MINNEAPOLIS -- By nearly any measure imaginable, the Detroit Tigers have been the class of the American League. Entering play on Wednesday, they're closing in on their third straight American League Central division title, and no team in the AL has won more games since 2011 than the Tigers.
Throw in Jim Leyland's 2006 Tigers club, and the people of Detroit have seen some truly excellent baseball teams. They've also seen the Tigers lose the 2006 World Series, the 2011 ALCS and the 2012 World Series, both World Series losses in essentially noncompetitive fashion: five games to the Cardinals in 2006, four straight to the Giants in 2012.
Obviously, fans who haven't seen the Tigers win a championship since 1984 are eager for that kind of emotional payoff. But I wondered: to what extent do the Tigers see a World Series as necessary validation?
Last October, in the moments just after the World Series ended, Jim Leyland called his team getting swept by the Giants "kinda freaky".
"They were the better team. hey beat us four straight," Leyland said at the time. "You have nothing to complain about. We didn't hit enough, we didn't score runs."
But he also said that night, "We obviously played well the first two rounds of the playoffs, we got to the World Series, and we just kind of sputtered offensively. But if somebody would have told me back in February that, you know, you're gonna go to the World Series this year, I'd have had to say well, that's a pretty successful season."
So now, as the Tigers prepare to enter a third straight postseason aiming to end their World Series drought, Leyland's views on 2013 seem a bit different than simply happiness at getting there.
"I'd say there are several teams in spring training, where their goal is winning a World Series," Leyland said in his office Tuesday, prior to the Tigers' game against the Twins. "I would say we're one of those. There are other teams that are rebuilding, that know, realistically, that they are not gonna win the World Series in a particular season. But I would say we've gotten to the status where we go to spring training, I think we can legitimately say that our goal is to win the World Series."
His first baseman, Prince Fielder, echoed that sentiment.
"Whoever wins the World Series is the best team there is," Fielder said as he sat in his chair in front of his locker. "That's just the way it is. You win the World Series, you're just the best team." He paused, and added, "At least for those seven games."
Ah, there's the rub. I asked what value that held if it didn't reflect the, say, 180 games that came before.
"Nah, it doesn't matter," Fielder countered. "You win the World Series, you're the best team in baseball. That's why it's the World Series. I think every team, that's the goal, to win the World Series. That's what you play for. Nobody wants to play to just be okay, or just be mediocre. Everybody wants to win the World Series. Yeah, that's definitely the goal."
Or as Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander put it, "I think it's fair. Championships are what you play for. You don't play to get into the playoffs. You play for championships."
So: sustained excellence is largely irrelevant, or at least subservient, to winning four games in October. All the focus must then be on treating the playoffs differently in some way, right?
"Nah, there's nothing," Fielder said. "I think when you try to make the playoffs different than any other regular season game -- obviously, it's much more intense, but still, it's a baseball game, so you gotta prepare for it as you would any game."
I could tell Verlander had given this idea a lot of thought, and with good reason: Verlander is the only member of the Tigers who played a meaningful role in both the 2006 and 2012 World Series debacles.
"It seems like both times I've gone, we had a long break before we got to the World Series, and we faced teams that played in seven games, and they were hot, and we weren't," Verlander said, dribbling a soccer ball at his feet while we talked. "And it just didn't happen. It wasn't our turn."
It's worth keeping this in mind: arguably, the Tigers suffered due to a layoff that they themselves created by winning the ALCS too quickly. Exactly how to do you prepare for that?
"I don't know how to solve that problem," Verlander said, sounding somewhat resigned. "In '06, we had practices, didn't work. Last year, we played intrasquad games, didn't work.
"I just don't know if there's anything you can do to prepare for a long break like that. You go the whole season, and the most you have off is one or two days. And then you have a week off -- you lose something in that time, not playing the game. This is a very unique game. We're probably the only sport that's out there where time off can actually hurt you. In football, guys need the rest. In basketball, you can replicate shooting a basketball, game-like situations. Baseball, you can't recreate it."
So does Verlander have a different plan this time around?
"Nope," he said, smiling ruefully. "Just see what happens. Not like you can do anything more, or anything less. Play your ass off, give a hundred percent."
Ultimately, Leyland too sounded like someone who understood how random a championship can be --after all his success in this game with the Pirates and Tigers, he has won his only World Series in 1997 with the Marlins,.
"Well, I think it's foolish for people, for fans of any team to say World Series or bust," Leyland concluded.
Or as Fielder put it, philosophically, "We had a great year last year, just didn't win the World Series. I mean, somebody's gotta lose the World Series. Sometimes it's you."