In the movie “The Godfather”, Michael Corleone reluctantly becomes the head of a Mafia family, only after his brother is killed and his father dies of heart failure. Despite his previous low profile, Michael is enormously successful as a leader, even more than his predecessors. The irony is this: he became Godfather only by default. The position opened; he stepped in. Destiny took over.
Leadership is like that, even in real life. Sometimes, would-be leaders labor silently in another man’s shadow, only to emerge strong and vocal when that man finally leaves.
I believe this has happened, to a degree, with this year’s Tigers.
The man who left is Jack Morris.
The man who stepped forward is Tony Phillips.
Now, I am not saying Morris ran this team. Nor I am saying Phillips runs it now. But I will say Jack was a force in the clubhouse, and not always a comfortable one. He was loud and moody, and when his mood was sour and he yelled things across the room, other Tigers often turned in toward their lockers and mumbled, “What an a–.” But because he had been here all those years, Morris’ status was never questioned. That is how baseball works: you earn your stripes.
This year, however, with Morris gone, suddenly there is room for other personalities to stretch, to influence, to make more noise. Guys like Cecil Fielder, the casual home run king; Mike Henneman, a dry wit with a smart sense of humor; Paul Gibson, a wizened relief pitcher with an engaging friendliness. And of course, Phillips, a multitalented chatterbox who learned how to win championships with the Oakland Athletics but, like Michael Corleone, became a leader only when the scenery changed.
All Tigers created equal
“In Oakland, I could never be the way I am here,” Phillips told me during last week’s road trip. “The A’s had a different set of rules for the superstars. Like, let’s say we were taking batting practice, and some guy came out late and wanted to cut in on your turn in the cage. You could say no — unless it was Jose Canseco or Rickey Henderson. They were supposed to be able to do whatever they wanted.
“Here, in Detroit, somebody tries that, we say, ‘Bleep you. Don’t be late next time!’ And we laugh. Everyone’s equal.”
Indeed. Everyone’s equal — although Phillips might be the loudest. He’ll cut up Fielder. He’ll cut up Mickey Tettleton. He’ll cut up guys twice his size. He’ll even zing Sparky Anderson now and then.
But this works because the whole Tigers team zings him back. Easygoing? Anyone who’s been around this team notices that immediately. They have loosened up, our boys of summer. Unlike the quiet, no-nonsense attitude when Darrell Evans, Doyle Alexander and Fred Lynn were around, this Tigers group loves to laugh, loves to insult. And it takes losses in stride — occasionally with a sense of humor. Pitching might be thin, but team chemistry is thick. Here are the other factors behind the improved Tigers attitude:
1) The Cecil Factor. With his mountain of home runs and RBIs, Fielder could strut through the clubhouse, demanding star status. Instead, he is like a big, happy puppy. His lack of ego sets the tone for the team.
2) The Bash Factor. Winning with pitching might be safe, but winning through power offense is fun. It makes the whole team feel like the toughest kid on the block. “We can be down five runs and still think, ‘No problem, we can win,’ ” Gibson said. “That keeps your attitude positive every game.”
3) The Trammell Factor. The last few years, folks have talked about Alan Trammell taking over this team in the clubhouse. Truth is, Alan never liked that. It’s not his style. “I’m much more comfortable this way, with five or six guys playing a leadership role,” he admitted.
4) The Sparky Factor. Some say Anderson has lightened up this season, that he allows a looser clubhouse. “We wouldn’t be having this much fun,” Henneman agreed, ‘=if the big guy didn’t allow it.” Addition by subtraction?
So all this has helped improve the mood of this team, and, if you ask me, it’s largely why these guys are challenging for the AL East — despite spring training predictions that had them finishing last in the Florida Coast League.
And yes, I think much of it has to do with Morris being gone. Sure, he might have added a nice pile of wins to the treasure chest, but chemistry — well, chemistry is a funny thing. It doesn’t always cook with the biggest and brightest.
“Jack was great, but he was more from the old Tiger school, where you weren’t supposed to even smile if you lost a game,” Gibson said.
“I like Jack a lot, but sometimes he brought his tension with the media into the locker room, and it definitely was felt,” Phillips said.
Not anymore. The chemistry has changed. And while it’s true, actions speak louder than words — and actions such as Fielder smashing the ball over the fence or Phillips playing nearly every position (despite injuries) do more for their leadership than talking — you still need the right mood in your clubhouse to survive 162 games. Is it possible that success means parting with a superstar and watching the other guys blossom?
Don’t tell Jack.