By: Holly Horning
It’s not about the losing streak. It’s not about the starting rotation. And it’s also not about the manager. All of these issues are just symptoms of a much bigger issue. An issue that’s been around for a number of years now but is definitely getting worse.
This is about a team that, for the most part, doesn’t appear to care as much as they should or say that they do. It’s about a team that says it wants to win, but doesn’t want to do what it takes. It’s about a team playing without excitement, passion, energy, inspiration or focus. It’s about a team going through the motions and playing very inconsistent baseball with no sustained effort that lasts more than a couple days.
Read the social media comment sections and you’ll see over and over observations about how the players appear to be elsewhere. They look like zombies. They have no energy and are going through the motions. The lack of focus has resulted in bumbling moves – or lack thereof – with many mental lapses. And the team is getting harder and harder to watch.
Increasingly, you’d be hard-pressed to see signs that they really care. The team has taken the art of goofing off to new levels. Levels that are way beyond what is acceptable for dealing with the expected pressure of winning.
Social at-bats where the players are chatting to the umpire and catcher more often than focusing on what they should be doing at the plate. Increasing interaction with the fan base during an actual inning. Players sitting and laughing in the dugout – even groups of guys with their backs turned away and oblivious to the game as they tell jokes.
And until the infamous April clubhouse meeting, players who were leaving the dugout to wait out the inning elsewhere. And while they are in the dugout now, some of them were resorting to using their bats as rifles and play-shooting others.
Personally, I’ve never seen a team having so much fun while they’re losing. Goofing off while getting schooled by other teams tells me you just don’t care. Other than Kinsler, VMart, Zimmermann and (most of the time) Castellanos, I’d be hard-pressed to name other players who truly take winning seriously.
It would be easy to pin the blame for their game results and record on a team with mediocre talent. But the Tigers aren’t that kind of team. Sure, there are some concerns, but there is a fierce lineup that most in MLB were claiming would be one of the best.
It would be one thing if the skill level was questionable. But it’s another when the talent is there, more often than not, and the overall impression is one of underperformance.
The skills are there, but they aren’t being effectively harnessed. And we need to ask why.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy solution. We can trace it back to the Jim Leyland years where, despite the immense skill set, there were more than a couple years where the Tigers coasted through long losing streaks in September and barely eked out the division title. There were also a couple years where they lost playoff hopes on the last day of the season. Couple that with 2 no-show performances in the World Series.
And it’s steadily gotten worse with Brad Ausmus’ tenure. But it’s not easy to solely blame him because this is a problem that’s followed the Tigers through 2 GMs and now 2 managers. Somewhere, somehow, Tiger ownership and Front Office management have failed at creating and enforcing a culture of winning.
There are no answers readily available but there are lots of questions we need ask. Including….
How did Mr. I’s personnel choices determine the team culture?
How much can we blame Dave Dombrowski for his focus on trades and potentially not on creating a message?
Was the focus on buying pieces, instead of developing and bringing up a cohesive team, at fault?
Why do the Tigers win all of the individual performance awards but have a very poor record when it comes to group accomplishments such as situational hitting, RISP and winning the World Series?
How much do big contracts impact the hunger and drive of the players who receive them?
Do stars on the team feel they are entitled to do what they want?
How much power does the manager actually have in setting and enforcing rules, especially with the stars and veterans?
Does the team have more than one leader who can set and enforce the tone of the team?
Are there cultural factors at play that define the goals between American-born and foreign-born players differently?
Is the Front Office solely focused on the stats on paper while giving little thought or weight to the intangibles or motivation needed?
Is Tiger ownership and management afraid to rock the boat by breaking tradition and hiring strong, motivated leaders? And you knew this was coming – are they too MidWest Nice?
Regarding this last question, you can say the Front Office was guilty for hiring a manager with no experience to oversee a team known for its stars and expensive contracts. They didn’t understand – or potentially even recognize – the obstacles he would face.
Liking someone in charge doesn’t necessarily guarantee they will also be respected. And supporting someone doesn’t automatically mean that you believe in their skills. It’s much easier to work for someone who is nice and undemanding than it is for someone who is looking to push you to new levels.
Kirk Gibson tells a story about his early days with Sparky Anderson who tested him beyond his comfort zone. At first, he didn’t like him, but learned to respect him. With time, he realized that Sparky made him who he became because of his leadership and ability to successfully motivate.
While this story outlines the importance of the manager, the real responsibility lies with those in charge of hiring the manager. The tone is set at the top and trickles down.
Have the Tigers finally figured this out? Can they move beyond their comfort zone and start making stronger statements and different choices? Are they ready to be bold?
Let’s hope so because as Leo Durocher once said “The nice guys are all over there, in seventh place” later condensed by history to become “Nice guys finish last.”