When Al Kaline helped get the Tigers back on track

After watching the Tigers embarrass themselves in 2001 and 2002, Al Kaline had seen enough.

After watching the Tigers embarrass themselves in 2001 and 2002, Al Kaline had seen enough.

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.

31 replies on “When Al Kaline helped get the Tigers back on track

  • Jim M

    When I was a snotty nosed youngster learning to play baseball in Detroit-area school yards in the mid-late 60’s, Al Kaline was the best hero and role model a kid could have. I never gave much thought to why. Now I know. Thank you Mr. Kaline!

  • charles fisher

    Al Kaline was the best, My Brother and I grew up watching al kaline, he was the best that ever happen to detroit baseball, and still is he is a true vet, of detroit,also one of the best arms throwing them out at the plate, for years, you would watch the game just to see that play, if it came up, their wasnt to many of them would test him, because they new he could do it, sure miss them old teams, but we got a great team right now, world series bound.

  • Bruce Markusen

    Dan, interesting material, especially about Robert Fick, who recently visited Cooperstown and admitted to a friend of mine that he was a “bit out of control” during his career. He seems to have matured quite a bit.

    And no wonder that Pujols has not managed another big league team since then.

  • Greg giniel

    Mr. Kaline has been has been and continues to be the rudder and soul of the Tigers for a very long time. The Tigers success in part is due to his moralistic hard working ways! Lets play ball!!!

  • Mike Jackson

    I wondered how much influence Al Kaline had in the turnaround of the Tigers. I remember watching him growing up as a ballplayer and found out he was similar to a gentle giant. I’m glad he spoke his mind. And I’m proud to be a Tiger fan in Oklahoma!

  • Diane Caughy

    Al Kaline is a class act. He didn’t start out with much in life, but joined the Tigers when he was just 19 years old. He grew up with the team, as a Tiger, and has established himself as an exceptional individual, one that the the Tiger organization is blessed to have as one of their own. For me, Al Kaline will always represent the epitome of a true and loyal Tiger. Thank you to Al Kaline for his hard work and dedication to our beloved Detoit Tigers!

  • Joe Semick

    I remember those days very well.I didn’t realize all the trouble happening from within.I’ve said this several times that the Detroit Tigers are my team whether the win the world series or lose 162 games the Tiges are my team.I’ll die a Tiger fan!

  • fred zarecki

    So they improved & were in the WS in 2 years but who was the manager? Maybe the follow up story should be “Why was Trammell fired?”

  • Josh Wood

    It wasn’t the year the alleged harassment occurred, but it was the year a lawsuit made news that Weaver and some of the other players allegedly harassed flight attendants on their charter flights. As bad as the 2003 team was, it was so nice to start over completely. And the Weaver trade brought us Jeremy Bonderman, who was solid for a number of years for Detroit.

  • Patrick

    It is a shame that the Hall of Fame has held Alan Trammell’s coaching tenure against him and has not elected ANY Tiger’s from the the 1984 championship team to the Hall. Trammell, Gibson, and Morris are all no-brainers to be recognized.

  • Don Carnes

    What a GREAT, informative article. Though I moved to Kansas City more than 30 years ago, I have never stopped being a Tiger Fan. Al Kaline, in my view, is still the greatest Tiger of all time!

  • Dick

    Nice article but it is undermined by poor grammar. It is “having gone from 79 wins”, not “having went …”. Also, the “hot-headed player had nearly come to blows”, not “had nearly came to blows.” Surprising lapses in an otherwise good article.

  • Paul

    I,m 63 and Kaline was my baseball hero. Howe for hockey, but definitely Kaline for baseball. Unassuming, proud, clean living, family man. I remember him starting out as an announcer. He learned that craft very well. He was a great announcer after a short period of learning to relax. He knew the game and pointed that out when necessary. In a very polite way too. I tried to wear number six as a kid.
    He is a very good person.

  • KalineCountry Ron

    I remember reading that Kaline went to have a meeting with Mr. Ilitch and the powers that be in the Tigers front office at the time, to find out what ‘their’ plans were for the Tigers.
    At the time Mr. Tiger had given his life to the team as an all-time great player, broadcaster, coach, and now was ready to make a lifetime decision regarding his future with the team.
    You just know, that these people did not and could not afford to lose the most beloved Detroit Tiger in such a way.
    Mr. Kaline made them wake up and smell the coffee!!
    Big Al came through in the clutch again!!

  • John K Byerlein Jr

    Now living in Colorado and following the Tigers daily – as I’ve done for the past 50 years, W or L. Kaline was my boyhood hero & favorite Tiger. My first baseball glove was a Wilson “Al Kaline” model — got it when I was 10, wish I had still had it & kept it in very good condition. He always played big when it mattered and played a flawless RF. He had a strong, accurate gun and I rarely saw him misplay a ball or fail to hit the cutoff man. A class act for all to imitate!

  • Barry Bohnow

    Al Kaline was , and still is , MY HERO !! I grew up idolizing him and Mickey Mantle , and was very lucky to have watched him play in 1968 , after I returned from Vietnam ! My future Father-in Law bought Season Tickets as a Welcome Home Present , little knowing that The Tigers would go on to play in The World Series and WIN IT ALL !! We had seats 7 rows behind The Tigers Dugout , and I got EVERY SINGLE Tiger`s Autograph that year !! They were The Best Tiger Team of ALL-TIME , as far as I am concerned !!

  • John Cabauatan

    Al Kaline was a class player…. I enjoyed watching him play as I was growing up in the 60’S me and my friends would get to the field early and watch batting practice Kaline would come over and talk with us….. he was the greatest hero for kids growing up in the 60’s….

  • Bob Wheeler

    Al Kaline has been my hero since the first time I saw him play. It was June of 1963 and my 9th birthday which just happen to be Kaline day at the park. Even then, at that tender age, that Al Kaline was a man to know.

  • steve grossmann

    I grew up in the golden age of Baseball, Al Kaline was my boyhood hero. I remember sending a letter to Mr. Kaline asking him to autograph a baseball card. He did this and more, sending back a Tiger picture of him with my name signed on the back…..I still have this 50 years later

  • Dan Holmes

    Thanks for the comments on the grammar lapses. I appreciate them, because I hate when articles contain errors.

    Ironically, Mr. Kaline didn’t make many errors on the diamond during his career.

  • Dan

    Al Kaline was the smoothest player I ever watched. As a kid growing up in Michigan he was a hero. Never flashy to draw attention just the most complete ball player the Tigers have had. I have lived in Connecticut now for 23 years and never stopped rooting for my Tigers and the legacy of Al. I even named my dog Kaline in his honor.

  • Bob Emmons

    I too, grew up in Detroit in the late 50’s. Kaline was also my hero! His throws to home were worth the price of the ticket! No one has mentioned what a great “drag bunter” he was…no one does that anymore! Class guy/player and a great article!

  • Cliff Parker

    Once again great article Dan! I feel strongly that the Detroit Tigers will get to the World Series this year and win it all thanks to the mentoring of the great Mr. Tiger; Al Kaline #6. He left great memories of his playing career at Michigan and Trumbull and now not only does he have an area of the CoPa named after him (Kaline’s Corner), he is a great inspirational presence to the Detroit Tigers to go all the way this year and win the World Series just like Al Kaline did himself back in 1968 when the Tigers were down 3-1 to the heavily favored Cards; Al Kaline came into his own to help the club win three straight to clinch the 1968 Championship; this will happen again in 2013 for the Tigers!!

  • Dan Holmes

    I appreciate all of the wonderful comments that were added to my article. I wish I had been born about 15 years earlier so I could have seen Kaline play in his prime. By the time I saw him (I was 6 years old in 1974), he was hanging up his spikes.

  • Cecilia

    It’s a great article, Dan, but there is one small fact which you seem to have wrong.

    You describe Phil Garner as “a holdover from the Randy Smith era,” and Dave Dombrowski as the general manager, apparently at the start of 2002. In fact, Mr. Dombrowski was hired that off-season as the president of the Tigers, but Randy Smith was still their general manager until he and Mr. Garner were fired together six games into the season. Dave Dombrowski made himself general manager at the same time that he made Luis Pujols the manager.

    Other than that, it’s a fine article.

  • Dan Holmes


    Thanks for catching that misstep. I fixed that paragraph. As I recall, most people speculated that it was only a matter of time before Dombrowski swept Garner and Smith out the door.

    Thanks for reading.


  • Ray Crockett

    No question that Al Kaline deserves credit for getting the Tigers back on track in terms of professionalism and pride. But in continually amazed at how everyone (and I mean everyone) gets credit for the turnaround of a Tiger ball club of the very worst franchises in all of sports: Jim Leyland.

    From the time Sparky left until Leyland’s arrival in 2006, the Tigers were a complete laughingstock–an embarrassment both on and off the field (and let’s face it–even Sparky wasn’t able to coax much out of them in his last 7+ seasons). Leyland arrived, and the team instantly became a World Series contender, period. People can talk all they want about Trammel building the club, but untapped potential is as bad as no potential at all (Torey Lovullo, Rick Greene–pay attention).

    Listen…it’s very faint, but can you hear that sound? It’s the sound of the whistles that the thoroughly obnoxious wives of the Minnesota Twins brought into Tiger Stadium for the 1987 playoff series! If they’re hard to hear today, well, hey, it’s been 26 years, and that’s kind of a long time…especially when you consider that 1987 was the last time the Tigers were worth ANYTHING before Leyland’s arrival 20 years later. Time for people to stop griping about Don Kelly and give the man his due.

  • Davan S. Mani

    I get the old-time effect. It gets fans involved. I would have like to have seen Pujols given more of a chance. Alan made managerial mistakes too. I mean why was Jim Leyland hired. Now, if there was something behind the scenes, it’s one thing. Having a Verlander can make you look good.

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