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The Dartmouth
June 17, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

The blueprint of a champion

The scene is a blustery winter night in Michigan about eight or so years ago. The snow blows horizontally across the city, blinding all those who dare to stay up this late on a stormy night. The camera pans across building after building as they all seem to blend into some sort of speckled pattern until arriving at a sight that all denizens of the city can recognize -- Tiger Stadium.

The camera fades to black and the audience moves inside an immaculate and elegant corporate suite with Tigers CEO and President John McHale, Jr. sitting at the head of a long, narrow table. All of the men there look weary to be up this late, but content to be in a comfortable indoor setting. As the camera slowly closes in on McHale, he stands and firmly closes all of the discussion that was previously unheard.

The CEO's exact words to his "Navy" have been shared with few souls who were not in that winter meeting. And while I cannot impart them in their entirety, I can give you a glimpse of what exactly he said in what will (in about five years) be known as the "Blueprint of a Champion" speech.

McHale knew that he didn't have Kirk Gibson anymore, and that Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker couldn't possibly play forever. He understood that Jack Morris had been gone for quite some time and that Sparky Anderson's hop would only have ample bounce for a short time more.

Advisor after advisor questioned if the Tiger organization should just build and rebuild every year. But, the shrewd McHale could look forward and see Brave success in the decade to come and Yankee triumph soon after. His plan was not to win one title, but many. He wanted a jumpstart on the rest of the league for the title of the Team of the 21st Century and he was ready to sacrifice almost anything to attain it. He would place Randy Smith as the team's general manager and build a team that could out-pitch the opposition, while also out-homering them in a monstrosity of a stadium.

And yes, Tiger Stadium would be the first casualty of what would be a decade-long fire sale. Plans for a new stadium were in the works for McHale and his navy all that time ago. As we now know, the park would be Comerica and its dimensions would be so vast that even the old British fleet could not defend it.

While Coors and Enron Fields give pitchers whiplash and hitters ego-trips, Comerica shrinks every Andro-taking clean-up hitter into the number nine hitter from your Little League team who you hoped wouldn't swing, thereby drawing a walk.

If you want to take your children to see the Ferris Wheel which is beyond the outfield fence, bring your walking shoes because it is 422 feet from home plate to the deepest part of the ballpark. A real pitcher's park with grass as far (almost) as the eyes can see. So, build a team that can hit over those deep fences while the opposition cannot and you'll have a winner, right?

Over the past five years Detroit has amassed a young arsenal of pitchers, both at the big show and in their farm system, which promises to keep them very competitive in the pitchers' ballpark. Bryan Moehler has the makings of a consistent 15-20 game winner later on in his career.

They also went out and found major power at nearly every position. The uppercut swing of Bobby Higginson fills the left field slot while the low-contact, high-octane Tony Clark patrols first base. Damion Easley and Dean Palmer are abnormally good home run hitters for their positions and they can top it all off with the recent acquisition of Juan Gonzalez. If anyone can knock the ball out of Comerica, it's that lineup.

So, why are they 9-23, you ask?

This team was supposed to surprise people with their solid play and instead have matched the worst 32-game start in club history. Detroit has scored two runs on 22 hits in their last 38 innings of play.

They were shut out four times in a single week, and while their ERA is the fifth lowest in the American League, most of that credit probably should go to the architects of Comerica. Meanwhile, Detroit ranks dead last in several offensive categories like batting average (.247), runs (113) and total bases (418).

And why was the only Tiger move of the week made by Manager Phil Garner and Smith to recall right-handed reliever Masao Kida from Triple A? What happened to this seemingly foolproof plan?

Injuries certainly have not helped as Easley, Moehler and others have not been at 100 percent early on this season.

Perhaps the biggest oversight of McHale, Smith and the others that put together this group is that power doesn't win championships, espe

cially at Comerica. In the year of the home run, Comerica has negated the power the Tigers possess and shown their lack of speed (the team leaders have two stolen bases), defense and baseball intangibles.

Yes, Detroit's pitching is getting better and could be very good in Comerica very soon, but when was the last time you remember a team winning a game while scoring no runs. What a team in that ballpark needs is speed and players

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who can manufacture runs in the prototype of the Yankees and Red Sox of the last few seasons.

Perhaps the Tigers will trade their unused home run commodities to teams like Colorado and Houston and acquire pitchers like Pedro Astacio and Jose Lima, who appear to be suffering the worst from pitching in wiffleball-like environs. Perhaps their pitching on the farm will develop into the products they envisioned that winter about eight years ago.

On Tuesday, just as Detroit was trying to avoid their aforementioned record-tying loss, the Tigers found their 2-0 lead erased by rain. The next day, Kansas City shut out Detroit.

Even the weather gods have hurt the Tigers, who are probably not as bad as they are playing. In the richest irony of them all, Smith, McHale and Detroit opened their new park in the same snowy, bitterly cold winter conditions that one could have found that fateful night in the meeting room. They won that game, but have won just four of eighteen since. It appears that in Detroit this spring, when it rains, it snows.