In the winter of 2004 the Tigers were coming off a 119 loss season, which set a record for Major League Baseball. Things seemed bleak heading into the 2004 season as the Tigers had made some moves in the offseason, but nothing in the way of star power to impact an organization in need of valuable leadership. Finally on the night of February 4, 2004 Dombrowski stepped up to the plate and finalized a team friendly contract with World Series champion Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez. Many felt that the 4 year $40 million deal was a bit much for a catcher with injury history, but Dombrowski made the contract very team friendly only guaranteeing the first 2 years of the deal at a possible cost of $20 million. The Tigers overnight were instantly a better team. The much needed leadership he brought to the Tigers helped transform them into World Series contenders almost overnight.
“This is an exciting day for me,” Rodriguez said. “I know they had a bad season last year, but I think this is going to be a completely different season.”
Tigers pitchers were considered some of the worst in the league in 2003 with Mike Maroth losing 21 games, Jeremy Bonderman losing 19, Cornejo 17 losses, and Knotts and Roney combined in the fifth hole to lose 17 games, all while compiling a 5.30 era with 928 runs allowed. Once Rodriguez started calling the shots behind the plate, those losses slowly turned into wins. The team ERA dropped every year his first 3 years with the team, down to 3.84 runs per game in 2006, leading the Tigers to the World Series. He helped shape a 22 year old Rookie of the year, Justin Verlander, in 2006 to 17 wins. Jeremy Bonderman had a career year in 2006 and “The Gambler”, Kenny Rogers, put up pitching stats unheard of for a 41 year old. He helped showcase Zumaya’s 100 mph fastball to hitters, bring along Fernando Rodney, all while making Todd Jones one the best closers in baseball.
His impact on the Tigers didn’t stop with making the pitchers better. Rodriguez had influence among other free agents in future years, to get them to come to Detroit and for players acquired through trades to stay. Most notably, Kenny Rogers and Magglio Ordonez, and Miguel Cabrera. Many in the baseball community consider Rodriguez one of the best hitting catchers of all time. The knowledge and input he passed along to his fellow teammates, especially the youngsters, helped to mold and develop the Tigers into a contender. In 2003 he helped a rookie named Miguel Cabrera instantly make an impact with his hitting on the way to leading the Marlins to the World Series title.
“Why do you choke up on your bat?” Rodriguez asked Cabrera. “You are a big man. Put your thumbs on the end of the bat.”
With spring training coming upon us next week we can only hope that the success that started 11 years ago with the signing of Pudge can continue to be duplicated. However this time ending with a World Series victory parade.
(Featured image courtesy of www.spokeo.com)