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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