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Tigers, city of Detroit want that championship feeling

No one in Detroit seemed happier to have the World Series home than Willie Horton. He recalled how he grew up blocks away from the old Tiger Stadium, which is only blocks from Comerica Park, and how as a child he rode his bike around what is now the current Tigers home on his paper route.

"This is my neighborhood," the 70-year-old said proudly. "This is my city, this is my team. I'm proud to be a Detroiter. I'm proud of my neighborhood. I'm proud to be a Tiger for life."

Horton played 15 years for the Tigers, including the championship year, 1968, when he hit 36 homers. When he retired in '80, he went to work where he had retired, in Seattle. But legendary Detroit Mayor Coleman Young called Horton and asked him to come back and work in the city that Young and Horton loved.

Fifteen years earlier, Young attracted a young Minor League infielder -- whose career ended after four years and a .280 on-base percentage -- named Mike Ilitch.

"Mayor Coleman was the beacon of hope," said Horton. "I have never lost it. Neither has Mike Ilitch."

So when the Giants finished their sweep of the Tigers in the chill and the rain was sweeping in from the Great Lakes, there was a sense of sadness for those great people who love their generations of Tigers and what they have meant to this city struggling to fight onward and upward against all odds and political indifference.

"I really felt badly for Mr. Ilitch because of all he's tried to do to bring a championship Tiger team to his city," said manager Jim Leyland. "The players get 60 percent of the gate for the first four games, and I'd have loved to see him get some back for all he's done. But he never complains. He'll just keep us working to win next year."

Leyland tells a lot of Ilitch stories, like when General Motors could no longer afford the $500,000 sign in center field, so Ilitch paid for it out of his pocket and spent nearly $1 million on signs for Chrysler and Ford, as well. Or when Victor Martinez went down with a knee injury and how Ilitch stepped up on Prince Fielder, and how Ilitch wants to make Justin Verlander a Tiger for life.

Ilitch loves Detroit and has tried to make the Red Wings and Tigers draws to attract people to the downtown area. He has helped with the development of condos and redevelopment in the areas of Comerica, Ford Field, et al., which is attracting a new, young vibrancy. Ilitch made the great Al Kaline a mover in his management team, speaking of lifelong Tigers. If you're from Detroit, you understand what Kaline was as a player: elegant, tough, honorable and a great defensive right fielder.

Now, we all appreciate the Angels' Mike Trout and what he did during the summer he turned 21: a .326 batting average with a .399 on-base percentage, a .564 slugging percentage, a .963 OPS, a 171 OPS+, a 10.7 WAR, 30 homers, 129 runs, 83 RBIs and 315 total bases.

This is what Kaline did at the age of 20 in 1955: .340 batting average, .421 on-base percentage, .546 slugging percentage, .967 OPS, 162 OPS+, 8.0 WAR, 321 total bases, 27 homers, 102 RBIs, 121 runs and a 57/82 BB/K ratio. Just saying.

Leyland is coming back next year, as we all assumed he would. He needs a closer. He needs better offensive weaponry in the Nos. 5-7 holes that too often left it up to Austin Jackson, Miguel Cabrera and Fielder to do it all. They all know that. The staff admits that too often during the season the lineup didn't hit as a team, except for the above-mentioned one-third of the order. Once the Tigers came back in extra innings to beat the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, the Yankees were not the same, just as when the Giants knocked around Verlander, the World Series was not the same.

The season ended as a disappointment, but not with any shame. Since Leyland returned to his original organization, the Tigers have won two pennants and been in two cold, wet World Series. Since 2006, they've drawn 2.6 million fans, followed by 3 million, 3.2 million, 2.6 million, 2.5 million, 2.5 million and 3 million. Those numbers represent seven of the eight highest attendance figures in the history of the Tigers, who are one of the AL's eight charter franchises from 1901. The only year not in that top eight was 1984 with 2.7 million, a season that began 35-5 and finished with a sweep of the Royals in the ALCS and a five-game triumph over the Padres in the World Series.

Leyland, general manager Dave Dombrowski, assistant GM Al Avila and many in the organization won with the Marlins in 1997, but it wasn't the same. There was no community attachment, and two days after they won Game 7, Dombrowski was told to begin trading Kevin Brown, Al Leiter and most of the higher-salaried players.

"We'll be doing everything we can to get back to the World Series," said Leyland, who was driving back to Ohio for his 50th high school reunion Wednesday. "We want it for Mr. Ilitch, but most of all, we want it for the city of Detroit and those great generations of Tiger fans."

Millions of those fans are, literally, long suffering, out of the view of politicians who grew up in the area, albeit within the advantaged walls of prep schools and estates. More than 3 million of these people spent their hard-earned dollars to watch these Tigers win the AL Central, beat the Athletics and Yankees and eventually lose to the Giants. But it was a very good season, another year fighting back against the machine that abandoned the city for the suburbs right about the time Kaline led the league in hitting at 20.

"Baseball saved this city in '68," said Horton. "It's working on saving it again."

He knows. This was his paper route.

Peter Gammons is a columnist for and an analyst for MLB Network.
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