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Tiger Balm
Steve Rushin
September 01, 2003
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.)
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September 01, 2003

Tiger Balm

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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.)

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."

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