DETROIT (AP) – There was the night a rookie outfielder hit a grand slam for his first major league homer, but later tore up his knee and got taken off the field on a flatbed cart.

And the time they welcomed a snowout, because it meant they didn’t have to play that day.

How bad was it for the Detroit Tigers back in 2003?

Heck, golfer Phil Mickelson showed up at their Triple-A ballpark, convinced he could help out by pitching.

“I lost a lot of years on my life that season,” Detroit reliever Jamie Walker recalled Friday. “I’m not kidding.”

Asked which day was the absolute worst, Tiger pitcher Jeremy Bonderman’s eyes glazed over.

“How ’bout every day?” he said.

Three years since one of the most terrible seasons in big league history, the turnaround Tigers are in the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Yet the memory of going an embarrassing 43-119 – one loss short of the 1962 New York Mets’ record for defeats – is still all too fresh for the Tigers. It’s even painful for the current Tigers who weren’t on that team.

“When you’re the laughingstock of major league baseball, and you’re the butt of David Letterman’s every joke, and Jay Leno’s, it probably feels pretty damn good right now,” closer Todd Jones said after Detroit swept Oakland in the AL championship series.

Outfielder Craig Monroe is one of fewer than a dozen players left from the 2003 club. Rather than view that season as the start of an incredible turnaround, he prefers to put it behind him.

“I’m not going to dwell on it,” he said. “It’s in the past.”

The Tigers were looking toward the future when they started spring training in mid-February that year. Coming off a 55-106 season, there was reason for slight optimism under first-year manager Alan Trammell.

The former star Tigers shortstop was ready for the challenge, he said on the day they opened camp, “knowing that my name is going to be stamped on this team whether I like it or not.”

Perhaps Trammell and the Tigers should have seen it as an omen when they lost their exhibition opener to the Dodgers, blowing a lead in the bottom of the ninth inning.

“This is just a footnote,” Trammell said then. “A month from now, nobody will be talking about my first spring training game. When the season starts, it will be a little different.”

Oh, it sure was.

Once the games began to count, Detroit lost its first nine in a row. That made the Tigers the first team in history to do that two years in a row.

A win over the White Sox provided only a brief respite. The Tigers lost their next eight and dropped to 1-17.

“It was like a blur,” pitcher Mike Maroth remembered Friday. “You saw the standings, and it was hard to believe.”

As the season wore on, even the best moments wound up as losses. The Tigers rallied from a six-run deficit to deny Roger Clemens his 300th career victory, but still fell to the New York Yankees 10-9 in 17 innings.

By the summer, it was clearly a bad year for Tigers.

In August at the nearby Buick Open, defending champion Tiger Woods failed to repeat and one of his shots hit a spectator in the head. The fan needed stitches to close the bloody gash.

In September, rookie Cody Ross hit a grand slam in the third inning, but wrecked his knee in the eighth and was carted off.

“Symbolic of our year? I would say yes,” Trammell said then.

A few days later, Maroth became the first major leaguer to lose 20 games since Brian Kingman in 1980. Maroth had more on his mind than stats.

“When I lost my 20th and my grandmother, that was a tough day,” he said this week.

Detroit went on to break the AL record of 117 losses set by the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics. Closing in on the Mets’ all-time record, the Tigers rallied.

On the next-to-last day of the season, they overcame an eight-run deficit and beat Minnesota. And on the final day, Maroth pitched the Tigers past the AL Central champion Twins as they avoided matching the dubious mark for defeats.

As the Tigers left the field for the last time that year, the Comerica scoreboard flashed “Victory!” as Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” played over the sound system.

Maroth, who is still with the Tigers but was injured most of this season and is not on Detroit’s postseason roster, still smiles at that memory.

“That’s what I took away from that season,” he said. “That was something we could feel proud about.”


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