the worst major league team in history, their fans rose and gave them a sincere standing ovation.
Those 2003 Tigers included light-hitting infielder Ramon Santiago, who earned the negative Triple Crown that year by finishing dead-last in the A.L. in average, homers and RBIs out of all players with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title.
Still, fans roared at the end because that team performed in the best never-give-up tradition. The 2003 Tigers appeared a lock to break the modern mark of 120 losses established by the New York Mets in 1962, but those tame Tigers actually won five of their last six, including a comeback from an 8-0 deficit, to close the books at 43-119.
OK, those Tigers did set the American League mark for losses, but they dodged the really serious record, and it was appreciated. That supportive fan base is a big reason why John Lowe of the Detroit Free Press, who has covered the Tigers since 1986, says “I’m blessed” almost as frequently as Justin Verlander hits 99 mph on a radar gun.
“I am blessed to have the job I have, and anyone who has covered a baseball team a long time will tell you it cycles, that there are going to be ups and downs,” Lowe said. “I’ve seen the good times and I’ve seen the lean times. I saw 12 straight losing seasons (1994-2005) in Detroit.”
The signings of catcher Ivan Rodriguez, pitcher Kenny Rogers and outfielder Magglio Ordonez came with a hefty $140 million price tag — a third of the sum that had been shelled out to build Comerica Park. Those signings were ridiculed as crazily reckless at the time, but in retrospect, the Tigers’ willingness to spend proved franchise-turning.
Verlander and Curtis Granderson came through the farm system to join those well-paid veterans, and the Tigers also experienced major good fortune.
In 2006, the unlikely quartet of Craig Monroe, Marcus Thames, Brandon Inge and Chris Shelton powered 97 home runs, the once-maligned Santiago fielded every groundball in sight, and the Tigers, just three years removed from a brush with negative immortality, were battling the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.
“It was a quick turnaround, Lowe said. “But the Tigers got some new guys, some guys who already were there got better — and they hired Jim Leyland as manager.”
Leyland probably was the biggest difference-maker when he joined the payroll in 2005.
Lowe clearly is a Leyland fan.
“He’s been great to deal with,” Lowe said. “He’s available, he’s honest, he’s funny, and he’s insightful.”
When Detroit acquired Miguel Cabrera in a 2007 trade with the Marlins they became a team to be reckoned with annually. When they added the power of Prince Fielder in 2012, the window opened wider to claim a World Series crown, something the Motor City hasn’t celebrated since the Alan Trammell-Lou Whitaker-Jack Morris-Kirk Gibson glory days of 1984.
Cabrera’s Triple Crown in 2012 — the first since Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski did it in 1967 — ranks with Lowe’s top reporting thrills.
“There was no single moment, like a 60th homer or a 30th win, but you know you’re watching something that may not happen again,” Lowe said. “People said it wouldn’t happen again, but this guy did it.”
Lowe lists Ordonez’s walkoff homer in the 2006 ALCS, a Verlander no-hitter and Anibal Sanchez’s 17-strikeout effort this season (he had a no-hitter until the ninth) among his top sports moments.
As far as that one unforgettable game, he believes the finest was the Tigers struggle with New York at Yankee Stadium in Game 5 of their 2011 playoff series.
“Every single pitch meant something,” Lowe said. “So much tension, and then Jose Valverde gets Granderson, (Robinson) Cano and A-Rod to end the game.”
As far as sustained drama, Lowe gives a nod to the season-ending A.L. East tug-of-war between Detroit and Toronto in 1987 over any World Series ever played.
“Seven times in 11 days they played, and all seven were one-run games,” Lowe said. “No wild card, so the loser (the Jays) went home.”
Lowe, in Salisbury for NSSA weekend as Michigan’s sportswriter of the year, fell in love with baseball listening to Harry Caray and Jack Buck broadcast Cardinal games on the radio. He got his start in the business by answering the phone at his local paper. He’s been a sportswriter since 1979.
Now in his 50s, and still sporting game-show-host hair, Lowe has written about the Tigers since 1986. He’s covered 143 World Series games and 28 All-Star games, and he’s witnessed Cal Ripken’s streak-breaking night and Gibson’s crank-the-lawn-mower home run.
“It’s up to the Lord, but I’d like to keep doing this a while,” Lowe said. “I’ve been very blessed.”