The Detroit Tigers might just win the World Series, and who is with me on this one? Come on, friends, step up and show a little faith. That has to be how this maddening season ends. It just has to. Nothing else would make nearly as much sense.
So many things have happened to the Tigers this season, so much adversity, so many injuries and poor performances, so many of the things that can bring a club to its knees, a World Series trophy would be the perfect finishing touch.
Think about it. Just when the Tigers looked old and flawed and vulnerable, they climb back on their horses and finish the job. We'd love it. If you can't win with Justin Verlander, you go get David Price. If you can't win with Joe Nathan, you go get Joel Hanrahan and then Joakim Soria and then Jim Johnson. You keep trying relievers until you get it right. You leave no stone unturned.
Hey, Chad Qualls, come on down and join the fun.
In this swirl of crazy is one of baseball's best owners, Mike Ilitch, and one of its legendary general managers, Dave Dombrowski, and some of its biggest stars, Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer and others. And don't forget the baseball fans of a great Amercan city filling up a beautiful ballpark and giving it the kind of vibe lots of other cities would kill for.
The backdrop of this craziness is Detroit's championship window, which is closing. Torii Hunter is 39 years old, Victor Martinez is 35, Nathan is 39. Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, Verlander and others are in their 30s. Scherzer, the 2013 American League Cy Young Award winner, will be a free agent in a few weeks.
Because of these circumstances, there's something of a fanatical determination from the general manager to win this season. Or it could be that the Tigers are run by a bunch of people who are competitive as they come, not just competitive, but smart and competent and determined to write the appropriate ending.
Aren't teams like the Tigers why we love sports? At its best, sports is about people willing to put all their cards on the table and don't sweat the risks. Isn't that what Billy Beane has done in Oakland? That's why if you were to ask Dombrowski about next season, you're likely to get the blankest look in history.
After all the optimism of recent seasons, after all the expectations and hype, wouldn't it be perfect that this battered, imperfect club finally is the one that gets the Tigers to the mountaintop?
If they win, it would be a tribute to Ilitch, who has shelled out big bucks to keep the Tigers competitive. If you're a Tigers fan, you go to bed at night knowing your owner wants it every bit as much as you want it.
And there's Dombrowski, a win-now kind of guy, a swashbuckler who is unafraid to take a chance. He'll trade prospects, sometimes a boat load of them, if he thinks it gives the Tigers a chance for immediate gratification. He has that special knack for understanding how the pieces fit together. Even after constructing a series of talented teams in Montreal and winning a championship in Miami, this Tigers team could end up being Dombrowski's proudest achievement.
Okay, just between us, I have no idea if the Tigers are going to win the World Series or not. I don't even know if they're going to make the playoffs. At various times this season, I've thought the Tigers were the best baseball team on the planet. I've also thought that about the A's, Nationals, Giants and Brewers.
But on Opening Day, the Tigers were baseball's best team, or close to it. No other team had Detroit's star power or talent. Even with rookie manager Brad Ausmus taking over for Jim Leyland and his 1,769 victories, the Tigers were an easy team to fall in love with. They'd won the American League Central three straight years, and after an offseason of retooling a shaky bullpen, it was easy to see them as a finished product.
Here's the thing about that. It's the thing that's different about professional sports, the thing that people in other industries sometimes have trouble getting their minds around. Sometimes, smart decisions turn out all wrong.
That's the nature of a business in which physical health and the human component are impossible to completely measure. For instance, the Texas Rangers were a consensus postseason pick on Opening Day, which was before roughly half their most important players ended up on the disabled list. Same thing happened in Atlanta with the loss of three starting pitchers, and in New York with the Yankees losing four starters.
Detroit's woes have been less about injury and more about players who have failed to live up to expectations. The Tigers' biggest problem last year was their bullpen, and by adding Nathan, Dombrowski was getting one of baseball's proven closers, a guy who would finally end the revolving door at the back of the Detroit bullpen. He then added veteran setup man Joba Chamberlain in free agency. He figured that with Nathan and Chamberlain and with talented young Bruce Rondon, he'd turned a weakness into a strength.
Even after Rondon underwent elbow surgery, Dombrowski still figured to have Nathan's 40 saves, a nice place to build a bullpen around. Nathan had been so solid with the Rangers the last two seasons that he never guessed that 719 appearances finally would catch up with him. Nathan, 39, finally has looked 39. When he began to get hit, Dombrowski didn't have Rondon to fall back on. Thus began a revolving door. He aggressively acquired relievers -- Johnson and Soria and Hanrahan. And with none of them having worked out, he put in a waiver claim on Qualls this week and apparently is attempting to work out a trade with the Astros.
All along, Dombrowski assumed he had his rotation to fall back on. In fact, he felt so good about his pitching staff last winter that he traded one of his starters, Doug Fister, to the Nationals for a package of prospects that included young pitcher Robbie Ray. And he made a bid to balance out his lineup (and defense) last winter by trading first baseman Prince Fielder to the Rangers for second baseman Kinsler. He believed that with Cabrera in the middle of the lineup and with DH Victor Martinez fully healthy, the Tigers would still score enough runs. He was right. Only the Athletics and Angels have scored more runs in the American League.
Suddenly, though, October is a long way away. One Detroit starter, Anibal Sanchez, is possibly gone for the season and another, Verlander, is dealing with an abnormally high 4.82 ERA as he tries to adjust to the reduced velocity that comes with age. Some pitchers -- for instance, Tom Seaver and Roger Clemens -- make this transition beautifully. They learn that 91 mph can be as effective as 99 mph as long as there's an emphasis on location, movement and changing speeds. But that's a gift, too, and not every pitcher can master it.
For Verlander, who prided himself on throwing his hardest late in games, this is a completely new way to do business. He must be convinced that he still has winning stuff, which he does. There have been stretches this season when it appeared clear he was capable of adjusting to his reduced heater, and there have been other times when he seems to have lost his way. In Detroit, the talk is about whether to move him to the bullpen in October. But the Tigers can't even begin to think of that until they get there.
With Sanchez dinged up and Verlander struggling, the Tigers have been passed by the Royals and are attempting to hold off the Mariners, Angels, Yankees, etc., for one of the American League Wild Card berths.
But here's the deal: If the Tigers get to October, they're in terrific shape. Dombrowski pulled off one of the most stunning moves of the non-waiver trade deadline by getting Price from the Rays in a three-team deal. Even if Verlander continues to get lit up, he still has Price, Scherzer, and Rick Porcello.
Go ahead and survey the baseball landscape. Other than possibly the A's, who will have Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija and Sonny Gray, no other team can come close to touching Detroit's rotation. Factor in their still potent offense, and it would be a mistake to underestimate the Tigers. There has been too much good work to build the roster. Ilitch did what he was supposed to do. Dombrowski has worked relentlessly. Cabrera burns to win a championship.
Somewhere on his desk, Dombrowski might just have a copy of his original blueprint for this season. Or maybe he long ago tore it into a hundred pieces and vowed to never think or speak of it again. In the end, though, his most frustrating season might end up being his most satisfying victory. It's the only thing that makes sense.