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Published: Sunday, 10/22/2006

'68 leaders see the same magic in the '06 Tigers

BY RON MUSSELMAN
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

DETROIT - The last time Detroit and St. Louis squared off in the World Series, Willie Horton and Al Kaline were two of the Tigers' star sluggers.

But left-handed pitcher Mickey Lolich was the MVP, winning the second, fifth, and seventh games, although Denny McLain won an incredible 31 games during that magical season.

The 1968 Tigers rallied from a 3-1 deficit to beat Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, and the Cardinals in seven games.

That heroic championship came a year after rioting in Motown, which

resulted in 43 deaths and 1,189 injures.

Many believe the Tigers' title helped heal tensions in the city, as did Horton, a Detroit native.

Horton batted .308 in the World Series, with one homer and six RBIs. Kaline, hampered by injuries that season, hit .379 with two homers and six RBIs.

Horton has a statue of his likeness beyond the left-field wall at Comerica Park. Kaline has a bust in the Hall of Fame.

Both former outfielders are special assistants to Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers' president and general manager.

Horton and Kaline threw out the ceremonial first pitches last night prior to Game 1 of the World Series against St. Louis, accompanied by Tigers owner Mike Ilitch.

Horton, a four-time All-Star who turned 64 four days ago, said the Tigers' turnaround was long overdue.

"You can't compare this team to 1968 or 1984," he said. "It's a different team, a different time. This team has been playing great all year, from spring training on. I'm really not surprised with the success they are having now. Clearly, this is a good ballclub, one to be reckoned with. I don't see any reason why they can't keep doing what they've been doing."

Kaline, 71, not only was a key component on the 1968 World Series team, the 18-time All-Star was a television broadcaster in 1984 when Detroit got off to a rip-roaring 35-5 start en route to its last championship.

Not even Kaline dreamed the Tigers would make a World Series appearance in Jim Leyland's first season as manger.

"You saw the talent we had, but to say we'd do this now - I don't think anyone could see that," Kaline said. "The best thing that happened to this organization was hiring Dave Dombrowski. He changed the whole system around."

Horton is happy to see fans once again packing the ballpark.

"It's nice to see meaningful baseball back in the city in October," he said. "It has everyone excited. I've felt good about this team all along. Everywhere I go, whether it's to the mall or the grocery store, people are pumped up.

"It feels good to go out on the porch in the morning and get the paper and see positive stories about the Tigers. It's been a while. I think this organization is getting better and better, all the way through. I think this team is going to be solid for many, many years."

THE GAMBLER: Left-hander Kenny Rogers won 17 games in the regular season, and he is 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA in the playoffs. Both postseason wins have come at Comerica, where he has allowed just seven hits in 15 innings. The 41-year-old left-hander has struck out 14 and walked four.

He blanked the New York Yankees for 7 2/3 innings in Game 3 of the AL division series and held the Oakland A's to two singles over 71/3 innings in Game 3 of the AL championship series. Rogers will oppose former Tigers No. 1 pick Jeff Weaver in Game 2 of the World Series tonight. Rogers also will pitch Game 6 here next weekend, if necessary.

"I enjoy pitching here, without a doubt," Rogers said. "The park is beneficial to any pitcher."

The Tigers are 26-9 overall in games Rogers has started this season.

Weaver, meanwhile, has pitched at least five innings and has not allowed more than three runs in six consecutive starts, including a 2-1 record and 2.16 ERA in the playoffs.

DH DECISION: Tigers manager Jim Leyland plans to use Sean Casey as his DH in the first two games, which will be played under AL rules.

But once the World Series shifts to St. Louis for Game 3, 4, and 5, Tuesday through Thursday, the DH will go out the window, and Detroit's pitchers will have to bat at Busch Stadium.

Jeremy Bonderman, slated to start Game 4 Wednesday for the Tigers, is 0-for-19 with 12 strikeouts.

"We're a little concerned about that because I think this is one situation where the National League could have a little edge when you go to their park, for obvious reasons," Leyland said. "Our pitchers don't do much hitting or bunting all year and they do. And we happen to be playing a team that's very good at it.

"Their pitchers are all good hitters, and they all can bunt and slug bunt. That's a little bit of a concern. But those are the rules, and this is the World Series, so we'll handle that accordingly."

SITTING TIGHT: Backup catcher Vance Wilson and reliever Zach Miner are the only two Tigers who didn't play in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Wilson, who agreed to a two-year contract extension in mid-August, batted .283 in 56 regular season games while spelling Ivan Rodriguez, with five homers and 18 RBIs. He also had a career-high 10 sacrifice bunts.

Miner, 7-6 in 16 starts for Detroit after being recalled from Triple-A Toledo is being used in long relief out of the bullpen.

"That's the hardest part about being a backup catcher," Wilson said. "But I knew it would be like this going into the playoffs. I am just staying sharp and staying ready."

Contact Blade columnist Ron Musselman at: mussel@theblade.com or 419-724-6474.



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