Excitement Builds In Motown

By Bob Wojnowski
Updated: March 1, 2008

LAKELAND, Fla. — No one here has seen anything like this. Fans are gobbling up more tickets than the record three million of a year ago. Commentators gush. Writers risk career-threatening brain strain conjuring up adjectives to describe the Tigers lineup.

It’s scary and ridiculous and potentially great. And I’m not here to deny the Tigers could — could— possess one of the finest, deepest batting orders ever assembled.

But for perspective, I sought out one of the wise men in the Tigers’ clubhouse, 39-year-old slugger Gary Sheffield, who played in the 2004-06 Yankees lineups that included Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Jason Giambi and the various ghosts of Lou Gehrig.

Sheffield has been around. He knows how baseball humbles the hyped. Um, Gary, too early to say if these Tigers measure up, right?

“This lineup is better than the Yankees,” Sheffield said at spring training in Lakeland, Fla., not blinking. “It’s better because it’s more balanced than any lineup I’ve been in.

“It’s not just power hitters. You got guys that can bunt, hit and run, everything. We have all the pieces. You can’t get no better than this. Now is the time. It’s here.”

Ah, no slowing the Anticipation Train.

Excitement builds

We’re allowed to be a tad giddy because we haven’t experienced anything like this, maybe ever. Today is the dawn of March, which means Tigers single-game tickets go on sale and the scramble is on.

There hasn’t been such a preseason stir in Detroit since the star-studded 2001-02 Red Wings came together. But that team already had won two Cups. These Tigers have hinted at greatness but not achieved it. Even the 1984 Tigers didn’t arrive with such acclaim.

“This is a dangerous year because you don’t want to curb the excitement but you want to make sure you control it,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “We are a good team but some people get crazy, calling us another Murderers’ Row. The only thing I worry about is, with so many good hitters, you might start counting on the next guy instead of bearing down.”

Let’s list the appropriate caveats: Champions aren’t built on hitting alone; injuries can muddle everything; pitching will decide plenty.

All accurate, all relevant. But this has been churning since the Tigers acquired Miguel Cabrera, adding one of the best young hitters in baseball to a lineup that includes the AL batting champ (Magglio Ordonez at .363) and the guy who finished third (Placido Polanco at .341).

The Tigers have created a beast that can only be satiated with a playoff appearance or more, and that presents a conundrum — how to concurrently embrace and quell the expectations.

Leyland points out the Indians should be the favorites in the Central (I’m not so sure). He says the bullpen is a major concern (it is) and he wonders about the stability of his starting rotation (outside of Justin Verlander, he should).

Obviously, the Tigers aren’t a lock for anything. But you know it’s a fascinating lineup when the biggest “issues” so far in Lakeland have been:

• Do you put future Hall-of-Famer Pudge Rodriguez in the eighth or ninth slot? (Eighth, just ahead of Jacque Jones, whose solid .280 career average is the lowest in the lineup).

• Do you keep Sheffield, with 480 career home runs, at No. 3 or drop him to No. 5 and move in Cabrera, a .313 career hitter? (Sheffield will stay where he is).

• Will third base coach Gene Lamont tear his rotator cuff waving runners home?

An important element of this lineup is that it’s not one-dimensional, starting right at the top with the amazingly multidimensional Curtis Granderson. Sheffield, Cabrera and Ordonez have terrific power but aren’t irresponsible free-swingers.

The other thing that might make a difference: I don’t see gigantic egos. The Yankees have been a glittering showcase more than a grinding bunch.

“This is very unique here,” said Sheffield, whose right shoulder appears healed after he missed several weeks last season. “Nobody gets the star treatment. You don’t see guys noticing where every camera is, looking for attention.”

Ordonez and Cabrera actually shy from it. Sheffield can be, ahem, a little controversial, but he assimilated so easily into the Tigers clubhouse, there’s no reason others can’t do the same. Cabrera is friends with Ordonez and Carlos Guillen, and the kinship is evident.

Sheffield was the huge addition a year ago and when healthy, he made a huge difference. Asked if he almost feels overlooked now with Cabrera, Jones and Edgar Renteria coming in, Sheffield laughed.

“It just shows what this organization is about,” he said. “Every year, you get different names, bigger names, and they just keep coming.

“The only weakness you can have when you’re good and you know you’re good is complacency.”

Keeping perspective

When you’re good and haven’t won anything yet, complacency can’t set in. But when some pundits merrily predict the Tigers will score 1,000 runs (the 1931 Yankees hold the AL record with 1,067), it’s hard to find the right perspective.

Great hitting can hide some deficiencies in pitching, but not all. Remember, the ’04 Yankees gagged that 3-0 lead in the AL Championship Series and lost to Boston.

Remember, the ’06 Yankees were dominated by the Tigers’ pitching.

Remember, the Yankees have lost in the first round of the playoffs three straight years.

It’s fine and it’s fun for the Tigers to be compared to baseball’s greatest lineups, even if writers suffer carpal-tunnel syndrome tapping out the hyperbole (yes, I’m starting to ache). If we get too carried away, well, it’s only because we’re not used to it. Nobody is.