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Tiger Balm

Sept. 01, 2003
Sept. 01, 2003

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Sept. 1, 2003

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Tiger Balm

Aspiring author Ted Geisel's first manuscript was rejected 28
times, prompting him to reflect, years later, "When you're in a
slump/You're not in for much fun./Un-Slumping yourself/Is not
easily done." (The writer, of course, escaped life's
caboose/Un-Slumping himself into Dr. Seuss.)

This is an article from the Sept. 1, 2003 issue

Van Gogh died having sold as many paintings (one) as he had ears.
Kevin O'Connell became Hollywood's most famous--or least
anonymous--sound mixer after losing all 15 Oscars for which he
was nominated. And still he showed up for this year's ceremony,
at which he lost his 16th.

"It's been a really positive experience," O'Connell said after
losing his 15th. "I don't look at it as being a loser."

All of which is to tell the 2003 Detroit Tigers, who may become
the losingest team in baseball history, to hang in there.
"There's a kind of reverse immortality that accrues to players on
such teams," says Pat Toomay, who played defensive end for the
1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the only NFL team to lose all of its
games. The Tigers, who at week's end were 32-97 for a .248
winning percentage, may yet break the major league records for
most losses in a season (120, by the '62 Mets) and worst winning
percentage (.235, by the '16 Athletics) and, given their 106-loss
season in '02, have an outside shot at most losses in consecutive
seasons (231, by the '62 and '63 Mets). They've already set a
record for the worst starts in successive seasons--0-11 in '02
and 0-9 in '03--one-downing the '62 and '63 Mets, of course.

But those Mets were bad the way God is good. Their badness will
endure forever. The late Richie Ashburn, MVP of the '62 Mets, was
a Whiz Kid on the pennant-winning Phillies of 1950, with a .308
average in 15 big league seasons, and no less than Red Smith
wrote that he belonged in the Hall of Fame. And yet, Ashburn told
me 30 years after the summer of '62, "I get more mail for that
one season than I get for all my years before that."

At worst, then, these Tigers will become beloved. "It's like a
child in school who is slower than the other students," says
Felix Monserrate, who in 1995 traded a decrepit Ford van with
188,000 miles on it for Zippy Chippy, the lethargic thoroughbred
that went on to lose 97 races in a row. "You don't kick that kid
out of class. You give him more attention to see that he makes
it."

Tigers, take heart: In July, Zippy Chippy defeated Miss
Batavia--a harness horse, not a beauty contestant--in a half-mile
race at Batavia Downs.

A year earlier, after losing his 21st consecutive tennis
match--the longest streak in ATP tour history--Vince Spadea
couldn't persuade his own parents to attend his Wimbledon
opening-round match ... in which he upset Greg Rusedski.

Success has many fathers. Failure has many sons (and daughters),
and many of them are successful. "People forget," says Toomay,
"but the quarterback of our horrible Tampa team was none other
than Steve Spurrier, who went on to become the finest offensive
mind in the college game. Our [vice president of operations] that
year was Ron Wolf, who put together the championship Packers.
Defensive backs coach Wayne Fontes became the most successful
Lions head coach since Joe Schmidt--pushing it, I know--and Lee
Roy Selmon, a rookie that year, went on to the Hall of Fame."

By '76 Toomay himself had already played in two Super Bowls (with
Dallas), and he has since forged a second successful career as a
novelist. Thus, Mike Maroth, the Detroit pitcher whose surname is
a thinly anagrammatized nod to Mothra--heartbreaking loser to
Godzilla in Godzilla vs. Mothra--is almost certainly marked for
greatness. Following Maroth's 18th loss, to Texas last week,
Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez said, "I think he'll be a big
winner in the majors."

Or as the former Ted Geisel put it in Oh, the Places You'll Go!
"The magical things you can do with that ball/Will make you the
winning-est winner of all./Fame! You'll be famous as famous can
be/With the whole wide world watching you win on TV."

Until then, Maroth (6-18 at week's end) might become the first
pitcher since Oakland's Brian Kingman in 1980 to lose 20 games.
Of course, 20 losses is nothing, as Reggie Strickland (a record
248 career boxing losses) or Zippy Chippy will attest. "People
think winning is everything," says Monserrate. "But every time my
horse comes to the barn, it's like he won. He never changes.
People are not like that. Some owners and trainers, if their
horse doesn't win right away, they get rid of him. I say, Why
quit, when you can keep trying? In the end, you'll make it."

And if you don't? "When all these rationalizations fail, you can
always turn to Red Klotz," says Toomay. As coach of the
Washington Generals, Klotz lost more than 8,000 consecutive games
to the Harlem Globetrotters and will go down--and down and
down--in history as the anti-Lombardi, a coaching god for whom
losing wasn't everything, it was the only thing.

"No matter what you think about Red, you have to admit this,"
says Toomay. "He was very successful at what he did."

B/W PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER
"There's a reverse immortality that accrues to players on
[alltime losingest] teams," says Toomay.