"I've got a theory," a scout friend of ours was saying one day.
But we weren't talking so much about their turnarounds in the standings. We were talking about turnaround in their brains, because in sports, the brain bone is directly connected to the standings bone.
"I've got a theory," the scout said. "I wonder if the Lightning winning the Stanley Cup has anything to do with what's happened to the Devil Rays. Does it have any effect on the urge to win? Does it have any effect on the urge to improve?"
OK, get those laughs out of the way now. We know that might seem ridiculous. Next we'll probably try to credit Nikolai Khabibulin for Jesus Colome's ERA. Right?
Wrong. Because on another level, maybe it isn't so nuts. Maybe it isn't a total accident that the Devil Rays won 12 of their first 13 games after the Lightning won Game 7.
We've thought about this. And we actually believe it's possible for one team in a community to feed off the success of another.
We've been thinking about it ever since the night the Pistons blew the Lakers dynasty into smithereens and won the NBA title. We happened to be in the postgame locker room of the Detroit Tigers that night. It was hard not to notice something:
The Tigers' players were much more wrapped up in celebrating the Pistons' victory than they were in celebrating their own victory that night.
And all they asked in return, said Dmitri Young, was for the Pistons to "give us some of that championship sprinkle dust."
Championship sprinkle dust? Where the heck do you get that? At the Sprinkle Dust Outlet down at the mall?
"Noooo," laughed Tigers manager Alan Trammell. "You know what sprinkle dust is? It's called hard work."
Spoken like a true manager. And spoken like a man who understands you don't turn into a champion by osmosis, especially in the season after your team just lost 119 times. It does, of course, take some other ingredients.
But we've come to believe that sprinkle dust is more than just hard work. Heck, every team works hard. But where ever you get that sprinkle dust, the Marlins sure had it last year. The Angels had it the year before. The Lightning had it. The Pistons had it. The Patriots had it. You don't win without it.
It's a mystic quality you find in the psyche of teams that win. And every team is in search of it. They're just not quite sure where it comes from or how you acquire it.
"Is there such a thing in sports," our scout friend wondered, "as a contact high?"
Well, maybe. Three of the last four World Series teams (Yankees, Angels, Giants) came from a metropolitan area that had sent a team in another major sport to its league finals within the previous year (assuming we're allowed to link the Yankees and Nets, and the Giants and Raiders).
But whether there is any direct connection or not, it's hard to deny that the Lightning's success and the Pistons' success gave the Devil Rays and Tigers a taste of what it might be like if they ever won anything.
"I was here when the Wings won three Cups," said Bobby Higginson, the Tigers player who has been around longest (10 seasons). "I know what this town is all about when you win. ... Well, they've been waiting for their baseball team to win since 1984 and '87. They call Detroit a hockey town. But when I talk to our coaches, they say it's really a baseball town. We just haven't given them anything to celebrate."
Yeah, you might say that. Since the last time the Tigers made the playoffs (in '87), they've lost 103 games or more four times. All the other American League teams combined have done that three times.
And just since the last time the Tigers had a winning record (in 1993), they've finished at least 25 games out of first place six times, finished at least 50 games under .500 three times and gotten to 70 wins only twice.
But most of that was just the warm-up act for what happened last year -- a year in which the only team they ever really found a way to beat was the fabled 1962 Mets. And it took a miracle -- or whatever you call five wins in their last six games, by a team that had won five in the previous month -- for those 2003 Tigers to avoid (by one) matching that Mets juggernaut's 120 losses.
So of all the changes the Tigers knew they had to make over the winter, the biggest change wasn't at shortstop or catcher or left field.
It was in their brainwaves.
How do you erase 119 losses from the heads of people who lived through the worst torture of their baseball lives? That was the question.
So the Tigers brass headed for their postseason organization meetings. They knew they needed to bring in more proven, veteran players. They knew they had to bring in winners -- men who weren't used to losing, weren't beaten down by 10 straight years of it, weren't willing to accept it.
But the problem was: How the heck could they ever attract people like that to come to a place like this?
"When you're trying to get somebody to come here," Trammell said, "those 119 losses start to look you in the face. And they don't go away."
But they dangled a two-year, $6-million offer under the nose of Fernando Vina, who had played on three playoff teams in St. Louis. And he took it. But he still had one very nervous question: "Am I the only one coming here?"
As it turned out, no. Next was Rondell White, a 2002 Yankee. And then (in a trade) Carlos Guillen, a two-time playoff visitor in Seattle. And then came about the most unlikely addition by any 100-loss team in history -- Pudge Rodriguez. He was the first player ever to win a postseason MVP award one year, then play his next game for a team that lost 100 games the year before.
Did the Tigers have to guarantee him many more dollars than anyone else offered? Absolutely. But he would never even have considered those dollars if they hadn't first added Vina and White and Guillen.
"Without them," Trammell said, "we don't get Pudge."
By the end of spring training, the Tigers also had signed the Marlins' former closer, Ugueth Urbina. Which brought both halves of a World Series battery -- and, in turn, a close encounter with that sprinkle dust -- right into their clubhouse.
"We were in spring training one day," said Brandon Inge, "and people came in to fit Pudge and Ugie for their World Series rings. So we're all sitting there in spring training, going, `That must be an unbelievable feeling.' "
Then, a few weeks later, Marlins GM Larry Beinfest hand-delivered those rings to Rodriguez and Urbina -- as their new teammates gathered around, as awestruck as Japanese tourists getting their first look at the Empire State Building. Then again, the ring was also slightly bigger than the Empire State Building. (Uh, just about.)
"They all saw it," Rodriguez said. "And they all got surprised at how big it was. But at the same time, what I told them was, `We can win one here.' I want another one. I want to win one here."
Obviously, he won't be getting fitted for one next spring. The Tigers, like the Devil Rays, still have a lonnnngggggg way to go before they're a threat to order rings. But despite their recent five-game losing streak, which dropped them a season-worst eight games below .500, this team still has veered around a very important corner:
A corner located somewhere between their blue caps and their necks.
"A lot of these guys weren't here before," Higginson said. "They don't know what it's been like the past 10 years. They weren't here last year for 119 losses. This is a totally different team. ...
"In the past, we walked out on the field knowing what was going to happen. I don't care what anybody says. We knew we couldn't compete. If we won, unbelievable. But we didn't expect to win two, three, four, five in a row. Now, every time we walk on the field, we have guys who expect to win. It's fun."
"It doesn't even seem like I'm playing on the same team as last year," laughed Inge. "I know these are still the Detroit Tigers, but it doesn't feel like it."
Despite all the changes, though, there are still a lot of nights when six of the nine position players in the lineup played for the 2003 Tigers. And four-fifths of the rotation started games for that team. So it hasn't just been faces that have been transformed here.
"The biggest difference is our mentality," Trammell said. "We've been up and down this year. We win a couple. We lost a couple. But we've been able to keep the bad times to a minimum because of guys like Pudge, who go into that clubhouse and don't want to lose and won't settle for losing.
"It's very easy to fall into that here-we-go-again mode and give in. But you can't give in. And that's what our veteran players have given us. We don't settle for giving in."
Oh, they still might be a bigger threat to lose 90 games than to win 90. But even a 90-loss season would represent a 29-game turnaround. Which would be the biggest in franchise history.
And if they only lose 85, that would be the biggest improvement in American League history. (Current record: 33, by the 1946 Red Sox.)
So maybe 77-85 isn't quite what Dmitri Young had in mind when he started campaigning for that Pistons sprinkle dust. But hey, it's all relative. And when you're coming from where the Detroit Tigers are coming from, even a season like this feels like they all got traded to the Yankees.
"You know, it's like being in a nightmare," Inge said, "and then you wake up on the opposite end of it."