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Published: Friday, 10/1/2004

Next step for Tigers will be even tougher

Now comes the hard part for the Detroit Tigers.

Here's my take, and it's just a theory, but going from terrible to respectable won't be nearly as difficult as making the quantum leap from respectable to legitimate.

Legitimate is as legitimate does.

The Tigers have already cracked the 70-win barrier after winning just 43 games in 2003 and losing an American League record 119.

Kudos to manager Alan Trammell, who took a lot of heat his rookie season - some of it warranted, most of it undeserved - as well as future Hall-of-Famer Ivan Rodriguez, who was a bargain at $10 million.

Trammell is starting to grow with the job. He's still being criticized for losing too many close games, but his players always play hard. He deserves some of the credit for the turnaround.

Without Rodriguez, however, Detroit would still be the Tigers of old.

Rodriguez is an outstanding defensive catcher, and he's an even better hitter than he is a catcher.

But you never really know about a player until you see him on a regular basis.

Without question, Rodriguez's best quality is his ability to lead.

His will to win is so great that he pushes and prods his teammates to perform at a higher level than they believed possible.

That said, Rodriguez needs help.

This year the Tigers evolved into a professional, sweet-hitting ballclub with a below-average pitching staff.

Flawed and incomplete as they are, the Tigers managed to breathe life back into Comerica Park by making baseball fun again for their fans.

The Tigers are about to wrap up their 11th consecutive losing season. They can't afford to make it 12 in a row.

Detroit owner Mike Ilitch talks a good game about giving his blessing to upgrade the roster. Ilitch must put his bank account where his mouth is.

Here's saying that Ilitch will turn team president Dave Dombrowski loose during free agency.

And no, I'm not just saying that because Ilitch's Detroit Red Wings have closed shop until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached, in effect making the Tigers Ilitch's new favorite hobby.

The Red Wings' inactivity works to the Tigers' advantage. It forces Ilitch to pay more attention to his baseball team.

For all we know, Ilitch may have already decided to expand his baseball budget, or at least maintain the financial level of a year ago.

Dombrowski's biggest accomplishment since coming to Detroit may be the fact that his smart personnel decisions have resulted in Ilitch trusting him to spend the owner's money on the right players.

Two of Dombrowski's acquisitions - Rodriguez and Carlos Guillen - made this year's All-Star team. They're arguably the two best free-agent signings in the history of the franchise.

There should be more Dombrowski signings where those two came from. The more, the merrier.

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