SAME FACES, DIFFERENT – AND FIRST- PLACES

By:  Holly Horning

It’s official – I live in the city of champions. The Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup in 2018. The Mystics just won the WNBA Championship. And the Nationals, of course, just won the World Series.

My hometown team finally won that ring. And yes, I’m kinda being sarcastic.

So why am I toggling back and forth between cheering and crying?

Maybe because all of my favorite Tigers in the World Series – for the third year in a row now – are wearing different uniforms.

I guess when you wish for the Tigers to win the World Series, you need to be much more specific with those who hear your prayers. You need to include that they do it when they are actually playing for Detroit.

Just in the past 3 years, 10 Tigers (excluding minor and short-term players) have received their World Series rings: Dave Dombrowski, Ian Kinsler, J.D. Martinez, Cameron Maybin, Rick Porcello, David Price, Fernando Rodney, Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander.

And now, the entire 2014 Detroit Tigers starting rotation has earned World Series championships with each pitcher playing for other teams.

When you get to these kinds of numbers, it no longer classified as a coincidence.

So why am I bringing this up?

The intent is not to cause heartache. It is a desperate attempt to prevent what happened to the Tigers from happening again. As George Santayana wrote,
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Somebody, please, put a copy of The Life of Reason into Chris Ilitch’s hands.

Over the years, I’ve written about how much the Tigers and Nationals are similar. Two elderly owners who, later in life, started pushing for that ring. Both men’s phone numbers found on Scott Boras’ speed-dial. Both eventually ceding control of their teams to their sons.

Even a number of athletes who have played for both teams with Washington laying claim to 3 former Tiger pitchers just this year.

Two organizations with a tremendous amount of talent but somehow never able to successfully make that final push. Years of division titles with variable success in the playoffs. That is, until Wednesday night.

With all the similarities, there is one big difference. Only one owner has a ring.

Let’s explore just some of the reasons as to why the Nats succeeded where the Tigers didn’t.


The Nats are only 15 years old. And in those years, they finished 1st four times, playing in 5 divisions series and winning 1 World Series. They have played solid, often exceptional, baseball for the last 8 years.

The turning point for this team was the big changes they made. Approximately 10 years ago, President Stan Kasten was forced out and GM Jim Bowden resigned abruptly after learning that the FBI was about to indict him. Enter Mike Rizzo who brought in the winning ways.

In 11 years, Rizzo didn’t hesitate to change his managers when he didn’t see what he wanted. It is also said that owner, Ted Lerner, also had a big say in the employment of his executives.

Five different managers in 11 years. No one lasting more than 2 years. Two of them fired despite winning both division titles and Manager of the Year during their last year there.

A little excessive? Maybe.

But the Nats did this because they thought they could do better given the absurd amount of talent they had. And they ended up finding the perfect fit in Dave Martinez who cut his teeth with Tampa Bay (known for their managerial and creative strengths) and later becoming the protégé of Joe Maddon.

And unlike the Tigers, this team had a sense of urgency. They knew that as their team aged, and top players inched closer to free agency, they had to move more quickly.

Teams who make bold moves and don’t settle for less than the very best tend to be winners. Remember, “fortune favours the bold.”

The Nats are not afraid to make changes. Not just in their Front Office but in other departments as well. That is the biggest difference between them and Detroit.

Several years ago, when injuries prevented the Nats from going to the post-season, ownership broomed the entire medical, training and conditioning staffs. They did an exhaustive search and hired an international expert to study their organization and find the best experts to advise the team. It seemed to have worked.

The Tigers, on the other hand, don’t fire and don’t address the consistent problems they’ve faced year after year. They don’t make changes. They simply recycle personnel, changing titles instead of people.

The Nats did take a lot of heat for changes they made, especially when it came to managerial hires. But they recognized that they needed to take these additional steps and weren’t afraid to do so.

In an early playoff run, they pulled Stephen Strasburg from the roster in an attempt to preserve his arm for the future. That did not sit well with fans but it paid off in future years. And Strasburg was named MVP of the 2019 World Series.

In another bold move, they allowed Bryce Harper to walk. And look who’s watching the Series from home.

Which brings up the question as to whether it’s better to have one big star or a larger handful of players who are always clutch. Historically, stats show that players like Bryce don’t give their teams any advantage in winning the World Series.

It is believed that losing Harper made for a better clubhouse. Much was written last year about a clubhouse full of players who didn’t interact with each other at all.

This year, the opposite is true. Stories are leaking about how the Nats don’t miss him. And a belief that the clubhouse grew stronger and more cohesive without him. Multiple players, including Max Scherzer, became leaders, especially after their horrendous start this year. A start so bad that rumors were spreading that the team would begin dismantling and selling off their stars.

Speaking of Max, the Tigers may not have had that right mix of players back in 2014. The same player who claimed he was “spent” and came out of the game in the playoffs against Boston while still pitching effectively – and ceding control to that infamous bullpen. You know the rest of that story.

The same player this year who insisted on pitching Game 7 despite back and neck problems that prevented him from even raising his arms. The same man, it was revealed, who couldn’t get out of bed and had to roll off onto the floor in order to stand up. The same man who couldn’t even dress himself and slept in a neck brace.

His gutsy performance will go down in history.

A stark contrast to his days in Detroit. A contrast that potentially is due to better team chemistry and leadership.

Two factors that may also be responsible for dispelling the excuses used by the Tigers to explain away their failure to win more than one World Series game. First, the full week layoff the Nats had before the start of the World Series. Second, their bullpen. The Nats undeniably have MLB’s worst relief core. So bad that it’s the worst pen in playoff history.

More than a handful of Washington’s players said that the secret to their success was that everyone pitched in. There was no singular “star” who was expected to provide the broad shoulders. And they did it as baseball’s oldest team and by defying the conventional rules of pitching. They leaned heavily on their starters instead of the bullpen.

Rather ironic that the Tigers had one of baseball’s all-time best starting rotations in history and won only 1 game. And you have to believe that it wasn’t talent that did them in. It was something else.

And that’s what fans here in DC ask me all the time. They can’t fathom that the Tigers couldn’t do more with the vast amount of talent they had. That those same players were crucial in taking their new teams – Houston, Boston and Washington – to the World Series and winning. If they could do it every year for the past three years, why couldn’t they do it when they were all together in Detroit?

The local fans also wanted to know what the Tigers did to address those serious concerns. They wanted to know what questions were asked by the organization. What explanations were given by the team to change so they could experience success in the future.

I tell them about the excuses – the layoffs, the bullpen, etc. Excuses the Nats refused to use.

And these fans are dumbfounded to hear that the same people are still in charge.

Meanwhile, the most poignant moment of last night was the scene of Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez seeking each other out on the field after the Nats won it all. Anibal is heard saying “We won one. We finally won one.” as they fiercely hugged each other and cried.

I spent the night both cheering and crying. Cheering for a team that rose to the challenges presented and made the changes necessary for winning.

I cried, too, for reasons that go all the way back to Detroit, wondering what could have been. What should have been.

And I know that Tiger fans are crying, too, but not for the same reasons as Anibal and Max.


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28 thoughts on “SAME FACES, DIFFERENT – AND FIRST- PLACES

  1. Right or wrong, Max probably gutted out game 7 because 1) he’s already got his big free agent payday and 2) in 2013 he may have thought he would have many more opportunities but maybe he felt this yr could be his last chance with Rendon and possibly Strasburg becoming free agents. The other thing that letting Harper leave may have done for the Nats is it gave them the $ to sign Patrick Corbin. Without him the Nats probably miss the playoffs. He was a huge improvement over Roark and Gonzalez.

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  2. I’ve often wondered why the Tigers hit a wall when they got to the World Series when they were clearly the team to beat in the post season games leading up to it and of course the seasons too. Was it their big guns who failed to delver? The long layoff they had between the ALCS and the series? Was it because they came from a weaker division? Maybe one of Holly’s readers can point the finger because I sure can’t.

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    • The Tigers never won because they were woefully underserved in the managerial department. Leyland couldn’t figure out how to handle an All-Star pitching rotation, how to keep his team fresh during a layoff, or how to make out a potent lineup card. He should have stayed retired after he quit on Colorado. The game had passed him by, and even he knew it. Now, instead, the Tigers keep him and his band of never-won-anything cronies around and hand him the keys to the kingdom.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, in thier divisional title years,like the American league leaders this year, they ran up the win totals in a division were they had the only winning record. They took advantage of a softer schedule and still had low win totals compared to other play-,off teams. They won as many as they needed to. A lazy team.

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  4. its only one year in 2012 when we get swept. 2006 we clearly were not the best team in baseball and sort of snuck up on everybody…2012 we had soem great starters and players and didnt win it all…its baseball. things like that happen all the time. if the tigers played the giants in another 7 game series, would anybody truly be surprised if the tigers won 4 games to 2?

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    • Maybe but they were CLEARLY a better team than the Card team that beat them in the WS. They were a barely .500 team for many reasons. Big difference was that the Tigers, in both cases, had a manager that couldn’t. Nuff said.

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  5. I would agree with Holly that the Tigers intransigence about making changes at any level is the reason for their lack of success despite having superior on field talent. IMHO, the lack of success in the WS and later, key playoff series can be laid at the feet of Jim Leyland and his management style, which I believe fostered some complacency among veteran players. Jim Leyland should have been replaced long before he retired.

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  6. In 2006, the Tigers swept Oakland in four games to win the ALCS. The Tigers then sat around for a week awaiting the conclusion of the NLCS. The World Series matched the Tigers (95-67) against St. Louis (83-78). The lay-off of a week dramatically cooled off the Tigers’ bats and Detroit lost the World Series, four games to one. If someone in the Tigers’ front office had thought to fly the Tigers to Lakeland where they could have worked out in the warm Florida sun, I am convinced Detroit would have won the 2006 World Series.

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    • I always thought that four-game sweep of Oakland and the resulting layoff hurt Detroit in the 2006 World Series. At least it brought the hype over Oakland’s analytics back to reality. I also thought Leyland treated the series like it was another bunch of games and not the world’s championship. The Tigers just were not mentally ready.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. It appeared the Tigers of `11-`14 had ZERO team chemistry. They were nothing more than 25 baseball players, they were never a TEAM. Recall the silly and exciting antics in the Nationals dugout during the entire playoff run and their “baby shark” rally-type cry – Tigers never had,or did, any of that. Regarding Max, he was the player that exemplified those `11-`14 teams – only thinking of himself, as described in wanting to come out in that fateful game in Boston. Where was his heart and grit then?

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  8. Is there any way that someone can get this blog in Chris Illitch’s hands, insure that he reads and understands the ramifications of the decisions that he continues to make?

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  9. I believe that with Max it is all about the payday. With the Tigers, he looked at up coming free agency and a huge contract. If he hurt himself but won a World Series ring, would he make as much as losing the WS but staying healthy? Now in Washington, as his career is almost done, he knows a WS ring is much more valuable to future earnings since his big contract years are past.

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  10. It’s a great story in this day of analytics, cookie-cutter baseball, and so many teams trying to actively tank. The Nationals were given up for dead at the beginning of the season, especially in light of Harper walking away. Instead, it was a stroke of genius – a decision that good organizations are willing to make. Harper is a very talented player, but chemistry, pitching, and good team baseball can still walk away victorious.

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  11. Perhaps another reason these ex-Tigers went on to win rings with other clubs is they became better players. Not necessarily in the statistical sense but in learning from past failures what it actually takes mentally and physically to win a WS. Maybe DD learned from his past mistakes. These are elite competitors and it’s not unreasonable to think they continued to improve and be better at there jobs.

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  12. Holly….another interesting article. Why won’t the local papers cover this angle? Why won’t their columnists even attempt to cover why the players improve after they leave? Why legendary Lloyd gets promoted? What Leyland’s job actually is?…and why? How long is AA’s contract for? Why won’t the ‘columnists’ cover these and other questions?

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  13. The 2012 Tigers were 88 – 74 while the Giants were 94 – 68. They beat the 94 – 68 A’s & the 95 – 67 Yankees to win the pennant. They may have been lucky to even get to the WS. They were 43 – 29 vs the AL Central & combined 34 – 38 vs the East & West. In 2013 the 93 – 69 Tigers beat the 96 – 66 A’s & lost to the 97 – 65 Red Sox. They were 47 – 29 vs the Central & combined 34 – 32 vs the East & West. Talented both years but maybe fattened up on a bad division.

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    • Which may again illustrate the managerial problem and possible chemistry issue of those teams. B/c the physical talent of those teams should have resulted in greater success both vs. E/W teams and in the playoffs.

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  14. Of all the Tigers who have gotten their Ring since leaving here, I’m happiest about Ian Kinsler’s good fortune. Letting a guy like him go says more about the logic (or sincerity) of the “rebuild” than anything I can think of. Good column, Holly.

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  15. I thought the ‘Nats gave Harper a reasonable offer rather than letting him walk (just like Scherzer and the Tigers). Anyhow, baseball players are human and circumstances bring out the best or worst in us. I believe a player (and team) is always going to be better with a cohesive clubhouse; it may only take one or two influential players to ruin that. I don’t think the Tigers have had a cohesive clubhouse in years.

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  16. The owner of the Pirates noted all of the players that have left have improved with their new teams. He is making significant changes. Chris I. is happy with the direction of the team and gives GM extension.

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  17. Great dissection by Holly and I think a lot of very accurate comments from the group today. It strikes me that I don’t see anything really new or earth shattering here, which is both good and bad. Good in that maybe we’ve largely figured out the answers, bad in that everything about the organization remains the same; getting worse actually by continuing to circle the wagons against all logic and good sense. The more they hang on to each other and look at their critics with arrogance, the more deplorable and idiotic the story gets.

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  18. Again I ask, where, oh, where was Max’s grit, determination and heart during game 2 of the ‘13 ALCS?! He still had “it” that night – even some Red Sox players were surprised he came out. He wanted out though. Max was thinking about Max and saving his arm. Some fans are happy he was finally part of a World Series winner?!

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  19. Nothing will ever change in the D until CI sells the team and whomever the new owner is gets rid of Leyland AA and the rest of them because until then same business as usual model as always with the local media being nothing more than a mouth piece and not willing to call out anyone on anything, fortunately for you Holly you live somewhere where this isn’t the case but until then we’re all stuck in a rat trap with no way out

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