I have a morbid fascination with terrible sports teams. I’m especially intrigued by terrible baseball teams because they are forced by the schedule-makers to go out and lose day-after-day. In 2003, I fixated on the Detroit Tigers, having had the opportunity to see that club, which nearly matched the all-time record for losses in a season, in person.
Now, three years later, the Tigers have the best record in baseball. Having won only 43 games in 2003, they are on a pace to win 108 this year. How did they accomplish this turnaround? I don’t know — I stopped following them when they became merely bad in 2004. It looks like they developed lots of young talent (some of which — e.g., Bonderman, Inge, Monroe — was on the 2003 club) and brought in a few big free agents (surprisingly, the great Ivan Rodriguez decided to hitch his wagon to the Tigers right after the 2003 season — maybe he’s also fascinated with terrible teams). Adding Jim Leyland as the manager this year must have helped too.
The rise of the Tigers has coincided with the rise of the American League Central Division which, as I write, has the best record of any division in baseball. But the Cleveland Indians, the AL Central team that many thought had the best young talent a few years ago, is currently buried, standing 25 and a half games behind Detroit.
Die-hard Indians fan “Parked Car,” at his blog “Wait ’til Next Year, Again,” argues that the Indians’ woes are tied to the size of their payroll — $55 million, compared to $82 million in Detroit. Of course, money doesn’t explain everything. As “Parked Car” notes, the Twins are hanging in the wild card race with a payroll of around $62 million. But his overall point, that the Tribe isn’t likely to be competitive until its owners fund their enterprise in a competitive fashion, seems well-taken.