DETROIT -- It’s been more than two months since former Detroit Tigers reliever Joba Chamberlain was designated for assignment, but making his first visit back to Comerica Park after parting ways with the team has offered a stark reminder about just how quickly things have changed for his former club.
After four straight American League Central Division titles, the Tigers are now poised to miss the postseason for the first time in five years. Chamberlain can’t believe it.
“I blinked, and the next thing you know I looked and I was like, ‘What the hell happened? Ya know?'” Chamberlain said before Saturday’s game. “I’m probably not the only person that said that. It’s just they’re just so dangerous in so many ways, and it’s crazy.”
Chamberlain, who was signed by the Kansas City Royals in August, points out what has confounded many in a bizarre, disappointing season in Detroit -- the team’s offensive prowess, ace Justin Verlander's promising return from injury, and a stable of sure-handed veterans to steady the ship. It doesn’t add up that the club is doing so poorly.
“You just see the talent that they have, obviously [Verlander] is throwing the ball great and at any time they can beat you in a lot of ways -- with speed, with power, defensively, obviously [second baseman Ian Kinsler] made great plays last night, so it’s not like one thing where you’re like, 'What? How? Where? What are we doing?' I can only imagine how frustrating it is,” Chamberlain said. “But like I said, it doesn’t suck being in first over here.”
How does Chamberlain explain Detroit's fall?
“I mean that’s baseball, though. Sometimes when it’s going, it’s going. When it’s not, it’s not. It’s a game of streaks and a game of limiting damage in all aspects of wins, losses, runs and whatever capacity you try to,” Chamberlain said. “It’s crazy to see from the time I left they were only like two back and now ...”
And now the Tigers are sitting 10 games below .500 at 68-78 and in next-to-last place in the AL standings. Even before Chamberlain was designated for assignment, the season had not been smooth, but he never got the sense that the club was headed for the sort of free fall that was to come.
“Not at all -- I think it was the exact opposite,” Chamberlain explained.
Victor Martinez was struggling, but the team was confident he’d round back into form. J.D. Martinez was poised to follow up on a breakout year with another solid offensive season. Miguel Cabrera, well, he’s not even human when it comes to hitting, Chamberlain said. There was a bevvy of reasons to think the team was going to rebound.
“You just think it can only get better,” he said.
Instead, things have gotten much, much worse. The club is no longer playing meaningful baseball. There is an understandable level of frustration, not just for players and management, but for fans as well. The latter group has not been shy about expressing themselves, either, and it has rubbed some Tigers the wrong way.
Martinez, infielder Nick Castellanos and Verlander all have spoken out about fans booing recently, most recently Friday night when Verlander was pulled from the game with one out remaining in the ninth.
“I think Ver put it great last night,” Chamberlain said. “There are certain times where we get it, but there are also certain times in a game where, ‘What are you doing right here?’ We’re human beings. At the end of the day, I don’t care how much you’re focused, you’re hearing these things.”
Playing for the New York Yankees as a young pitcher, Chamberlain was forced to develop a thick skin, but he understands the pushback from the players’ perspective.
“People forget we’re human beings,” Chamberlain said. “We feel just how you feel. I think some people forget that. I understand we get paid a lot of money, but we get paid a lot of money because we can do something that not many people can do. But at the end of the day when you’re booing or saying this, that or the other thing, our family may be in the stands. We hear that. And our family hears that more so than we ever do.”
As far as last season’s boos, when the Tigers were not exactly welcomed back upon returning to Comerica Park after falling behind the Baltimore Orioles 2-0 in the ALDS, Chamberlain has moved past that.
“It’s one of those things where you move on. Obviously we didn’t play well. We got our ass beat. What are you gonna do? Figure out what you can do better and move on,” Chamberlain said. “You’ve got to have short-term memory to an extent. Obviously, look at what you can do better, but if you’re more focused on being booed than getting better, I just think your focus is in the wrong spot.”
Chamberlain said he doesn’t think anyone in the Tigers’ clubhouse is still too hung up on that, despite recent headlines about the situation:
“I didn’t get a sense that it lingered in the capacity that it sounds like it has.”