Mike Maroth: Ten Years On From A 21-Loss Season

I once threw a one hitter in the semifinals of Northern Minnesota's biggest Little League All-Star tournament. In the words of Dizzy Dean, “It ain't braggin' if it's true.” That same summer, a 24 year old left hander out of the University of Central Florida took the mound for his first big league start for the Detroit Tigers. It was against Randy Johnson and the defending World Series Champions Arizona Diamondbacks.

The Tigers rookie collected his first major league hit in his first at bat since high school on his way to victory. In that night, he was undefeated for his career and against the Hall of Fame.

It seems that we both hit our peaks that summer on the diamond. Funny how that happens to cousins. Mike Maroth went on to lose 21 games the following season and I went on to bean my friend's mom in a parents-kids game. At that point I decided I should focus on the grass pitch instead of the thrown one, which is a reference to soccer and not drugs although recent developments suggest that futbol is the bath salts of the sports world.

At any rate, I was on top of my class as a 12-year old. In addition to my 8 strikeout gem in the semifinals my team took a commanding 10-0 lead in the championship on the back of my four extra base hits. Of course, we went on to lose that game 12-11 in 7 innings but that's besides the point.

I was good at baseball, and my cousin was in the Major Leagues. I waltzed into seventh grade with a boastful tidbit to hold over anybody who didn't want to hear. My flesh and blood, or at least my grandmother's great nephew (still counts right?), had reached stardom. In his rookie year, Mike posted a 6-10 record with a respectable 4.48 era. Nothing about his high 80's fastball or collection of off-speed pitches shouted “Cy Young in the making,” but he looked like a serviceable starter for a franchise in desperate need of some stability.

And I had a new favorite player. The boasting itself didn't work out all that well. While my friends and some teachers thought it was cool, I did get dumped three times that school year. Apparently 13-year old girls don't give a damn about crafty lefties.

No matter. As Spring Training 2003 came to a close, a harbinger of good fortune crossed the Great Lakes. Me, at the far Western tip, was there to welcome it. Mike Maroth would start opening day for the Tigers.

If only the optimism of a Florida March could withstand the dreary landscape of an Upper Midwest Spring. Mike lost his first start. In fact, he lost his first ten decisions. The baseball gods were punishing me like their Greek ancestors of myth. A young kid obsessed with sports, bragging of his cousin's exploits was forced to watch said cousin gain infamy every fifth day on Sportscenter.

The laughter towards Mike soon became pity. The announcers begged for mercy from his Tigers teammates, who by any measure were historically worse than their number one starter. Detroit would set an American League record for losses in a season with 119. The living members of the 1916 Philadelphia A's, whose record for futility the Tigers admonished, celebrated accordingly.

In his lone complete game of the season, Mike nursed a one run lead into the ninth inning. With one out and the bases loaded, the Kansas City batter hit a sharp groundball to first, a sure double play. The first basemen booted the grounder before throwing the ball into the left field bleachers. Two runners came around to score.

It became typical of his season. Although his ERA eventually settled at a rather pedestrian 5.73, it seemed that bad luck and lackluster play from his sordid teammates marred his every start.

As the losses racked up opposing players felt the need to defend Mike. Alex Rodriguez, my favorite player in my younger and more naïve days, which unlike A-Rod were before I turned 25, admitted that Maroth “had good stuff” to USA Today. Looking back on that quote now, I realize that Rodriguez might have had a different definition of “stuff” but 13-year old me took the endorsement to heart. The mere fact that A-Rod knew of someone's existence, who knew of my existence, made my year.

And so we soldiered on through the summer, Mike and I. I was there in the Metrodome to watch Alex Sanchez of later PED fame hit a home run in one of my cousin's 9 wins. In Algebra I that fall, Mr. Churchill, bless his heart, had the entire class figure out the percentage of Tigers wins that Mike earned. The answer is twenty-one percent which is equivalent to a pitcher winning 21 games for a 100 win team. Not too bad. Of course, that's not the narrative we remember. Mike, for better or worse, (it's worse) became the face of that ignominious Tigers club.

But why stop there as so many have? Baseball remembers its losers like no other sport. To this day, very few people could recall Fred Merkle's career batting average, but many know that he once made a boner. Mickey Owen dropped a third strike that would have won game four of the World Series for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1941. Ralph Branca surrendered a walk off, pennant winning home run to Bobby Thomson in 1951. How many know that Branca was the youngest pitcher to ever start game one of the World Series when he took the mound in 1947?

It's true that Mike Maroth will never live down his 2003 season the same way the aforementioned players remain tied to their moments of tragedy. But he did compile 11 and 14 wins respectively the following two seasons as the Tigers began the march to complacency. He even threw a one-hit shutout at old Yankees Stadium in 2004 (besting A-Rod throughout).

Ten years on from his infamous low, I've reflected on Mike's career often. He has become “that guy,” which all of us strive to avoid. Nevertheless, he is remembered. Mike's success comes not in his 9 wins in 2003, nor in his 25 in the next two years, but in his shear perseverance in taking the hill for all 33 starts a decade ago. That's something any family could be proud of.

Where is he now? He is a pitching coach in the Tigers minor league system. Perhaps that says it all.

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