In the long history of the Detroit Tigers there has never been another season like 2002. It definitely serves as the low point in franchise history.
Admittedly, the 2003 season was bad – a league record 119 losses was terrible to watch. But, in ’02 the team was not just bad, they were embarrassing on and off the field. It took a stand by “Mr. Tiger” to help right the sinking ship and get the franchise back on the right path. In 2003 at least, the Tigers were moving in the right direction. In ’02, they were wandering aimlessly in a dysfunctional funk.
The Tigers were entering their third season under manager Phil Garner in ’02, having slipped from 79 wins in his first season to just 66 the next. There was some optimism entering the new season – the team had replaced two of their starters and almost their entire bullpen, which had been the worst in baseball by far in 2001. The pitching staff, which had finished last in ERA and almost every other category the previous year, couldn’t be any worse, could it?
But Garner’s team promptly lost their first six games, which cost the manager his job. Dave Dombrowski, in his first season as general manager, didn’t hesitate to bring down the ax on Garner, a manager he inherited from GM Randy Smith, who was also fired at the same time. Luis Pojols, a coach in his first season with the Tigers, was elevated to the status of interim manager, and Dombrowski assumed the title of GM. It quickly became evident that Pujols was in over his head, and the team lost their first five games under Pujols to run their record to 0-11.
But the miserable performance on the field was only part of the sad story. After a few of the players were involved in a drunken incident on a cross-country red eye, alcohol was banned on team flights. Center fielder Wendell Magee reported to the ballpark with a black eye suffered in a barroom brawl. During a game in early May, pitcher Jose Lima glared at teammate Damion Easley after the infielder made an error. A pair of players fought in the clubhouse when one of them accused the other of flirting with his wife. The flirting wasn’t limited to players’ wives though – outfielders Robert Fick and Bobby Higginson were both witnessed having conversations with women during the ballgame.
Management wasn’t exempt from the chaos either. When Pujols filled his scorecard out incorrectly, a batter hit out of order, costing the team an out. Dombrowski had to go on a Detroit radio show to apologize after ridiculing a few high salaried players for lack of productivity.
Dombrowski may have realized he had a bad team, but he also knew he had to ride the season out, so he kept Pujols in place, even though the manager was obviously not in control of the clubhouse. Fick was especially a problem. The hot-head nearly came to blows with Garner in the dugout the previous season, and with the club spiraling out of control while he had a decent season, Fick was almost impossible to manage. Other players simply seemed to be phoning it in. In July, Dombrowski cleaned out his clubhouse a bit by dealing ace Jeff Weaver to the New York Yankees in a three-way trade that was a move of addition by subtraction.
Having witnessed this from his post as a special assistant to the front office, Kaline was sickened.
“I want to reestablish the pride, the tradition, and the great history of the Tigers and the English D,” Kaline said.
Near the end of the season, when the club asked Kaline to pose along with the club for the team photo, Kaline ducked the request – twice. It was obvious that the greatest living Tiger wanted no part of that team. When owner Mike Ilitch refused to talk to the press after posing for the photo, it was obvious that the Tiger brass was in no mood to talk about the embarrassing season.
“I’ve actually been embarrassed to where I didn’t want people to know [I was part of the team],” third baseman Dean Palmer said. Palmer said that even though he was injured and appeared in just four games in 2002!
Kaline had a meeting with Ilitch and Dombrowski at the end of the season to assess the state of the franchise. At that meeting, the Hall of Famer, having just completed his 50th season as an employee of the team, spoke his mind. It was time for the team to return pride to the organization, and one way to do that, in Kaline’s mind, was to embrace the players who had been winners in a Detroit uniform.
The day after the season ended, Pujols and his entire coaching staff were let go. Within a few weeks, the Tigers announced that Alan Trammell would be their next manager. The MVP of the 1984 World Series, and one of only three Tigers to play at least 20 years in Detroit, Trammell would bring Kirk Gibson and Lance Parrish with him as part of his coaching staff. Former Tigers Willie Horton, Jack Morris, and others would have roles in spring training and the front office. The Tigers were trying their best to end a nine-year stretch of losing seasons. Embarrassment would no longer be tolerated.
In Trammell’s first season the team lost those 119 games, but it was a younger team, a team that really shouldn’t have been at the big league level. While they lacked talent, the team played hard and the off-field distractions were gone. Trammell and his staff restored pride and professionalism. The next year they improved by nearly 30 games and climbed out of last place. Two years later the team was in the World Series. 2013 marks the 61st season for Kaline with the franchise.