McCosky: Tigers malaise goes far deeper than Rondon incident

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Pitcher Bruce Rondon of the Detroit Tigers and Mike Moustakas of the Kansas City Royals stare down each other after Moustakas was hit by a pitch from Rondon, clearing the benches in the ninth inning Wednesday at Comerica Park.

Detroit — You want to scapegoat Bruce Rondon? You want to pull his major league player’s card and banish him back to the bushes? 

Go ahead. It’s likely to happen anyway. He’s used up all his chances in Detroit. 

But that’s not going to change anything. Rondon is but a minor symptom of what ails this team.  

The reaction of his teammates told you everything you need to know about Rondon’s actions in the ninth inning of the 16-2 loss Wednesday. Throwing at Mike Moustakas was completely uncalled for. It was an undisciplined, bush-league play and it didn’t garner but the vaguest and tepid support from his coaches and teammates. 

Frankly, it was as humiliating as the lopsided score. And Eric Hosmer’s postgame comments about it hit like a cold slap to the face.

“We just came out, played baseball, didn't show anybody up,” he said. “We scored runs and got hits and apparently, that's frowned upon here.”

The Tigers have a core of proud, veteran players, players with long track records of success, players who have a deep respect for the game and for this team. What Rondon did was an affront to most, if not all of them. 

And Hosmer’s comment stung because they could offer no rebuttal. His words were justified. And the truth of it probably embarrassed more than a few of them. 

A toxic blend

For all the decorated veterans on this team, their work ethic and professionalism still above reproach, the Tigers’ clubhouse is a bad place right now. MLB Network analyst Mark DeRosa, who played 16 seasons in the big leagues, used the word “malaise” to describe the Tigers’ situation. 

That’s exactly what it is. There is a core of solid, MLB citizens in that room. Ian Kinsler, Victor Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, Alex Avila, Justin Upton and Justin Verlander — the Tigers have a core of good veteran leadership.

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Individually, they continue to do their work. They continue to say the right things and be about the right things. They continue to grind. But collectively, it’s not resonating, not gelling. Although the same players are there — the leadership voice within the room doesn’t seem nearly as strong.

The reason for that is obvious. With the exception of Upton and Avila, all those other players have had some massive individual struggles this season. Martinez, Cabrera and Kinsler, especially, have understandably been more preoccupied with getting themselves back on track than providing pep talks and good counsel in the clubhouse.

While they are still respected players and conscientious leaders, it’s gone stale. This mix, this environment, it’s no longer working. After long and ultimately disappointing playoff runs in 2011, 2012 and 2013, then the sudden exit in 2014 and now three subsequent non-playoff years — the joy has been sucked out of the room.

There is more acceptance of inevitable defeat. You hear the comment, “that’s just baseball,” way more often than you hear, “that’s completely unacceptable.”

And try as they might, the younger players — James McCann, Nick Castellanos, Mikie Mahtook — haven’t produced consistently enough to provide the necessary revitalization to spark or take some of the pressure off the older players. 

(Though, to his credit, Michael Fulmer is trying his level best to lift the team onto his broad shoulders.)

It’s become a toxic swirl that needs to be, and will be shortly, flushed.

A function of time, age

This is not an attempt to affix blame on anyone. This mess wasn’t created by any one person. It hasn’t occurred out of any gross negligence and it isn’t being perpetrated by the misdeeds of any player, coach or manager.  

You can play the what-if and woulda-coulda-shoulda games if you want, but there’s nothing to be gained by it.

This is simply a function of time and age, and prolonged disappointment.  

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What’s happening to the Tigers now happened to the Pistons teams after 2004. It’s what happened to the Red Wings since they last made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2009. It’s what happens to most modern professional sports franchises after a long, successful run. 

Though, to be sure, the inevitable down cycle is harder to take when no championship was won in the process. 

Players age. Their performance wanes. Losses mount. Egos bruise. And the frustration and bewilderment of the older, struggling players cast a pall over the entire team, choking whatever life or energy might be infused by the younger players. 

There is little a team can do but clear the room and start afresh. That process, as gradual and painful as it will be, is underway. 

Quite possibly, Rondon’s immature stunt Wednesday will be the tinder that sparks some action here in the next few days. But it’s not like general manager Al Avila has been stubbornly holding onto a dream that’s long faded. He’s been trying to off-load players and contracts since last winter. 

The remedy, though, is not a salary dump. Avila isn’t looking for addition through subtraction. He’s looking to restock the organization’s talent pool with legitimate prospects. Let him take this down to the wire and see what he can get for the likes of Justin Wilson, Verlander, his son Alex Avila and Kinsler.

Don’t rush him to make a bad deal. This reboot, after all, will be the first official stamp in his tenure as general manager, and the first of new owner Christopher Ilitch.

The fate of this fading era of Tigers’ baseball — the Dave Dombrowski-Mike Ilitch era — is sealed. It will be titled, Close, but no cigar. 
Twitter: @cmccosky