OK, let's get it over with right away: last season Mike Maroth became the
first pitcher in 23 years to lose 20 games in a season. It's not like he'll ever get the chance to forget it, "It will always
stick with me," said Maroth, who finished the 2003 season with a 9-21 record. "Every time you read something about me now
they always stick that '20 losses' in there. I feel that I am going to have a long career, and things aren't always going
to be like that...it was just the circumstances -- how young we were as a team -- it wasn't just the way I pitched all year."
To be fair, Maroth did pitch for the Detroit Tigers in 2003, who finished
the season with a historically miserable 43-119 record. He was basically the only pitcher on the team that could be counted
on to take the mound every fifth day and put together anything close to a major league caliber effort. Heck, you could make
the case that he was the squad's MVP.
"(When a team loses 119 games) there's a good chance (someone will lose
20)," the 27-year-old said of his plight. "There are a lot of losses out there and pitchers are the ones that get the records
next to their names and the more times you go out there, the more times you get a loss next to your name with a team like
Today, a year removed from the infamous season, the Florida native focuses
on the positive aspects of the experience, "I learned how to deal with adversity starting with day one -- pitching Opening
Day and losing a tough one -- going 0-9 right away and obviously continuing (to lose games) throughout the year and dealing
with the 20 losses," he explained. "The whole year was a battle and I had to deal with adversity. Anytime you go through struggles
like that and you're able to make it through, it's only going to make you stronger."
Tigers pitching coach Bob Cluck says it was that kind of outlook that allowed
Maroth to handle the trying times. "I just tried to keep him positive (last season), but that isn't much of a job because
he is a very positive person," Cluck commented. "He's very strong, he's very positive, and he's very much a team guy. He goes
out every night and gives us all that he's got and that's all we can ask for."
During the past off-season, the Tigers gave Maroth several more reasons
to be optimistic by signing All Stars Ivan Rodriguez and Carlos Guillen, among others. "That just totally eliminated the thoughts
of last year -- it's a totally different team," Maroth said of the Detroits' acquisitions. "The guys we picked up are quality,
veteran players -- guys that are going to be able to come in and get the job done right away and they've done that. That's
the difference this year. The young guys that are still here have a year of experience under their belt and are playing better.
We still have a long way to go, but I feel we're better than our record shows."
As a result, Maroth set lofty goals for the 2004 version of the Tigers,
"As far as team goals, I've felt ever since Spring Training started that we had a chance to win this division," the left-hander
said. "I think we are better than our record reflects and that if we play a little bit more consistently, we still have a
chance at it."
Early on it looked as if Maroth could be onto something; the Tigers spent
much of April in first place and he began the season 5-1. By the All Star break however, the Tigers were 42-45 and Maroth's
record stood at 5-7. While those numbers represent dramatic turnarounds for both the team and the pitcher, they hardly
inspire images of greatness.
"I am having quite a bit of fun, but I have kind of been going through
a tough time," Maroth said just prior to the All Star break. "But as far as what I had to deal with last year, I am pitching
with a lot more confidence and I am having a lot more fun because every time I go out there, I feel like a have a chance to
win the game. I really didn't feel that way last year, when you go out there and lose over and over, it's real hard to keep
that mind frame."
According to Maroth the good times began at the end of the 2003 season,
when a late flurry of victories helped Detroit from setting the all time, single season record for losses. "Our whole team
struggled just trying to go out there each day and win games," the good-natured hurler explained. "For us to put together
that little run at the end to avoid the record was nice. It was a good way to end the year on a positive note. We really had
a lot of fun that last week which was good."
As Maroth approached his 20th loss last season, it prompted yet another
appearance from Brian Kingman, the last man to lose 20 games in a season (8-20 in 1980). Kingman, who used the mark as a twisted
badge of honor, liked to keep his name in the news. In the past 23 years, whenever a pitcher approached the dubious mark,
you could count on him to show up with silly items such as voodoo dolls hoping to "jinx" the pitcher into winning. Last year
however, his "luck" ran out.
Does Maroth see himself exhibiting similar behavior in the future? "No,
never," he said emphatically. "(20 losses in a season) is something that I will never be able to get rid of. I'll never be
proud of it, it's something that I didn't want to accomplish, of course. I've got to move forward; it's not something that
I am going to go out there and try to get recognition for."
Despite being branded with the scarlet letter of a 20 loss season, Maroth
has earned the respect and admiration of his pitching coach. "He's a very good major league pitcher," Cluck commented. "I
don't think he's headed for the Hall of Fame, but I think he can be a very productive pitcher for the next ten years and be
a winner and be a guy that anyone would be proud to have on their team."
-David Zingler, August 2004