So picture this: A team of young prospects, incredible up-and-coming pitchers, mixed with some veterans at the top of their game. Then throw in a few key trade acquisitions in the middle of the season. After a sweep to win the pennant, the team is headed to the World Series.
Sounds like this year’s Mets, right? But I could just as easily be talking about my 2006 Detroit Tigers. We had the young arms in Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya, plus the veterans like Ivan Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez and Placido Polanco. Back then, I was a 25-year-old prospect on his first playoff run. Now, nearly a decade later, I’m finally back.
Only now I’m one of those old vets.
If I learned one thing from that 2006 Tigers team, it’s to never take anything for granted. That year, everything clicked for us. At one point, we had the best record in baseball — like 20 games over .500 or something crazy like that.
In the postseason, we beat the Yankees in the first round, then went on to sweep Oakland. And just like that, we were headed to the World Series against the Cardinals. We had swept them in a three-game interleague series during the regular season, so the mindset was, We know them. We should be able to take care of them the second time around.
We lost in five games.
Losing a World Series is tough, to say the least. I saw guys getting emotional. But to be honest, the understanding was, Hey, we didn’t finish it off the way we wanted to, but we’ll get a chance to do it next year. We’ll be back.
If I learned one thing from that 2006 Tigers team, it’s to never take anything for granted.
I had just finished my first full season in the majors and got to go the World Series. I thought, I’m gonna get the chance to do this pretty often.
But baseball doesn’t work like that. We missed the playoffs in 2007.
Okay. No problem. Next year, right?
Then in 2008, we got Miguel Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, Dontrelle Willis and Todd Jones at the start of the season. You look at the team that we had in 2006, and now we add these big names? So we’re just destined to get back. People nicknamed us the new Murderer’s’ Row — telling us we’re gonna break all these records and do awesome stuff.
I remember Jim Leyland saying in spring training, “Don’t believe the hype. Don’t get caught up in all that stuff.”
Sure enough, we drastically underperformed. We finished last place in the American League Central. Every year it was, Next year, man. Next year.
So baseball being baseball, I wouldn’t get a chance to get back to the World Series until nine years later.
That was probably one of the things that I wasn’t aware of at the time. As a fan growing up, I would see teams year after year constantly make it, such as the Braves or the Yankees. But those days are over. Teams are changing. There’s not that one dominant team anymore. Everyone has a chance to be good. It’s just a matter of time once those prospects — like I once was — get to the Major Leagues. Then you add a free-agent acquisition, or make a trade, something like that, and all of a sudden, the team has done a complete 180 in just a year or two.
As a fan growing up, I would see teams year after year constantly make it, such as the Braves or the Yankees. But those days are over.
And you’re starting to see that happen with other organizations. Just look at the last two years with the Royals, Pirates, Cubs and now the Mets.
It’s been a long, crazy road to get to this point.
When I first arrived in New York in 2010, it was with the Yankees. As the trade rumors were popping up, I never thought too much about it. You always hear trade rumors, but none ever went through for me.
Then one day, I’m shopping for furniture for the house I bought just a year before, I get in my car and look at my phone and I have 50 text messages.
It was real. I got traded.
I thought I was going to be a Tiger for the rest of my career. Then, Boom, I get traded. Just like that. A mixture of emotions pop into your head. A combination of nerves. What happened? Why? What’s going on? What happens next?
I knew a few guys who played for the Yankees, so I reached out to them right away. What should I expect? Am I going to have to get a personal chef in New York? Can I leave my house or is everyone going to be stalking me and wanting to take photos?
All that went through my head that offseason. Then, things finally started to calm down and I realized it was still baseball.
When I got to free agency in 2013, it was a big moment for me. Honestly, when I got drafted in 2002, I thought I would maybe play for two or three years until I got released, then I’d go put my college degree to work. And the next thing you know, it’s 2013 and I’m still playing. They’re still letting me play! And now I get a chance to pick where I want to go, to some extent.
I talked to a lot of teams. The Mets, in the end, continued to push harder and harder. A lot of the things they were talking about felt genuine, and I felt like I was able to mix in right away with those guys. I played against David Wright in the minor leagues and also with him in the World Baseball Classic. Once things finally started to take shape, I got a chance to realize, I’ve been in New York, I understand New York. I want to be a Met.
And sure enough, this thing worked out.
When I first got here, the front office told me about the young guys coming up — all these arms like Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, Steven Matz, Matt Harvey. As a vet, you’re always kind of skeptical of young guys. A lot never pan out. It’s one thing to hear about them, but it’s another thing to see it.
But I think Terry Collins has been the biggest surprise. I didn’t realize he had coached underneath Jim Leyland, who was my manager in Detroit. The things that Terry Collins talks about, the way he kind of handles things, it’s like a mirror of what Jim Leyland was doing in Detroit.
During the season, even when we were performing well, everybody said, “Well, the Nationals are going to be better, they’re going to win it all.”
Then, once we secured a playoff spot, everybody looked at us and said, “Well, you guys didn’t clinch home field. Now you gotta go to L.A., you have to face Kershaw and Greinke. You guys have no shot.”
But the 25 guys in that clubhouse continued to believe.
Then we go up against the Cubs, and now they’re the favorite to win the World Series. Arrieta looks unbeatable, they’re hitting a bunch of home runs.
More doubt from the outside: “There’s no chance you guys can do it.”
I’m sure it’s going to be no different going into the last and final round. Kansas City is returning to the World Series for the second straight year. They pitch well. They hit well. They’ve got all the fundamentals. A lot of people will probably pick against us.
But it’s a position we like to be in. We just gotta go ahead and keep doing it our way.
That includes playing pranks on the other guys.
During the Cubs series, Kevin Plawecki and Jacob deGrom had a battle against each other where each guy’s clothes ended up being drastically modified. DeGrom’s sleeves were cut off and Plawecki’s pant legs were cut off, so he ended up with some Daisy Duke shorts. And this is all going on with an opportunity to go to the World Series on the line. But these are the things we’ve been doing all season long. There’s no reason to stop.
When we were on the field celebrating winning the NLCS, that’s when it finally hit me: After all this time, I did it. I finally got back. You want to go crazy, but then you realize you have to work the next day. You know what Terry Collins said to us before we popped the champagne? We were all standing around expecting something really profound, something to fire us up.
… And he told us what time our workout was the next day.
That’s straight Jim Leyland.