Tigers savor winning feeling

Tigers savor winning feeling

KANSAS CITY -- The clincher was supposed to be a moment for history's sake, not for the Tigers. But it's hard for someone to look ahead when they're not used to champagne in the eyes.

Jim Leyland teared up with emotion as he congratulated his players. Placido Polanco, Ivan Rodriguez and others sprayed one teammate after another with champagne. Owner Mike Ilitch, winner of three NHL Stanley Cups, called this one of the highlights of his life as he hugged nearly everyone in sight. Even longtime traveling secretary Bill Brown was part of the festivities, hoisted up by Magglio Ordonez as players chanted "M-V-P!"

And to think, this is supposed to be the small celebration.

"We want to send the message that we're not just happy to go to the playoffs," closer Todd Jones said after Sunday's 11-4 win over the Royals at Kauffman Stadium that clinched a postseason berth for the Tigers. "We want to let the city of Detroit know that we're trying to win our division. That celebration will be much bigger."

The Tigers, who have six games left, lead the Twins by 1 1/2 games in the race to win the American League Central, which is their next goal.

After 19 years out of the playoffs, though, they still wanted to honor this one, odd as it seemed at first. The pitcher on the mound when the Tigers clinched, Andrew Miller, was two years old when the Tigers beat out the Blue Jays in the final weekend of the 1987 season for their last playoff berth.

When first-base umpire Mike Reilly ruled on appeal that Angel Sanchez had gone around on his check swing for the final out, the celebration was on -- albeit quietly. No storming of the mound, no dog-pile on the rail-thin 21-year-old Miller, but a lot of hugging.

"You know," Vance Wilson said, "what's funny is if you pick Miller up, you might get a guy who's been here all year long who's like, 'What are you doing?' You don't want to give that rookie too much credit. I was looking for Brandon [Inge]. When you're not used to celebrating, you don't know what to do. When you get into the clubhouse, you can act like [idiots] there."

While the players hugged on the field, Leyland and his coaching staff watched from the on-deck circle, seemingly thinking.

"To be honest with you, I was crying more than I was thinking," Leyland said later, still fighting back tears. "I know how hard they worked. I know what they've been through for several seasons. To see this pay off for them is a big thrill for me. I'm so happy for those guys who went through what they went through. They're winners now, and they'll be forever winners. Hopefully we'll be able to take this a few steps further. I'm awful proud of them."

It's not just the players he was thinking about. For at least one brief moment, he was thinking about a young ballplayer who grew up about an hour away from Tiger Stadium, joined the Tigers organization out of high school in 1963 as an extra catcher, spent six-plus seasons in Detroit's farm system as a player and 11 more as a Minor League manager without tasting the big leagues.

"I waited a long time for this, about 40 years," Leyland said. "It wasn't just this year. I was a Tiger in 1963 and had a dream of some day managing that team. I didn't know it was going to take this long. I'm just thankful to God for the opportunity to come back home. To see this today, it's awful special for the organization and Mr. Ilitch in particular. And selfishly, it's one heckuva thrill for me."

And this was the subdued Leyland. Hitting coach and former Pirates catcher Don Slaught remembers Leyland singing in the clubhouse when they won three straight NL East titles in Pittsburgh in the early '90s.

"You just let whatever happens, happens in a situation like this," Leyland said. "You can't plan it. I normally embarrass myself and get emotional. That's kind of embarrassing. But every now and then you've got to let it out, and this is a good time to let it out."

Ilitch and his wife, Marian, made the trip into Kansas City this weekend, anticipating a celebration. He has been through plenty of them, of course, with his Red Wings in the National Hockey League. But there was something different to this one.

"This one is probably twice the thrill," Ilitch said, "from the standpoint that I know there's twice the effort and the amount of games -- to see how much more work is involved. All the other sports can say what they want. We've got great leagues, but nobody plays the games and endures the work that goes into Major League Baseball."

Leyland did not go into the season thinking the Tigers would be celebrating like this, something he has admitted several times. He thought they'd have a good team, but next year would be the season when they'd have a better chance at playing in October. President/general manager Dave Dombrowski felt the same way.

Had this happened next year, it would've been an even two decades -- an entire generation passed -- between playoff berths. As long as that seems, however, it seemed like forever for the Tigers since the low point of 2003, when they had 119 losses and spent the final week trying to avoid the 1962 Mets' modern era record of 120.

As much as proven winners like Rodriguez treasured this, they wanted it for those 10 players who were around for all or part of 2003.

"I'm enjoying every single playoff I've been in," Rodriguez said. "This is my fifth, and this is awesome. I'm very happy for guys like Brandon, Mike Maroth and Nate [Robertson] -- the guys who were here when they were losing 119 games and then they're here in the same clubhouse. They've having fun. This is very special for me. I know how that feels. To be part of this winning and being in the playoffs, it's awesome."

Those guys were the ones who had reason to celebrate the most.

Asked who went crazier than he expected, Jeremy Bonderman -- the 20-year-old rookie who lost 19 games in 2003 and has matured a step every year since -- was honest.

"I did," Bonderman said. "I've never been a part of anything like this. This is the best thing I've ever been through on a baseball team."

As one of the more than 200 bottles of champagne on hand was poured down Inge's back, the only thing he could compare this to was his college days, when Virginia Commonwealth advanced to the NCAA tournament. He had been warned beforehand that champagne burns the eyes. He didn't care.

"Me, personally, going through that season, this is awesome," Inge said. "I've been waiting for this."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.