Defining the 2014 Detroit Tigers’ Regular Season

Perspective

Somewhere amid Derek Jeter’s fourth or fifth finale on Sunday afternoon, John Farrell spent most of his time faking a smile, trying to be a part of all the pomp and circumstance as another baseball season came to a close. In many ways, the season for Farrell and his Red Sox ended months ago. No doubt the sting hurt more on Sunday, as mathematical elimination and inevitable closure became a physical reality as the sun finally set on Fenway Park, its home players and Beantown’s most faithful. I imagine John Farrell muttering about in his mind of what went wrong; surveying the field on the last day of the season, questioning and second guessing every decision and asking himself how the Red Sox went from the top of the world to the bottom of the barrel. He’s been there before, looking up from the basement as the manager of Blue Jays. But this has to be different. Surely, this pain for John Farrell may not be measurable. He went from taking over a team that sat with the muck of the AL East, to being the savior leader who would deliver Boston their third World Series Championship in just 11 years. And on Sunday, Farrell walked down into the clubhouse and reluctantly left the Green Monster to an early hibernation. The Boston Skipper stepped off of the diamond in shoes similar to those of his predecessor, Bobby Valentine. And although it seems like just yesterday that an airborne Torii Hunter solidified a Red Sox trip to the World Series, baseball, like life, is all too quickly humbling.

The 2012 Boston Red Sox won 69 games.

The 2013 Boston Red Sox were World Series Champions.

The 2014 Boston Red Sox won 71 games.

It’s why on Friday, when chronicling the Tigers last four years of playoff berths, Dan Dickerson and Jim Price made it a point to remind Tigers fans of some perspective. And how special it is. As a rabid Tigers fan for the majority of my life, I couldn’t help but get choked up when Dan started to describe what he felt in the atmosphere at Comerica Park and how the refreshing Autumn air that once signified the disappointing ending to the Detroit baseball season now fills our lungs and our souls with postseason fever. Things are just different, for the better. There are certainties about Fall in Michigan. There’s the classics: leaf crunch, Apple cider and hoodies, of course. But there’s a new Fall expectation for those in the Mitten State. The air gets cooler, the leaves change, football begins, and baseball in Detroit endures well into October.

It’s not to say that John Farrell and company would trade in their World Series for a few consecutive AL East Championships, but there’s some appreciation to be found in consistency. It started from a lifelong dream by owner Mike Illitch to bring baseball relevancy back to a dormant Detroit Tigers organization. A dream that finally began to mobilize after the organization hit an historic low in 2003; Mr. Illitch and President/General Manager Dave Dombrowski decided that something had to be done about a team that owed more to a new stadium in an old downtown of a city with grand ambitions of revival.

We all were sad to see the Tigers leave The Corner, but the reality is Comerica Park and the Dombrowski Tigers were a part of something bigger going on in downtown Detroit. Think of it this way, the younger generations have a completely different view of "going downtown" than their parents did. A lot of that is owed to Mike Illitch and the Tigers.

We all were sad to see the Tigers leave The Corner, but the reality is Comerica Park and the Dombrowski Tigers were a part of something bigger going on in downtown Detroit. Think of it this way, the younger generations have a completely different view of what it means to  “go downtown” than their parents did. A lot of that is owed to Mike Illitch and the Tigers.

Revival.

The revival of baseball in Detroit started with the immaculate 2006 season. It was the season that brought back the revival of veteran manager Jim Leyland’s baseball career. A revived career that would see four playoff appearances, an 163rd game, three AL Central titles and two World Series appearances for the Tigers. Jim Leyland found a brand new level of success for a baseball team that would mimic the 21st century rebound of the city it resided in. For in some sort of uplifting poetic nature, the Tigers teams of the last half decade have found redemption of high magnitude at the same time in which the city and its people have amassed an unprecedented amount of their own resurgence.

The 2014 season looked to continue and build on that renewed tradition of winning. Even with high expectations and quality off-season moves, the organization and the fans knew it wouldn’t be easy to win a fourth consecutive American League Central Championship, with veteran young guy and San Diegan surfer Brad Ausmus replacing an early retired Jim Leyland. On the surface, the change in regime could not have been more drastic. An old, grizzled manager with no success in the Majors as a player left way to a young, slick-looking All-Star catcher. One, an outspoken son of glass factory worker,  the other a well-spoken, ivy-league educated mensch who rarely wears his heart on his sleeve. The change was the first opportunity for a Detroit fan-base to see a manager other than Jim Leyland run a World Series caliber team in the age of microscopic media. Sure, there was Sparky Anderson, but no one knew Sparky the way the fan-base got to see Leyland and Ausmus, under the constant scrutiny of the cold stare that is sports television, radio and social media these days.

My brother and I at Comerica Park in what I think is 2000. He's wearing a jersey that doesn't have a player on the back. Not because we couldn't get one that had a player's name, but, who would he get? Bobby Higginson? What was the point? When I was growing up, the Old English D itself was embarrassing, much less the names of the players. How times have changed.

My brother and I at Comerica Park in what I think is 2000. He’s wearing a jersey that doesn’t have a player on the back. Not because we couldn’t get one that had a player’s name, but, who would he get? Bobby Higginson? What was the point? When I was growing up, the Old English D itself was embarrassing, much less the names of the players. How times have changed.

In that sense, the 2014 Detroit Tigers campaign was a learning experience for fans. How would a different manager tackle taking on this Tigers team? We knew it would feel different. We knew we could expect different takes on baseball situations. But the expectations were the same, and now that the regular season is done, it’s time to sit back and evaluate Brad Ausmus’ first go-around as manager of the Detroit Tigers.

What Will We Remember About the 2014 Detroit Tigers?

The first thought that pops in my mind about describing what I heard and saw in the Tigers this year  is that this was a team that had a tough time establishing their identity. Similarly to the 2012 campaign, I felt that the Tigers and their fans spent most of the season scratching their hands at the end of the week asking themselves “what exactly do we have here?”. It was a team that got off to its best start since 1984 followed right by one of the most tumultuous stretches of baseball in Detroit in more than a decade. The defense was great, and then it was embarrassing. The new-found speedy cats that were manufacturing runs early on in the season went through more than one stretch of running themselves into too many outs. There was hot and cold and then there was colder. At times, it seemed certain that the Tigers would not be four-peating their AL Central Crown. There was a palpable lack of mojo most of the season. Because championship teams have championship moments. Moments like the one where JD Martinez goes oppo in the ninth at Target Field to take the lead in a crucial game against the Twins, commanding the ball to go out with his pointer finger like he’s goddam Carlton Fisk. Non-championship teams have those moments taken away from them, like the Tigers did just a half inning later with a blown save by Joe Nathan.

Not to be a downer about the season as we go head into October, but we have to be honest with ourselves when evaluating this team. And, truthfully, this is how a lot of us felt most of the season.

The good news for the Tigers is they won their division. It took them every game to do it, but they did it, and ultimately, that’s how we’ll look at the regular season down the line.

But what stands out from 2014?

JD Power

What more can be said about the story of JD Martinez? It will forever be the highlight of the 2014 Tigers season. Released from the Astros and picked up on a whim by the Tigers, JD’s success and turnaround will etch him into Tigers lore as the Chris Shelton who lasted more than a week. If you ever think you can’t reinvent yourself, look to JD Martinez, who saw his baseball career fading fast, spent time in the Venezuelan winter league, studied the styles and tendencies of the greatest hitters on the planet, reinvented his swing, and became an integral part of a lineup that includes Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. That’s a mouthful of a run-on sentence, but JD deserves every syllable.

All season long, too, we were just waiting for it to fade. We’ve seen this story before. There’s one of these players every year. Chris Shelton, Brennan Boesch, Quintin Berry; a player that comes out of no where to be that boost, but they just don’t last. And why would they? This is baseball. You have your perennial All-Stars.  Then, you have the role players who get on hot streaks and help out a ball club. So we waited for JD Martinez to be that story, because he just didn’t have the track record to keep it going.

But he did.

He kept going and going. With the power AND the average. Which is when you realize, by watching him on a nightly basis, that he probably is no fluke. You can see where he changed his swing, and it’s the way that he’s hitting the ball that’s most impressive; the way he uses the opposite field and up the middle or the way his bat head seems to linger in the strike zone like bad pastrami. Now, there’s no way of knowing whether or not JD’s success will run into the next season or so. He could end up being the Mark Fidrych of the offensive side of the ball, but like The Bird, we will never forget the joy and energy JD brought to a team and its fans.

Saying Goodbye to an Old Friend, For the Right Price

This was one of the craziest things I’ve ever witnessed as a Tigers fan, and it is probably the moment I will remember most from the 2014 season. All of it. That day, the game on the field didn’t matter, because the game that Dave Dombrowski was playing with the other General Managers in the league was one that will go down in history as one of the most intense trade deadlines of all time. I will never forget driving in my car, listening to Dan Dickerson and Jim Price speak about the rumors, getting texts left and right from everyone I know about the possibility that David Price would be coming to the Tigers. Yes, David Price! This was the kind of trade that happened in MLB2k14, not in real life. I never would have imagined in a million years that David Price would be traded to the Tigers, but it was happening, and it was going to be the missing piece (Doug Fister) that would take the Tigers to the promise land.

Yet, it was for Austin. Austin Jackson, a player who had done the unthinkable and filled the empty void in this town of center field once Curtis Granderson was shipped out. That was a trade that hurt. It came after the 2009 season, which ended in the most disappointment I have ever felt as a sports fan. And we knew that big changes were coming as a result. One of those changes was trading Curtis Granderson to the Yankees; Curtis, a player that many in this town thought could be the next Steve Yzerman—the guy who was an All-Star in the game and in the community, who would start and end his career in Detroit. Austin had big shoes to fill, and no one was certain that he would ever really fit into those shoes. But he did, and he did more than that, as Curtis’ career went by the wayside in New York (and New York).

Curtis Granderson was this town’s captain of the outfield during my high school years, but Austin Jackson was my center fielder throughout college and into my professional life. Sure, that sounds really stupid, but it’s true. Austin wasn’t the face of the organization that Curtis was. Austin did his talking on the field. He went out there and busted his ass for his team day in and day out. He was a real good ballplayer. Good enough to be a part of a trade for David Price; a trade that was completely worth it for this Tigers team, but a trade whose scars we will feel until someone else graces the land of Heather Nabozny better than Austin Jackson did.

Rajai the Rocket

The biggest difference we saw with this Tigers team than the Leyland teams was the speed on the base paths. That’s no question. In 2014, the Tigers were finally a team that could use their legs as a weapon against their enemies rather than themselves. Between Jackson (in the first half), Kinsler, Romine and Carrera, the Tigers were faster than we’ve seen them in decades. Rajai was at the forefront of all of that. We need to take a step back and realize, however, that the speed that we’ve all been looking for for more than a decade wasn’t completely the game changer we thought it would be. Yes, there were a handful of times this year where the speed of Rajai on the base paths resulted in a RISP that scored, or distracted a pitcher until he gave up a hit or a walk to Ian or Torii, but the reality is that Rajai’s speed probably only did so much. I only say this because it’s something I think we learned as Tigers fans this season. We spent the Leyland years watching teams that slugged the ball. There was sacrifice flies everywhere under Leyland, sure, but there wasn’t a whole lot of situational bunting or stealing or crazy hit and runs/squeezes (yes, sometimes, but you know what I mean), and fans chalked up the lack of small ball as the reason for coming up short every season. This year, we saw a team that ran a lot, and while it helped them immensely in certain games, they also, literally, ran themselves into trouble as often as they ran themselves into runs.

All of that being said, Rajai and the 2014 Quick Cats might be the most memorable aspect of this team. I’ve just never seen a weapon like this on my team, ever! And while it might not be a drastic change in the result of runs scored, as a fan and as a spectator, it’s just a more entertaining brand of baseball. It’s old school, it’s flashy and it’s downright exciting. When Rajai gets on first, as Rod likes to say, it’s a double. You know he’s going to try and go. The pitcher knows. The catcher knows. And, in most cases, there’s nothing they can do about it. On top of it, Rajai had one of his best years at the plate, and filled the role of center fielder in mostly satisfactory fashion (Rajai isn’t the best defender, but he’s definitely got better as the year went on. His performance in center was surprising to me, as good as it’s been). In many ways, as the speedy catalyst and competent right-handed bat, Rajai was one of the most important parts of this team.

And then there was this:

I’ll remember this forever. I was so frustrated with this game that I stopped watching it. I went to the gym and decided to listening to the rest of it on the stationary bike as I was certain the Tigers were done for in this game. I’ll also always remember Austin Jackson’s walk, which I thought, at the time, was a sign that they were going to win the game. I just didn’t think it would be with a grand slam by Rajai. Or, a Super Grand Slam, as some may call it, where a player hits a Grand Slam to win the game by one run. In hindsight—with no disrespect to Mario and Rod—I’m glad I went to the gym and was listening to this game on the radio, because nothing could ever match the excitement I heard in my ear holes from the voice of Dan Dickerson when Rajai flipped that one over bullpen in left. I jumped out of the stationary bike and ran around the gym, jumping around like Placido Polanco in Game 4 of the ALCS like a big, dumb idiot.

That will stick in my mind for eternity.

Trials and Tribulations

I’ll hopefully look back at this season years from now and laugh, pointing to all of the times where Brad Ausmus came up short as a manager and how it’s crazy how far he’s come. I’m not just talking x’s and o’s decisions he made during the year that I thought were kind of silly. I think that, looking back at this season as a whole, Brad Ausmus had a lot of difficulty finding his style of leadership. The beginning of the season and its enormous amount of success right off the bat may have done a disservice for Brad and company, because when things went south quickly, the Skipper had to scramble to figure out a way to get things back on track. And I’m not sure if he really figured it out during that May and June slump. If anything, it seemed that things just sorted themselves out on their own. Perhaps that was Brad’s strategy during the tough times, who knows? But it didn’t seem like he was doing much as a leader for the team in those tough times. And, he for sure didn’t know how to handle it with the media:

What you see above is an example of someone who hasn’t been around the block. You’re seeing someone who is fresh and unscarred and hasn’t ever really been challenged in the spotlight. Brad had tough times as a catcher, but he never had to answer for the successes and failures of a whole team. This was a dumb thing to say; an inexcusable offense. But, it was something that elicited a reaction from fans and the media and his players that Brad probably used as a wake up call to how he needed to act as a leader.

Similarly, what we’ll all remember from this season was Joe Nathan’s own trials and tribulations. This was another example of someone who had never been under such scrutiny. As the active all-times save leader, Nathan had never experienced the amount of failure he did in 2014, and, seemingly out of his comfort zone, he took it out on fans; a cardinal sin the likes of Prince Fielder know all too well not to do in this city.

Ausmus and Nathan both, though, have the benefited of their ends ultimately justifying their means. The division was won, and the Detroit Fall Baseball tradition is still intact. For Nathan, his fitting save on Sunday to clinch the division was something he needed to head into the post-season. And the fans needed it too. At the end of the game, Joe stood on the third baseline, staring out at the fans, taking it in as if the two consciousnesses were finally sharing a positive moment together. And for Brad? Brad has not been an amazing manager, but he will be. I see in Brad a young Jim Leyland. He’s got the demeanor and the wherewithal to a be a star manager, but he’ll have to go through the fire for another season or two before he’s welded into leader he has the potential to become.

Defining a Season Through the Post-Season

The AL Central streak is there. It remains unscathed. The downside for the Tigers organization is that with consistent winning comes higher expectations. The 2014 Kansas City Royals are happy enough to play some extra baseball for the first time in 30 years. The Tigers, however, have much higher goals. With all said here; with all of the storylines and moments, the way we will look at the 2014 regular season still remains to be seen. Because we’ve done this before with this team and these players; these players whose window of opportunity to win a championship may be coming to a close. Think about it. Next year, there may be no Max or Victor. Who knows what we’ll get from Justin Verlander as we move forward? Alex Avila’s health is a huge concern. No one’s getting younger, except maybe Nick Castellanos (seriously, when he shaved, I was like, ‘ohhh, he IS 22’).

The time to win is now, and this team is built to do it, but they’re going to need the right moves from their manager among timely hitting, a clutch bullpen and the Jim Leyland adage that you’re only as good as your next day’s starting pitcher. The winning ways in this city have been revived and sustained, but it’s going to take more than that to build a legacy. If the Tigers can manager to win 11 more games, they will erase any ill-taste we have in our mouths from this up-and-down season. It’s all that matters to this organization anymore.

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John Farrell’s headed to his vacation home this week. He’s gonna sit on a recliner and watch the playoffs with a beer in his hand and frustration in his heart. He’ll look at the Tigers fourth straight American League Central with a certain amount of jealousy. But a part of him will lay back and rest easy knowing the one shot he had at the playoffs, he came away with the ultimate prize. And that will always be his legacy.

A legacy Brad Ausmus can obtain only through the same result.

About Kale

Kale is a proud MSU Detroiter with filmmaking and social media aspirations. Currently in Production Assisting Purgatory, Kale has two goals in life: (1) Have a million followers on twitter and (2) Never pay a mortgage. So help Kale reach one of those goals, follow him @kaledavidoff
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