Tigers' future success percolates in Erie, Pennsylvania
Erie, Pa. — Stages are set up and the main streets in the downtown area are blocked.
A celebration is brewing.
The Erie SeaWolves, the Detroit Tigers’ affiliate in the minor leagues, are in first place in the Eastern League at the Double-A level, but the preparations aren’t for a championship parade.
It’s for Celebrate Erie, an annual downtown festival.
The other big event in town is a concert by Grammy-winning country singer Chris Stapleton. Somewhere further down the local list of attractions are Matt Manning, Casey Mize, Alex Faedo and Tarik Skubal.
The quartet forms the backbone of the SeaWolves pitching staff and has Erie atop the Eastern League with a 41-16 record, with just 13 games remaining and a three-game lead over the Bowie Baysox heading into Monday's game. Those names might not be as familiar to the locals, but Tigers fans recognize them — maybe more than they know some of the lesser-known players on Detroit’s roster.
As the Tigers languish with the worst record in Major League Baseball, the SeaWolves are providing some future promise, with a glimpse of what baseball could look like in Detroit if the prospects continue their progression over the next couple of years.
“I am very excited. Here in Erie is where we’re having some success. There are a lot of guys here who are playing really well right now and it looks like they’re going to go into the playoffs,” said Tigers Hall of Fame shortstop Alan Trammell, special adviser to general manager Al Avila. “They’re not that far away (from getting to the majors).”
Even in the Tigers’ doldrums, with a league-worst 17 wins at Comerica Park this season, they are exercising patience in grooming their young prospects, not looking to boost them to Triple-A Toledo and then to Detroit too quickly.
In dealing with pitchers, taking on too much too fast can lead to their undoing. With Manning, Faedo and Mize, respectively — the Tigers’ first-round picks from 2016-18 — there’s plenty of optimism about what the next couple of years can foretell about their careers, but there’s also no rush to get them to Detroit before they’re ready.
“The process is just starting. Unfortunately, the players today have it harder because of the scrutiny with the attention and everything is magnified. The whole organization is being scrutinized and understandably that’s the way it is,” said Trammell, who was visiting Erie and working with the SeaWolves last week.
“We have to weather it and stick to the plan. Everybody wants everything to happen immediately. Baseball is probably the hardest game to have success as quickly as some other sports. (The Tigers) aren’t doing well and a young kid has a great chance, and they’re just supposed to take off.
“That’s not to say that a lot of these young kids won’t play and be good major league players. That’s weathering the storm and letting them develop at their own speed. As much as we all want it to happen, it doesn’t happen that way.”
A certain chemistry
After their win on Thursday — a 1-0 victory over East Division-leading Reading — the postgame atmosphere in the clubhouse at UPMC Park was festive. Players danced around and laughed, relishing in their fourth straight win, with music blaring over the speakers, just barely drowning out the boom of the Singleton concert, which was at the adjacent Erie Insurance Arena.
“You can hear it right now — it’s just fun,” Mize said. “Winning is contagious and fun and we have a great group of guys who are a lot of fun. I enjoy coming to field every day and expecting to win; luckily, we’ve been doing it a lot.
“It’s been awesome and hopefully we can continue to do it into the postseason.”
In the minor leagues, establishing team chemistry is more difficult because players generally are called up or sent down to other levels on a regular basis. With the SeaWolves, the roster has remained mostly the same throughout the season.
“It’s really exciting. You can just see how these guys treat each other and how much fun they have. It’s almost like a college environment,” SeaWolves manager Mike Rabelo said. “I’ve been very fortunate to be with most of these guys since they got drafted. It’s really exciting because they’re all friends. You don’t really see that in pro ball and it’s just a fun environment.
“It’s just an atmosphere; they’re all sarcastic and pick on each other and talk trash. I’m right in front and center picking on everybody because you have to be able to laugh at yourself.”
One of the vocal leaders in the clubhouse is Cam Gibson, 25, as affable and outgoing as his father, Kirk, a Tigers luminary. Cam wasn’t too far detached from a pregame congregation at a table fit for eight, but at least two or three more squeezed in, with none looking uncomfortable or inconvenienced.
Even among a group of players with individual goals of getting to the majors, there’s a camaraderie and chemistry that belies the inherent competition.
“It’s a chemistry deal where everyone has bought into the same thing and enjoying their time. The guy next to me has my back, as well as I have his back. It’s a team-bonding thing where you want to do your job and win for the guy next to you,” Cam said. “We don’t really shun anybody. Once you’re brought in, you’re in. We’re going to mess with you and yell at you like we yell at anybody — and it’s going to be a fun atmosphere.
“The first thing Rabelo says when a new guy comes in: ‘Hey, we win here. This is a good locker room and let’s keep it that way.’”
In his last outing, Manning, only 21, was dominant, giving up just a leadoff double before retiring the next 15 batters. The bullpen held on and Manning earned his 11th win, second in the Eastern League.
“We don’t take it too seriously and we’re not focusing on the stressful stuff. We’re a bunch of guys enjoying time together down in the minor leagues,” Manning said. “This is where it’s supposed to be fun and we’re enjoying ourselves.
“We take it day-by-day. We’re trying to go out there and win.
Even casual baseball fans in Erie have taken notice, boosting the attendance to almost 5,000 on some days, especially when the featured pitchers are starting. As with most minor league teams, the promotions help, but winning doesn’t hurt, either, with Thursday being Bark in the Park Night, bringing dozens of all breeds to UPMC Park.
“Dogs sway people,” said Daniel Getce, 48, who drove almost an hour from Ashtabula, Ohio, with his family for the special promotion.
His wife, Angela, and daughter, Makenna, join him for three to five games each season and they enjoy the “home-town feel” and atmosphere of the smaller minor league parks, including the Lake County Captains, the Single-A affiliate for Cleveland.
Winning also is bringing back longtime fans such as Dan Meeder and Bart Beeman, who go back to the eras of Justin Verlander, Curtis Granderson and Alex Avila during their stops at Erie on the way to the Tigers.
Beeman, 57, said he started to watch more closely when Mize threw a no-hitter early in the season. With the emergence of Skubal and others — and the SeaWolves’ ascent to first place, there might be a playoff run.
And maybe they’ll have to block the streets again for a bigger celebration.