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Published: Friday, 4/9/2004

Rodriguez gives Detroit a reason to believe again

DETROIT - The good news about the 2004 Detroit Tigers is, people now have a reason to come to Comerica Park, other than getting drunk.

The Tigers are playing a different game so far this season. They re playing winning baseball.

Detroit rallied from an early three-run deficit to throttle Minnesota 10-6 yesterday in front of the largest Opening-Day crowd in Comerica Park history.

Rain clouds loomed ominously and there was a chill in the air that made it seem like October instead of the second week in April.

It may as well have been 80 degrees with bright sunshine as the Tigers improved to 4-0 for the first time since 1985.

Of course, it all starts with Ivan Rodriguez. Detroit s $40-million catcher could lead the Tigers off a cliff, and they would follow him.

“He s been around. He just played in the World Series, and we all respect him, respect what he s done,” said Detroit right-hander Nate Cornejo, who survived a rocky start to pitch seven gritty innings against Minnesota to record the victory.

“We re going to listen to what he says,” Cornejo continued. “He s going to have a lot of things to say to us, and teach us. Just having him gives us all the confidence in the world.”

There are many new additions in Detroit, so many that the Tigers have become an entirely different team.

From new everyday players Fernando Vina, Carlos Guillen and Rondell White, to new starting pitcher Jason Johnson, Detroit s roster has undergone a major overhaul.

Even a once-frustrated veteran like Bobby Higginson, who has seen some of the best but mostly the worst of times in his 10 seasons with the Tigers, could manage a wide smile after yesterday s comeback.

“This is the most fun I ve had my whole career,” said Higginson, Detroit s offensive star with a triple, a double, and four RBIs.

Still, you had to see it in person to believe that one player - Rodriguez - could have such a dramatic effect on a team going from laughingstock to legitimate.

Rodriguez is part cheerleader, part faith healer, all catcher.

When the Tigers are at bat, he bounds out of the dugout in full catcher s gear offering encouragement. He manages Detroit s pitching staff flawlessly despite unfounded rumors that he didn t call a good game behind the plate as a member of the Texas Rangers. Against the Twins, he threw out a runner attempting to steal second by at least five feet.

Rodriguez was 2-for-4 yesterday with one walk and one run scored. He s recorded a hit in every game with Detroit.

He never wastes an at-bat. He never wastes an opportunity to show the Tigers how it s done.

Rodriguez believes; therefore, the Tigers now believe.

“There s a belief in this room. That s the biggest thing. Guys want to win,” Cornejo said.



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