Detroit — It sits in the dugout during games and has its own perch in the clubhouse. It’s carried aloft through the postgame high-five line, and players slap it as if it’s a teammate.
“It’s a part of the team now,” Tigers reliever Shane Greene said. “We gotta get him a locker and a jersey.”
It’s just a goose, a plastic replica of the real one that crashed in Comerica Park four days ago and survived to return to the wild. It’s just a goose, right? Or is it?
Hey, the Tigers are going to ride this as long as they can, as they should, this symbol of competitive spirit and positive reinforcement. They won again Friday night, 5-2, over the Blue Jays, and are 3-0 since the Rally Goose made his frantic flight.
It’s funny, because the Tigers have played this way all season, scrapping fiercely through a major rebuild, and now they have an image to represent it, a bird that wouldn’t die. They’ve won seven of nine overall, 17 of their last 24 at home, and at 27-30, are only a game behind the record of last year’s much-glossier team.
After Greene closed out the victory, the players jumped from the dugout as Mike Fiers held up the goose, and who knows how much longer this ritual can continue. You have to dive into deep metaphysical waters to suggest it actually makes a difference, but players use all sorts of mental tricks to make it through a long season.
There’s an obvious looseness about this team, in its first season under Ron Gardenhire, its first year in a long time without heavy expectations. You see it in the smooth, strong stroke of Nick Castellanos, who’s blossoming as a hitter and a leader. You see it in the everyone-pitches-in attitude (literally) of the injury-riddled rotation and bullpen. Here was Blaine Hardy, excelling in a third consecutive spot start Friday night, lowering his ERA to 2.77.
So yeah, it’s just a darn goose that smashed into a stadium video board at the end of a rain delay in a 1-1 game against the Angels. A fan who happened to be a veterinarian, Catherine Roach, saved the bird, the Tigers immediately scored five runs, the video was played on sports shows across the country, and a rally — real or imagined — was born.
“I think it’s all just positive energy,” said Castellanos, who had three more hits, including a home run. “Do I believe that a goose landing on the field in a rain delay has been the reason all have us have been hitting the ball and pitchers have been throwing quality pitches? I have not the slightest idea. But if it makes everybody happy and in a good mood, I’m all for it.”
It’s way too early to say something mystical is happening, but it’s not too early to say something unusual is happening with these Tigers. Castellanos, more than the goose, is the symbol of it, a 26-year-old force emerging from the shadows. He’s hitting .339 (sixth in the AL) with six home runs and 30 RBIs.
He admits the pressure was immense when he arrived in the majors four years ago, and surrounded last season by stars such as Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton and others, he struggled to find his place. Now his place is in right field and No. 2 in the batting order, and he seems like a completely different person — confident and upbeat.
“I felt a lot of pressure to perform, because as soon as I got brought up, we were on a win-or-bust team,” Castellanos said. “So I felt like I was playing baseball my first two years to not mess up, rather than just go out and have fun. Now I’m starting to find my stride a little bit. I’m just really enjoying the time with my teammates, and trying to get them enjoying themselves as much as possible.”
'Ride those waves'
And that’s the theory (if not the science) behind the Rally Goose. Gardenhire chuckles about it, and basically chalks it up to the nature of a fun-loving team in a sport famous for superstition.
The goose decoy showed up the morning after the 6-1 victory over the Angels — courtesy of catcher James McCann — and now sits high atop McCann’s locker. After the latest victory, the mood in the clubhouse was light again, as a smiling Cabrera talked about his return to the lineup, and as the closer talked about a team looking to ride the feel-good vibe.
“If we can get a couple guys hot and ride those waves, who knows what can happen,” Greene said. “It’s almost something that distracts your mind. People start talking about the rally goose instead of talking about why they struck out their last at bat.”
Greene is another veteran whose presence and voice have become more pronounced as big-name players departed. He sent a message from the bullpen to the dugout in the eighth inning Friday night saying he’d enter the game early if needed, despite a heavy workload.
Castellanos has been ringing the redemption bell since spring training, saying players were doubly motivated by predictions the team would be awful. And then, as soon as the season began, he went to work proving people wrong. He’s had 23 multi-hit games, third most in the majors.
“I think he’s very confident in his own ability now,” Gardenhire said. “He had people around him, stars and everything, so he kind of fell in behind them. But I think right now he believes he’s one of the stars, and he’s really showing it. I don’t think he has any fear whatsoever about making an out. And when you get to that point in your career, I think that’s when you take off.”
It’s about talent and hard work and confidence, as it generally is in sports. It’s about handling pressure, however possible. You don’t necessarily need a goose to stay loose, but the Tigers will embrace it as long as it lasts.