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Hot stove throwback: Rondell White and Fernando Vina helped to legitimize Tigers

Coming off a 43-119 season in 2003, the Tigers needed talent and respect. And not necessarily in that order.

Rondell White
Rondell White
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Seventh in a series, featuring high-profile free agent signings by the Tigers of the past.

The Tigers' signing of star catcher Ivan Rodriguez following the 2003 season has rightly been identified as a benchmark for the organization.

Rodriguez, likely to go into the Hall of Fame someday, was coming off a World Series title playing for the Florida Marlins and the Tigers were coming off the extreme oppositea horrific 43-119 season.

It didn't seem like a good fit, that Rodriguez, after winning a championship, would stoop to play for the wretched Tigers. But Pudge's age at the time (32), combined with his yearn for a four-year contract while playing the physically demanding position of catcher, scared some teams away.

Agent Scott Boras and the Tigers got together and hammered out a deal for Rodriguez a few weeks before spring training of 2004.

But two signings that don't get nearly enough credit for Rodriguez's acquisition occurred a couple months prior.

Had the Tigers not inked outfielder Rondell White and second baseman Fernando Vina in December of 2003, they may not have had a shot at Rodriguez.

When you're 43-119, clearly you are low in talent. You also are carrying the additional burden of being a big league-wide joke.

The Tigers needed to be relevant. They needed to be respected. Theirs was a franchise steeped in tradition, an original member of the American League since its inception in 1901.

Never in their long history, not even in their worst years, were the Tigers framed as the pathetic team that they were after 43-119.

They needed big league caliber players and they needed them in a hurry.

White was a right-handed swinging, frenetic hitter with a whip-like swing who had enjoyed some success with the Montreal Expos between 1993 and 2000 before turning into a journeyman of sorts, playing for four times in four years.

White could hit the ball out of the park and he was good for a .270-plus average and 70-90 RBI. He wasn't a great outfielder but that was low on the Tigers' priority list. The team needed big league hitters, pronto.

Vina was the Milwaukee Brewers' regular second sacker from 1995-99 and he had the same distinction with the St. Louis Cardinals from 2000-03.

Vina wasn't terribly consistent, but he did have a few .300-plus seasons while playing in the National League. He was also injury-prone, which the Tigers would eventually find out the hard way.

On December 19, 2003, Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski smiled that broad, trademark smile as White and Vina slipped into their new white jerseys with the Old English D at a press conference held at Comerica Park.

In one day, in one fell swoop, the Tigers added two respected big league players. Their climb out of the 43-119 wormhole was beginning.

The addition of White and Vina was part of Dombrowski's sell job to Boras and Rodriguez, who reportedly had the Chicago Cubs as a potential suitor as well.

Though White would be 32 years old before the 2004 season and Vina would turn 35 in April, Dombrowski convinced Pudge that he could be a part of a serious comeback in what was, at the time, a suspect Central Division.

But that convincing would have been much more difficult without Detroit signing White and Vina.

So how did the new guys, White and Vina, do as Tigers?

The Tigers got two decent seasons from White (.270 and .313 with 31 homers combined), though he only played in 97 games in 2005.

Vina was a total bust, and there may have been some subterfuge involved.

When the Tigers came calling, Vina was coming off a year in which he played in only 61 games. Knee and hamstring injuries hijacked most of his 2003 season.

Vina assured the Tigers that he was good to go, and thus landed a lucrative, multi-year deal.

But Vina wasn't good to go.

He played just 29 games in 2004 and that was it for his career.

Vina's bad legs shuttered him in 2004 and he missed the entire 2005 season due to a strained right hamstring and patellar tendinitis in his left knee.

Later, Vina had to fight off accusations that he hid the extent of his leg injuries from the Tigers prior to signing with Detroit.

It got worse.

Vina was implicated in the infamous Mitchell Report steroids scandal, and he eventually admitted that he used them to aid in his 2003 recovery.

White, too, was mentioned in the Mitchell Report. He left the Tigers after 2005 and signed with the Minnesota Twins, playing three injury-plagued seasons before retiring.

The contributions that Rondell White and Fernando Vina made on the field, even combined, weren't worth the money the Tigers gave them. But the meanings of their signings extended far beyond what went on between the white lines.

Whatever you choose to think about their motives and operations, White and Vina nonetheless signed with the Tigers at a time when the team wasn't exactly high on free agents' potential destination lists.

Their decisions to go with Detroit likely had a serious impact on whether Pudge Rodriguez elected to be a Tiger as well.

And for that, they should be acknowledged.