The first line of Mike Maroth's biography will likely mention that he lost 21 games for the Detroit Tigers in 2003. He's the last pitcher to lose 20 games or more in a season. And when Maroth reached that ugly number, no pitcher had achieved that feat in 23 years.
Nowadays, the Tigers are a perennial contender in the American League. They've competed for the AL Central title and a playoff spot for the last five seasons. (Okay, Detroit finished last in 2008, but the team began that season with World Series expectations.) Even casual fans would consider the Tigers a good team these days.
But they were a bad team leading up to 2006. A really bad team. In 2002, Maroth's first season with the Tigers, the team lost 106 games. Over the next three seasons, from 2003-05, Detroit lost 300 more games. Maroth lost 58 games during that four-year span.
The cycle in sports usually runs from failure to success. For any team that begins winning, there was typically a whole lot of losing that came before it. But that's how successful teams are often built. Players and coaches learn from their mistakes. They gain experience. They become better at their craft by working at it more. Eventually, all those losses can become the foundation upon which a good team stands.
Fans know this, too. It's why players who were on the losing teams, but stuck around to enjoy the winning often receive even more love and respect than those who provided that final push into championship contention.
Brandon Inge's popularity among Tigers fans might baffle some, because his numbers don't always warrant the adulation. But some of those supporters remember that Inge was here when the Tigers were terrible. Nate Robertson was another beneficiary of those memories.
And when the Tigers surprisingly became a contender in 2006, fans remembered the player who perhaps embodied the previous suffering more than any other. Maroth's 2003 season seemed like a sacrifice to the baseball gods. Besides those 21 losses, Maroth allowed more earned runs (123) and home runs (34) than any other pitcher that season.
Those numbers obscure the fact, however, that Maroth was still a good enough pitcher for Alan Trammell to keep sending out there every fifth day. (I suppose a more cynical way of looking at it would be to say that the Tigers didn't have anyone better, either. This was a pitching staff with Nate Cornejo, Matt Roney, Adam Bernero and a rookie Jeremy Bonderman.) He still gave the Tigers their best chance to win when he was on the mound.
Maybe Trammell also knew that Maroth could handle the burden of losing game after game, that he wouldn't let a 20-loss season define him. Some pitchers might have asked to be taken out of the lineup so they wouldn't have had such a mark on their record. Some teams would've sat a pitcher down to save him the embarrassment.
The Tigers likely would've given Maroth the chance to avoid infamy. But he just kept going out there. And after losing his 20th game, Maroth won three of his final four starts. Without that, the 2003 Tigers likely would've matched, if not surpassed, the 120 losses suffered by the 1962 New York Mets.
But Maroth looked to be rewarded for his perseverance in 2006. The Tigers finished April with a surprising 16-9 record, helped by Maroth winning three of his first four starts. By mid-May, he may well have been the best pitcher in Detroit's rotation, sporting a 5-2 record and 2.45 ERA after eight starts.
Unfortunately, what looked to be a breakthrough season for Maroth fell apart in his ninth appearance. Against the Kansas City Royals, he was shelled for six runs and six hits (three of them home runs) in just 1/3 of an inning. He then went on the disabled list with a sore elbow. But the news only got worse for Maroth. He required surgery to remove bone chips from that left elbow, a development that would keep him out for the next three months. The injury essentially cost him the rest of that 2006 season.
Maroth worked hard to get back in the lineup. He supported his teammates. He talked to the media. He signed autographs for fans before the game while throwing on the side. By September, Maroth could pitch again. But he was hardly effective. In four appearances, he allowed six runs in 5 2/3 innings. When the Tigers made it to the postseason, the team had no choice but to leave him off the playoff roster.
It couldn't have been easy for Maroth to sit out while his team went on to win 95 games, make the playoffs as the AL Wild Card, and get to the World Series. Especially when he began the year so well, and looked as if he'd post the best season of his career. For all the adversity he endured, Maroth deserved to enjoy some success. That enjoyment ended up being vicarious, rather than active. But he was still a part of that team.
The Tigers tried to repeat their success in 2007, and Maroth hoped to make a meaningful contribution. (Personally, I always thought it was kind of funny that he, the soft-tossing lefty, had to pitch the next night after Verlander's no-hitter.) But though he was healthy, he couldn't pitch consistently. One good start would be followed up with two poor ones, and he struggled with his control. By mid-June, Maroth had a decent-looking 5-2 record, but a 5.06 ERA told the real story. And the Tigers felt they had enough of a starting pitching surplus to make Maroth expendable.
Maroth was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. If the Tigers were going to continue their run of success, he'd no longer be a part of it. (Was it any consolation to go to the team that beat Detroit in the 2006 World Series?) In his first start with the Cards, Maroth was outstanding, holding the Mets to one run and two hits in 7 1/3 innings. Should the Tigers really have traded this guy?
But Maroth remained inconsistent. His left elbow eventually started acting up again, taking him out of the rotation and putting him back on the DL by August. He only made six more appearances for the Cardinals, all in relief, each lasting no more than two innings. St. Louis released him after the season, and that was it for Maroth in the majors.
He tried to return over the next three years, trying out with the Royals, Toronto Blue Jays and Minnesota Twins. But Maroth's body just wasn't willing. Shoulder, knee and recurrent elbow injuries prevented him from making a major league roster again. And after pitching this winter, only to struggle with a sore elbow yet again, Maroth decided that it was finally time to call it a career.
"I gave it everything I had," the 33-year-old said from his Florida home. "I feel confident that I'm making the right decision. I'd love to keep playing, but I realize that I don't have it in me. I have no regrets. I put forth all of the effort possible to continue to play, but I believe my body just can't do it anymore.
"I've given myself every opportunity to come back. It's just to a point where it's time to move on."
Mike Maroth certainly wasn't the best pitcher on any of the teams he played for in his six seasons with the Tigers. (Although sometimes, he looked great, as when he pitched a complete-game, one-hit shutout against the New York Yankees in 2004.) But he's the kind of guy we should root for in sports. Though his contributions are becoming an increasingly distant memory in recent Tigers history, he played an important role in where the team finds itself today. Tip your cap to him, Tigers fans.