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 Tigers set to return to glory days of '84

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PostSubject: Tigers set to return to glory days of '84   Wed Mar 05, 2008 9:53 pm

In perfect harmony, Tigers set to return to glory days of '84

March 4, 2008
By Scott Miller Senior Writer

LAKELAND, Fla. -- What's immediately visible above the surface in Detroit this spring is a lineup that could blow past 900 runs as rapidly as Bob Seger once scored gold records.

What's beneath the surface, and the key to what might become the most memorable baseball season in Michigan since 1984, is an unusual degree of unselfishness in a superstar-stacked clubhouse.

Take Carlos Guillen.

Late last season, he padded into manager Jim Leyland's office, volunteering to vacate his beloved shortstop position and move to first base if it would put more teeth into the Tigers.

Now this had been discussed before. The Tigers even said when they signed Guillen to a four-year, $48 million extension last March that he probably would be shifted to first base by the time the contract was finished.

But just one year in?

Maybe general manager Dave Dombrowski still trades for shortstop Edgar Renteria last October even if Guillen wasn't so willing to give himself up for the team.

But maybe then things move toward the edge of ugliness.

"Not only is he a good player, he's a winning player," Dombrowski says. "You win with players like Carlos Guillen."

As the Tigers were winning all the way through October in 2006 -- up until they ran into St. Louis in the World Series -- Leyland went out of his way to describe Guillen's intelligence. If there's anybody in this clubhouse who has the acumen to manage, Leyland said then, Guillen is it.

"He could," Leyland was saying the other day in the tiny manager's office at Joker Marchant Stadium. "He has a great feel for the game. He has a great feel for people. He's one of the finest people I've ever been around.

"He would be a great leader of men. I really mean that. His primary language is Spanish, but he's got a comprehensive knowledge of both people and the game."

Leyland pauses, then offers a wry smile.

"He knows when I screw up," he says.

This spring, Guillen, 32, has gone out of his way to watch over Miguel Cabrera, the mercurial young 24-year-old slugger whose lack of self-discipline in Florida was threatening to corrode an incredibly promising career. Guillen and Cabrera are natives of Aragua, Venezuela, and Guillen, a two-time All-Star with a .290 lifetime batting average and a .358 career on-base percentage, has known the third baseman since Cabrera was 16.

After spending much of last season overweight and habitually late to the park, Cabrera in these early days has dropped the baby fat and is behaving professionally.

"He's around a lot of professional guys here," says Guillen, who leads in a quiet, pull-up-a-chair-and-talk--softly sort of manner. "Over there, maybe there were too many young guys.

"He's learning every day. You learn every day in this game."

Guillen says that his talks with Cabrera aren't so much instructive as simply conversations.

"Sometimes you just need to watch what people do to get better," Guillen says. "Pudge, Sheff, Magglio, Kenny Rogers. ..."

Indeed, one thing that largely goes overlooked amid all the drooling over what this lineup might do is the sheer selflessness from top to bottom.

Leyland slides Pudge Rodriguez up and down the batting order, and the catcher rolls with it.

Leyland pencils in Gary Sheffield as the designated hitter, and though Sheff prefers playing in the field, he leaves it alone and channels everything into his at-bats.

Magglio Ordonez, in producing one of the finest overall offensive seasons in Tigers history in 2007, collected 48 of his 139 RBI on singles. Meaning, time after time in key situations, he cut down on his swing and did what the situation called for.

"That is an impressive stat for me," Leyland says. "He works smart."

Most of them do, and it begins with the manager.

The trust Leyland has earned from his players plays an important part of why they're so quick to move so willingly when the puppet master yanks the strings.

There was a time last year -- specifically in July, when the Tigers were talking with Pittsburgh about acquiring Jack Wilson -- when Guillen muttered that he wasn't going to be moved off of shortstop by just anybody.

Ultimately, though, Guillen had confidence that if he presented the Tigers with options, they'd make the smart decision.

"The front office has been doing a pretty good job," he says. "We have a great manager who's won a World Series before and then got us to the World Series.

"Edgar Renteria is one of the best shortstops in the big leagues. He's a Gold Glove winner, and he won a World Series with the Marlins. I knew they were going to bring in a good player."

Meantime, Guillen, whose surgically repaired right knee should calm down with less wear and tear at first base, already looks at ease in his new position.

"He's a student of the game," Sheffield says. "He's a great guy, a smart hitter and he knows how to play the game.

"He didn't just go to first base. He looks like he's been there forever. You get a shortstop playing first base, a lot of times he'd try and go after every ball.

"But he understands what balls (second baseman) Placido Polanco can get to."

Guillen has been golden ever since Dombrowski acquired him from Seattle for Ramon Santiago in January 2004.

And perhaps these Tigers will wind up shattering the single-season club record of 957 runs set by the 1934 Tigers.

If so, even before the swings, it will begin with the intent.

"Carlos Guillen is a guy who will do whatever is best for the team," Leyland says. "Placido Polanco will do whatever is best for the team. Gary Sheffield will do whatever is best for the team.

"I think the move to first is going to help Carlos and I think it's going to help us."

“It takes pitching, hitting and defense. Any two can win. All three make you unbeatable.”    
–Joe Garagiola
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