Before this season, I always thought the 1991 Braves were the most unlikely World Series team of my lifetime. They went worst-to-first that season, along with their Series opponent, the Minnesota Twins. But the Twins weren't nearly as surprising, if only because it had only been 1987 that the Twins had won their last World Series, and they were a 91-win team in 1988, too.
The '91 Braves, on the other hand, were a miracle team that resurrected a franchise that hadn't had a winning season since 1983. They'd blown through Joe Torre, Eddie Haas, Bobby Wine, Chuck Tanner and Russ Nixon in the manager's office before Bobby Cox took over in the middle of the 1990 season. Cox went 40-57 in 1990, but won 94 games in 1991 and the Braves stayed in the postseason for 14 seasons before finally losing this season.
Think about that for a second: A franchise in the doldrums went from last place to first place, and stayed there for 14 seasons. They had the right manager, young pitching and good enough hitting. We'll come back to that.
The 2006 Tigers took the field in April with low expectations, having just hired veteran manager Jim Leyland, who would be trying to do what Sparky Anderson, Buddy Bell, Larry Parrish, Phil Garner, Luis Pujols and Alan Trammell couldn't do in the previous twelve seasons: Lead the Tigers to a .500 record.
Baseball was all but dead in Detroit before this season. The Tigers have diehard fans, but the excitement just wasn't there. And why should it have been? If you lose for that long, it's hard to get excited.
Then they were 40 games over .500 at one point, nearly blew their shot at the postseason, lost the division title on the last day of the season, and got in as the wild card. They dismantled the heavily favored Yankees in the ALDS and crushed the Oakland A's in the ALCS.
Three years removed from a 43-119 season (b-r.com sponsor says, simply, "They were the worst team I ever saw.") and the Tigers are in the World Series. The right manager, young pitching, you get the point.
Now I don't know what the future holds for Detroit. This is a team that just fired on all cylinders the majority of this season, and is doing it again now. But let's look at the Tigers and the '91 Braves.
The Braves in 1991 had three effective young starters in Tom Glavine (25 years old), Steve Avery (21) and John Smoltz (24), plus a veteran lefty having a good year in Charlie Leibrandt. Glavine went 20-11 with a 2.55 ERA, Avery was 18-8/3.38, Smoltz was 14-13/3.80, and Leibrandt was 15-13/3.49.
This year's Tigers had two effective young starters: 23-year old righties Jeremy Bonderman (14-8/4.08) and Rookie of the Year candidate Justin Verlander (17-9/3.63), plus 28-year old Nate Robertson (13-13/3.84) and a veteran lefty having a good year in Kenny Rogers (17-8/3.84).
Verlander and Glavine were the aces of their staffs. Verlander did not have near Glavine's year, but both emerged as aces on teams that didn't go into the season truly having one. Glavine already had two pretty decent seasons under his belt in 1989 and 1990, plus a tough rookie year in 1988. Verlander was a little more out of the blue, but he was a quality prospect that panned out immediately for the Tigers.
The Rogers/Leibrandt angle is the most interesting to me. Charlie Leibrandt was 34 years old that season, and had had a really good, injury-shortened season in 1990 for Atlanta. He spent most of his career in Kansas City, where he had one really outstanding season in 1985 (17-9/2.69) and was generally a solid starter. Leibrandt would be out of baseball after the 1993 season.
Rogers, at 41, had a season pretty well in line with his 2005 year with Texas, and even lost eight games, which he's managed to do on the nose seven times in eighteen seasons. He also lost nine in 2004, and seven in 2001, 1997 and 1995. Kenny Rogers is pretty consistent with his loss totals.
Rogers has been credited as being a stabling force for the rather young Tiger rotation, and I figure Leibrandt could get the same credit for the '91 Braves.
Then there's Bonderman and Smoltz, the power righties. Smoltz wasn't quite the strikeout pitcher then that he would become (148 K in 229 2/3 IP), and Bonderman is already striking out 200, but if you had to ask me which recent pitcher Bonderman most reminds me of, it's a matured Smoltz, and that's not a bad comparison.
Position-by-position, the teams don't have a lot in common. The Tigers hit 203 home runs this year, and the Braves had only 141. The Tigers hit .274/.329/.449 as a team, and the Braves hit .258/.327/.393. The Tigers do rely on their pitching, but they have a lot of longball threats in their lineup, whereas the Braves relied nearly entirely on pitching except for Terry Pendleton (in his MVP season, no matter how horrifyingly erroneous that selection was), Ron Gant and the young David Justice. Pendleton hit 22 homers and slugged .517, Gant hit 32 bombs and slugged .496, and Justice hit 21 homers in 109 games and slugged .503. But past those guys, there was zero power in the lineup. Sid Bream was the next-best regular in the power department, hitting .253/.313/.423 with 11 homers in 91 games. Of course Bream is part of baseball folklore because of the following postseason, so as far as history goes, his mediocrity is forgotten and he's just a hero. I'm sure Sid Bream will take that.
Every Tiger regular hit 15 home runs or more except for Ivan Rodriguez (13) and Placido Polanco (4). Well, plus Sean Casey, who was just plain awful after being traded from Pittsburgh. It's hard to consider Chris Shelton a regular, but he did play in 115 games and hit 16 homers. Shelton's production after his hot start was bad, but it was still better than what Casey did for Detroit. Casey won out there on being a great guy and a leader. The Tigers are in the World Series, so, again, I don't think they're really going to argue.
Brandon Inge and Craig Monroe aren't exactly the world's greatest players, but they hit 27 and 28 home runs, respectively, and Inge played a good third base. Polanco's worth is probably overstated by all that "He makes the Tigers go!!" stuff, but he's a guy who can play a bunch of positions and hit some singles and generally not hurt you.
The real heart of Detroit's offense was Carlos Guillen, of course, who hit .320/.400/.519 with 19 homers and 41 doubles, plus Magglio Ordonez (.298/.350/.477, 24 HR, 104 RBI) and Marcus Thames. Thames played in only 110 games, but he hit 26 homers and slugged .549. Curtis Granderson and Pudge were not great, but they contributed. Pudge hit .300 and Granderson had 59 extra-base hits.
I still think the '91 Braves are the most surprising World Series team when you look at the fact that their team was probably a hair worse than Detroit's and probably shouldn't have beaten Pittsburgh in the NLCS, but there's more than that, too. Neither team was supposed to be anywhere near as good as they were. The Braves improved from 67-95 to 94-68, and Detroit went from 71-91 to 95-67. Both were playing in divisions with the defending World Series champion, Cincinnati from 1990 and the White Sox from 2005. Cincinnati's record dropped by 17 games, and they finished just 74-88 in their follow-up season. Chicago won 90, but failed to make the playoffs because they happened to be playing in what was suddenly baseball's best division, where the fourth-place team was pretty damn good, and much better than their 78-84 record (Cleveland's Pythagorean W-L this year was 89-73; for the record, Detroit's was 95-67, Chicago's 88-74, and Minnesota's 93-69).
Like Detroit, the Braves faced stiff competition, as the Dodgers finished one game out, but that was really it. San Diego finished in third place, 10 games out. The Tigers jumped out to a big early lead, but when they started to falter, it was a three-team dogfight.
I always like to ponder teams from different eras playing, regardless of how silly it is or all the adjustments for time periods and what have you. I figure the Tigers of 2006 and the 1991 Braves would be a pretty solid series, and probably rather low-scoring. I have to give Detroit the edge because they have more hitters that can bust the game open, but in truth that might really never come to fruition, just like it didn't with the Yankees against Detroit, and just like Frank Thomas, Nick Swisher and Eric Chavez couldn't get it going in the ALCS.
Plus, you have all the improbables that just kind of happen. These two teams are both improbable enough, but you also have things like Placido Polanco or Mark Lemke going on an absolute tear for a few games, Kenny Rogers suddenly becoming Sandy Koufax, John Smoltz becoming a monster in that 1991 postseason, so on and so forth. It's one of the great things about postseason baseball, I think. The regular guys that become superstars, if only for about five minutes or so.
Someone already said it here (2632 said it, in fact) but the Tigers are quite an inspiration for fans of teams like the one we root for, and people forget how bad the Braves were because they've been so good for so long. The Braves were one of those teams, too. If these franchises can get their shit together, there's no good reason our stupid team can't do it, too. There are plenty of bad reasons, of course, but after a while those things just become excuses. Any team CAN compete.
I have a friend who is a Tigers fan that said before this season, with no reasoning whatsoever, that the Tigers were going to the World Series. I think he just didn't feel like hoping for 82 wins or something of that nature. He figured if you're going to wish, you might as well make it a good one.
And this is why we're going to the playoffs next year, goddamn it.