Win now, and these Tigers would be special in Michigan, now and forever

Jim Leyland can match Sparky Anderson and Tony La Russa as managers with titles in both leagues. (US Presswire)

SAN FRANCISCO -- Eight winters back, the Tigers hired Tom Brookens to manage one of their minor-league teams.

They figured maybe this would be a big deal in Oneonta, N.Y., where Brookens would manage. They figured maybe this would be a big deal in Fayetteville, Pa., where Brookens lives.

They never figured this would be big news in Detroit.

It was.

It was big news because in Detroit, he's not just Tom Brookens. He's Tom Brookens of the '84 Tigers.

In Detroit, that makes all the difference in the world.

Maybe it's this way in other cities, too. Maybe it's this way if you win a World Series anywhere.

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Maybe it's true, even if your entire World Series experience consisted of a few innings of defense and three at-bats without a hit, as Brookens had in 1984.

Maybe, but for sure in Detroit, where it always feels like major-league players are divided into three categories: '68 Tigers, '84 Tigers, and then everyone else.

The championships have been separated by just enough years, not so many that they're forgotten, but enough that each belongs to its own generation. One generation had 1968, and the next had 1984.

The one after that is still waiting.

When the Tigers open this World Series on Wednesday night against the Giants, they'll be playing for more than just a title. They'll be playing to be that next team.

They may not all even realize it, but they'll be playing to become what Brookens is, what Al Kaline and Willie Horton and Mickey Lolich and Mickey Stanley are, what Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker and Kirk Gibson and Jack Morris are.

"You become a special person in Michigan when you win a world championship with the Tigers," Brookens said.

The more observant Tigers players see it, with the way the fans treat Brookens, the first-base coach on this Tigers team.

They see it with Kaline, who is at Comerica Park almost daily.

"He's not only part of the Tigers, he's part of Detroit," assistant general manager Al Avila said. "That is something special about Detroit. That's why it's a great place to play."

It's not just Detroit. I realize that.

The 2010 Giants will always have a special place in this town, and the 2008 Phillies will always be special there. You only have to listen to the way Yankee fans greet Paul O'Neill to realize what the championship teams of the late 1990s mean to them.

But there's a connection in Detroit that somehow feels closer than in most other places.

It happens with the other teams in town, too. I remember a day when I was covering the Pistons, back when Doug Collins was the coach and Grant Hill was the star player.

"Who's our most popular player," Collins asked.

Without really thinking, I mentioned Hill.

"No he's not," Collins said. And he was right.

No, the most popular player on that Pistons team was Rick Mahorn, who didn't always play but got huge ovations every time he came off the bench.

Mahorn had played for the Bad Boy Pistons, who won a title. Hill never did.

And that was just the Pistons, who will never be as big in Michigan as the Tigers.

"I've said all along that the best two pure baseball towns in America are St. Louis and Detroit," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said.

Leyland is already a world champion, having won with the 1997 Marlins. He already took a Tigers team to the World Series, in 2006.

But Marlins fans don't remember who played for the team last week. Tigers fans remember 2006 fondly, but hardly with the same reverence that is given to '68 and '84.

They're still waiting for the next real winner.

"That's who you want to be," said Don Kelly, who for lack of a better word is the Tom Brookens of this year's Tigers. "You want to be one of those teams."

If they are, their lives will never be the same.

Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder are already huge stars. Verlander won a Cy Young and an MVP award in the same year. Cabrera won a Triple Crown.

Verlander played on a team that made it to the World Series in 2006. Cabrera won a World Series with the Marlins in 2003.

But even for them, everything changes if they win now.

"It's one thing to be a great player," catcher Alex Avila said. "But if you're a great player with a world championship, it's better. There's something about it."

Leyland is already a manager with a title, but if this team wins, he'll be more than just a manager with two of them.

Only two managers have won World Series with a team in each league. Sparky Anderson was the first when he did it with the '84 Tigers. Tony La Russa was the second when he did it with the Cardinals.

Leyland could be the third. He could make it a direct link with Sparky, a direct link with '84.

The Tigers can make that link, but only if they beat the Giants. They can be the next group of special people in Michigan, as Brookens said.

"That is the opportunity these guys have," Al Avila said.

And all they need to do is win.

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