Which type of rebuild is this for the Tigers: the 1975 or 1996 kind?

Bill Lajoie, one of the architects of the Tigers’ rebuild in the 1970s, with manager Sparky Anderson, who signed the largest contract in history to manage the team in 1979.

Whether you’ve bought into the rebuild or not, if you’re a fan of the Detroit Tigers you want to know: how long will this last and will it work?

We don’t have to look back that far into Tigers’ history to find examples of a good rebuild and a bad rebuild. The first ends with a parade, the other drags on for years while the losses stack up like hot pancakes.

1970s Rebuild: Scouting & Sparky

In the mid-1970s the Tigers were an aging team, the remnants of the 1968 world champions were long in the tooth, the hair was thinning. That core group of players managed a division title in 1972, but two years later when Al Kaline played his final game, an era was over. Norm Cash was released, Jim Northrup was traded, and so was Dick McAuliffe. In rapid succession the team went through managers, firing Billy Martin.

The 1975 season was the first in 23 years that didn’t have Kaline in uniform. An outsider was in the manager’s office: the team had settled on Ralph Houk, a baseball lifer who had led the Yankees to three pennants more than a decade earlier.

General manager Jim Campbell realized he needed to infuse his team with fresh, young talent, but he was aware that his farm system didn’t have it. He also wasn’t going to spend money on the new free agent market. Campbell was a notoriously cheap man, and during his nearly three decades at the helm of the franchise he would pinch every penny he got his hands on.

The 1975 team muddled along for a while near the .500 mark, but at the end of July the bottom fell out. On July 29, the Yankees beat the Tigers 4-2 at Shea Stadium, the next day Lolich lost a heartbreaker 2-1 to the Yanks. The following day at Fenway Park, rookie Jim Rice hit an RBI-single in the tenth for a walkoff win for the Red Sox over the Tigers. The losing kept on. The Tigers lost all five games in Boston, then dropped both games of a two-game series in Cleveland. Back in Motown, the Tigers were swept by the Orioles, Twins, and Rangers. The losing streak was at 18, a team record. On August 14 they had to get on a plane and fly to Anaheim to start a four-city west coast trip. The Tigers lost to the Angels in August 15, 8-0 when Frank Tanana shut them out. The losing streak was at 19 games, the second-longest streak in American League history and the longest in the league since 1943.

The 1975 Tigers lost 102 games, just the second time the team had ever lost as many as 100. But as terrible as that season was, it was the low point in the era that saw the franchise remake itself. The following season was the Year of The Bird (rookie pitching phenom Mark Fidrych) and the club improved by 17 wins. They franchise shed Lolich and Willie Horton, Bill Freehan retired, and the roster got younger. The scouting director, a man named Bill Lajoie, hit the jackpot. In a remarkable stretch of success, Lajoie drafted Lance Parrish, Jack Morris, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Kirk Gibson, and Dan Petry, the heart of what would become a championship team. In 1979 the Tigers pounced and hired Sparky Anderson, one of the most successful managers in baseball history. By 1981 the young Tigers were competing for a playoff spot, in 1984 they won the World Series, and the 1980s was one of the most successful decades in franchise history.

1990s Rebuild: Ilitch & Dysfunction

By the early 1990s, the cycle was restarting: the team of the 1980s was aging or had exited Detroit. Parrish, Gibson, and Morris left as free agents when the front office refused to pay them. The farm system failed to replace them. The team still had Tram and Sweet Lou, but the shelf was bare, and time was running out. After the labor strife of 1994-95, Sparky was shown the door and Sweet Lou, then Tram, retired. Another championship era was over. 1996 would be the new 1975.

Detroit native Mike Ilitch, the pizza magnate, addresses the media after buying the Detroit Tigers in July of 1992.

Jim Campbell retired as president of the Tigers in 1990, and was fired as chairman of the board in 1992 when the team was sold to Mike Ilitch. So, unlike the 1970s transition, the 1990s transition occurred under the fog of a new ownership. Ilitch, as would be the case any time he meddled personally in the operations of the franchise, did not handle it well.

In his first four years as owners of the Tigers, Ilitch served as his own team president. He hired or fired four different general managers. During that time the most notable things the front office did was (1) Added a new team logo, and (2) Blackballed Sparky Anderson from baseball because he refused to manage replacement players during a players’ strike.

Ilitch’s misfit GM’s of that era failed to manufacture the young players needed to fuel a rebuild. In the first nine years of Ilitch’s ownership, the team’s draft produced two position players: the immortals Rob Fick and Brandon Inge. In four straight drafts in the 1990s the team used their #1 picks to select pitchers who eventually combined to win a combined 25 games in the major leagues. Things were not good.

General manager Randy Smith talks with manager Buddy Bell at spring training in Lakeland in 1996. That was the first season with the Tigers for both of them.

And things were not good on the field either. The team lost 97 games in 1998 and manager Buddy Bell lost his job. They lost 92 games the next season and fired another manager. Phil Garner came in and briefly righted the ship, the team won 79 games in their first season in a new ballpark. But in 2001 they lost 96 games, and Garner was fired the next season after the team started 0-6. That team lost 106 games, and in 2003 the club was embarrassed when they lost 119 games. Eventually the team suffered twelve straight losing seasons while employing six managers and five general managers.

There’s a point at which a rebuild becomes a shit show. That was what we got after Mike Ilitch bought the team in 1992. It took more than a decade and the hiring of Dave Dombrowski, a future Hall of Fame executive, to end the debacle.

Why did the 1970s rebuild work while the 1990s rebuild dragged on and on and resulted in 119 losses? There’s clearly one crucial factor: leadership.

The 1975 Tigers had the steady hand of Jim Campbell in the front office, perhaps even more importantly, they had a fantastic scouting department led by Bill Lajoie. The 1975 Draft, when Lajoie picked Morris and Trammell, is still the only one where a team drafted two future Hall of Famers. Campbell astutely pursued Sparky and got his man quickly before another team could outbid him for the manager.

In contrast, the 1996 Tigers were a team in disarray. Their manager had never managed in the big leagues, their general manager didn’t make the right trades, and the scouting department failed year after year. The team owner was distracted by his world champion hockey team and didn’t invest in the right leaders for his baseball team. The team suffered through the worst stretch in franchise history.

What will this rebuild be like? The people in leadership roles, the owner, the general manager, the manager, will determine whether it’s a success or not.