Detroit Tigers: Lack of Team Leader a Concern?

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Detroit Tigers: Lack of Team Leader a Concern?

The voice would sometimes be hushed, even barely over a whisper. But there was no discounting its sincerity, or its candor.

The slew of microphones would be jabbed into the face of the speaker, and even inches away from his mouth, the words were difficult to pick up.

They were the E.F. Hutton of athletes in Detroit. You remember the commercials.

“When E.F. Hutton talks…people listen,” was the tag line, after the scene played out of a person in a crowded place explaining what the broker E.F. Hutton had to say about a particular issue. Everyone around would stop, dead in their tracks, to hear what E.F. Hutton had to say.

Such it was with Isiah Thomas of the Pistons and Steve Yzerman of the Red Wings.

These were the spokespersons for their respective teams, without question. They were both the captains—also without question. No sound bite was truly representative of the pulse of the team unless it came from Thomas, the brilliant point guard, or Yzerman, the gifted center man. Everyone else’s words were supportive; Thomas and Yzerman’s were the lead.

Neither was loud. In fact, both spoke very softly as a rule. But the words were measured, carefully thought out. The player would sometimes pause and the media, so wise to the speaker’s ways, didn’t dare tread on the temporary silence.

Isiah Thomas, holding court as usual

Sometimes the expressions on the faces would be pensive, even funereal. Other times, there would be a smirk and an implied wink. In Thomas’ case, there was often a wide grin, followed by hearty laughter. The media laughed with him.

Yzerman, for his part, had a dry sense of humor—self-effacing at times. Sometimes the joke would go above the media’s heads.

If you wanted to know the real deal about the Pistons and the Red Wings, you listened to what Isiah Thomas and Steve Yzerman had to say.

The peaks of their careers in Detroit didn’t overlap, really. Thomas won championships in 1989 and 1990—some seven years before Yzerman first raised the Stanley Cup for the Red Wings. Thomas had been retired for over three years by that time.

But their playing time in Detroit certainly ran concurrent from 1983 (when Yzerman was drafted and debuted as an 18-year-old) until Thomas’s 1994 retirement. For 11 years, the two functioned at the same time as their team’s go-to guys for the press.

Playoff disappointments haunted both athletes. Thomas made “the pass” in 1987 that helped the Boston Celtics overcome the Pistons in the conference finals. He experienced a seven-game, gut-wrenching loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals in 1988.

Yzerman had to explain away the dreadful first-round loss to the three-year-old San Jose Sharks in 1994, and the stunning four-game sweep at the hands of the New Jersey Devils in the 1995 Cup Finals.

Neither man hid from the cameras and the microphones and audio recorders. There were no long showers, no ducking out the back exit. Both spoke to the media like men, answering all the questions, even when their hearts were broken.

Isiah Thomas and Steve Yzerman—two of the most introspective, honest and forthright men to wear Detroit sports colors. Ever.

Octavio Dotel pitches for today’s Detroit Tigers. He’s a baseball vagabond; the Tigers are his 13th team, a major league record. His whole career has been lived out of a suitcase. Needless to say, he’s been around a lot of clubhouses, played with a lot of teammates, been guided by a lot of managers. He won a World Series with the 2011 Cardinals.

Dotel made a ripple out of spring training last week when he told Yahoo! Sports that he didn’t think Tigers superstar Miguel Cabrera was a leader.

Apparently, Dotel had suggested team meetings after some playoff losses last season and was rebuffed by Cabrera.

“You have to step up and say something," Dotel told Yahoo!. "Miggy's more about his game. I don't see him as a leader. He didn’t give me that support. So I didn’t try no more.”

I’ve never been a believer in team meetings, especially in baseball. Seems whenever a team has one—usually to break a losing streak—it gets its rear end kicked all over the field right after.

Dotel backed off from the comments and apologized to Cabrera.

But the value of team meetings aside, Dotel’s comments about Cabrera ring true, but with a caveat.

Where Isiah Thomas and Steve Yzerman were the unquestioned leaders of their teams, the Tigers don’t really have that person—that designee to provide the State of the Tigers on a daily basis.

It’s also unfair to presume that person would be Cabrera.

He’s the Tigers best everyday player, by far—but that doesn’t mean he has to be the spokesperson.

There’s the language barrier for one. That doesn’t help.

Second, Cabrera just isn’t that kind of guy. His leadership is done between the white lines. We don’t listen to what Cabrera says—we listen to what he does.

It’s why I have been, at times, among Cabrera’s harshest critics.

In recent years, I have expressed concern over the lack of production from Cabrera when the Tigers have needed it the most. I have complained that his numbers came at the wrong times—that he rarely put the Tigers on his back and carried them, as all true superstars do from time to time.

As recently as midseason of 2011 did I voice these concerns.

Not anymore.

But Dotel is also right, in a roundabout way.

The Tigers don’t have a spokesperson who’s not named Jim Leyland.

Who’s the go-to guy?

Justin Verlander? He’s a pitcher. No one who takes the field once every five days can be the spokesperson—no matter how good he is on those days.

Austin Jackson? Too young yet.

Prince Fielder? Too happy-go-lucky.

Torii Hunter? Not here long enough.

Victor Martinez? He missed all of last season.

Alex Avila? Maybe, but not yet. As a catcher, he would be a prime candidate, but not yet.

Jhonny Peralta? Omar Infante? No and no.

This doesn’t infer that the Tigers can’t win the World Series without a spokesperson—without that go-to guy the media loves who has his finger on the pulse of the team.

But it’s clear the Tigers don’t have such a player on their roster.

Sometimes they come in handy. And sometimes they do help win championships.

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