DETROIT — At this time last year, Torii Hunter was sprawled out on his couch watching his future teammates compete in the playoffs.
As horrible as that seemed at the time, it gave him a chance to figure out what his best chance would be to feel what they were feeling, rather than what he was feeling.
“Last year, I was watching it on TV at home on my couch. Not fun. ... At the same time, I kind of watched the World Series, watched the ALCS, and watched the Tigers,” Hunter said this week, as he prepared for his first trip to the postseason since 2009.
“I just thought that if I was a free agent, this would possibly be the best fit for me, with the veteran presence, playing with one of the best hitters on the planet (Miguel Cabrera). And you talk about Victor (Martinez), and Prince (Fielder), and (Max) Scherzer and (Justin) Verlander, Anibal (Sanchez) signing back after me.
“It works out just fine for me. If you're going to have a chance to win, if you're scouting, and you're trying to scout out teams, and you're trying to be on a winning ballclub, this is probably the team that you'd pick.”
No one has regretted that move from either side, as Hunter's unique brand of outspoken-yet-goofy leadership (he called himself the locker room's “shaolin monk” this week) fit well with a team that already had — as he listed — a gaggle of the game's top players, but was missing “the right guy with the right heartbeat,” according to its manager, Jim Leyland.
It doesn't hurt that Hunter, a veteran of 17 big-league seasons, is just as hungry as the next player to end the Tigers' 29-year World Series drought.
That desire has just grown in recent years.
“Oh, yeah. It's deeper. It's a desire. This is what I want. I'm pretty Victor Martinez feels the same way. This is something I want. I'm pretty sure everybody wants it, but the longer you play in this game, and you've been so close so many times, you have that feeling of a postseason, you want to get to that ultimate goal, which is that World Series,” he said. “That's where my eye is. It's not the ALDS, it's not the ALCS. It's the World Series.”
That's the whole focus for an organization that's made it to three World Series — 1984, 2006 and 2012 — in the last three decades, but hasn't won one since the “Bless You Boys” campaign in '84.
The third straight division title the Tigers won is nice.
Making the postseason in three straight seasons for the first time since 1907-09 is a great footnote.
But it's not enough.
“Our job's not done. We want to win it all,” Verlander said during Fox Sports Detroit's broadcast of the post-clinch celebration. “We got a taste last year, but we want to win it all.”
After getting to the World Series last season, then getting swept by the San Francisco Giants, there's plenty of reason that this organization is no longer satisfied with 'just' winning division titles.
“I think our eyes — the first time you go, you're just kind of happy to be there. Next time, you go a little further. We're all focused in on that one goal, now. As opposed to before, it was like 'Oh, we're happy to be here. We're just going to enjoy the moments,' ” Andy Dirks said.
“We've done that. We're ready for the big one, now.”
Eleven wins will get the Tigers that big one.
They only got seven last year.
And lost six — including the final four.
The quest starts Friday night, when the Tigers play Game 1 of a rematch with the AL West Division champion Oakland Athletics in the AL Division Series. The Tigers beat the A's in five games last year, and swept Oakland in 2006's AL Championship Series.
And it will be a disappointment, if the Tigers don't win.
Those expectations have been on this team since the beginning.
Especially since it's hard to say that it's not a better team this time around. Deeper lineup, with Hunter added and Martinez — who had to watch the World Series on the couch as well — back in the lineup. Fewer questions in the bullpen.
That doesn't mean anything's easy, though.
“This was a tough year for the guys, because the expectations were so high, and it was almost like we were set up to fail. From Day One of Spring Training, I told them, 'Don't get caught up in the expectations, get caught up in how we're going to live up to them,' ” a teary-eyed Leyland said in thepost-clinch celebration. “And I think that's what they've done.”
They did it better than last year's team, which floundered along until the end of the regular season, then took advantage of its second chance in the playoffs to make a long run.
Expectations can be a heady thing, for a team that gets too caught up in them. It's far too hard to simply go out and do what people expect you will.
“I think we don't live by expectations. We live what we can do on the field. People can say a lot of things,” said Miguel Cabrera, who probably himself had a better year than his 2012 Triple Crown campaign, even though it was injury-plagued at the end.
“They say Toronto's gonna win the division, they say a lot of things that don't happen this year. They say Washington's gonna win the division and they don't do it. It doesn't matter what people say, what people expect. We gotta live by what we do on the field. It's a lot of expectations but we can't live with expectations, we gotta live with what we can do on the field and how we will play.”
All along, the Tigers were assumed to have the easiest route to the postseason, made the betting favorite by Las Vegas bookmakers shortly after last year's offseason started.
The same went for every industry pundit.
And the fans, too.
“That means we're gonna win? That means nothing what they say. If we're gonna win, we're gonna lose, we gotta still play nine innings hard in Oakland. We gotta win the first three,” Cabrera said. “Doesn't matter what people say, man. We gotta go out there and play hard.”
All they've done is give themselves a shot to make those bets pay off.
“That's what it's all about, man. It's what (Derek) Jeter say always, try to make the playoffs. We live for this. Try to have success in the playoffs and try to get a chance to win the World Series. We don't expect do that. Everybody in the playoffs expect to do that so everybody gonna play hard. It's why it's so fun, so interesting,” said Cabrera, who won a World Series crown as a rookie with the Marlins. “It was hard to win a World Series. You never take nothing for granted. You have so much fun when you win a World Series. Hopefully we can do that for Detroit. We came up short two times so let's see what happens.”
The Oakland A's had to live up to some expectations this year, too.
“What I really give them more credit for is I give them more credit for this year than last year. Because last year, they weren't really the story. The Texas Rangers were the story. They kind of snuck up on them, and took it over (at the end),” Leyland said. “This year, they just had to come back and win it again, and prove it again, and they did that.”
And they're just as hungry as the Tigers to win a World Series.
So are the Red Sox. And the Cardinals. And the Braves.
And so on.
Expectations and desires are not singular to the Tigers.
“I don't think this team is any more determined to win the World Series than last year's. I don't think we want to win it any more. That would be saying the team last year didn't really want to win it. That would be silly. We want to win the World Series. So does every other team that's in this postseason,” Leyland said.
“Tampa Bay's just won (three) must(-win) games. ... They're fighting their fannies off. That's what we're going to do, because we're all in the same boat.
“We all want to win the World Series. All these teams. The fact is, we're not the only ones that have fans that want to see them win the World Series. They all have that. That's the way it should be.”
The goal is not winning this round. For anyone.
Or even the next round.
The goal is the World Series.
Or it's a bust.
“Shouldn't that be every team?” Verlander asked.
It is this one.