Rodríguez signing sparks Tigers’ turnaround

Written by: Justin Alpert

The Detroit Tigers began the 21st century in a rebuilding mode. They lost 83 games in 2000, 96 the next year and 106 the year after that. Then, in 2003, with future Hall of Famer and Tigers legend Alan Trammell taking over as manager, Detroit managed something no team had in the American League’s 103-year history: A 119-loss season.

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So how did Detroit turn their franchise around and, three years later, capture the AL Pennant in their first postseason appearance since 1987? It started with the Hall of Fame-bound backstop Iván “Pudge” Rodríguez, whom the Tigers signed to a four-year, $40 million contract on Feb. 6, 2004.

“When people ask me where we started to climb from and turn the corner, there’s no question it started on one very important day, heading into the 2004 season,” former general manager Dave Dombrowski said in 2014 as the Tigers honored Rodríguez. “We’re very fortunate this gentleman joined us. Once that took place and we got a chance to see one of the best players in (this) recent timeframe, that started the comeback for the Detroit Tigers.”

In 2003, Rodríguez’s lone season with the Marlins, he hit .297 with 16 home runs, 85 RBI and the National League Championship Series MVP Award while helping Florida win the World Series. Although he carried lingering back issues into the offseason, the catcher with 10 Gold Glove Awards and six Silver Slugger Awards to his name (to that point) represented a massive boost to Detroit’s team and fanbase.

“This is how it starts,” Trammell told the Detroit Free Press. “This is how we get better – by getting a player of Pudge’s magnitude to come on board. That ol’ English D looks good on him, doesn’t it?”

Detroit introduced Rodríguez with a well-attended press conference, injecting the city with newfound optimism about its woeful Tigers.

“The Tigers needed to play up the Rodríguez deal because it was a huge acquisition, not only for how it helps the team right now but for its place in the history of Detroit sports,” wrote the Free Press. “Rodríguez’s career could end today and he would be headed for Cooperstown five years later. Attracting a star of Pudge’s magnitude is as much a balm for this city’s fragile psyche as landing a Super Bowl or Final Four.”

The Tigers reached the World Series in 2006, just three years after setting the American League losses record, and Iván Rodríguez was a central piece of their turnaround. (Brad Mangin/MLB Photos)

“I didn’t come here to lose games,” Rodríguez told the Free Press. “We’re going to see this Detroit Tigers team in the playoffs very soon.”

Pudge immediately performed as advertised, driving in 86 runs in 2004 and reaching base at a team-best .383 clip. He continued producing at an All-Star level in 2006 while young talent like AL Rookie of the Year Justin Verlander helped elevate the pitching staff. Detroit won 95 games, earned a Wild Card berth and dominated en route to the World Series.

In four-and-a-half seasons with the Tigers, Rodríguez hit .298 with 62 home runs, 300 RBI, four All-Star selections and four Gold Glove Awards and retired after the 2011 season. In 2017, as the Free Press predicted, Pudge was elected as a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Justin Alpert is a digital content specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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