“Woof! Woof! WOOF!”
The barking starts whenever Nick Maton walks into the Detroit Tigers‘ clubhouse.
“It’s not just barking; he’ll snarl at you, too,” Zach McKinstry said Wednesday afternoon. “I love it.”
Maton, affectionately referred to as “Wolfie” by his teammates, barks constantly.
“It is 24-7 — seven days a week,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said on WXYT-FM (97.1). “It’s the same every day.”
But here’s the thing. This is not just one guy barking and snarling in the wilderness. It’s not a lone wolf, so to speak. The barking has become contagious, spreading from player to player throughout the Tigers’ clubhouse.
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“The barking is funny but we all do it now,” Riley Greene said. “It’s weird, the whole team does it. Whenever we walk in, somebody will bark like at 9 o’clock in the morning. It’s funny but it’s real, and we’re all doing it now. The energy is like through the roof, and it’s just awesome.”
When the Tigers were fighting back against the Cleveland Guardians on Wednesday afternoon, when they put two guys on in the bottom of the ninth, one sound prevailed in the dugout.
“Were guys barking?” I asked.
“Definitely,” Casey Mize said.
Alas, the Tigers couldn’t get the big hit and lost 3-2.
But to the end, they kept fighting.
“It never feels like you are out of it,” Mize said.
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Hungry like the wolf
In early January, when the Tigers traded Gregory Soto and Kody Clemens to the Philadelphia Phillies for Maton, catcher Donny Sands and outfielder Matt Vierling, Hinch started getting texts from people he knew in Philadelphia.
“I had multiple people text me and call me and tell me that they lost some of their character,” Hinch told WXYT. “Vierling is a lot more understated. Maton barks every day, literally every day behind the scenes, but we dig it because of the consistency and what he brings to the competitiveness of our team.”
There is nothing fake about Maton.
It is not a performance.
It’s just him.
“Wolfie is a light in our clubhouse,” Mize said. “He brings so much joy.”
Maton has changed the culture in the clubhouse, bringing the Tigers more life, energy and competitiveness. Not to mention, more barking.
“What Wolfie does is contagious for sure,” Tarik Skubal said. “Doesn’t matter good or bad. It’s contagious. So it’s fun.”
Yes, even the injured pitchers, such as Mize and Skubal, will sit in the dugout, barking along with their teammates. They’ll bark at each other. Bark at the other team.
Bark at the moon, if it’s out.
“I bark at Wolfie,” Skubal said.
“How many times in your career have you barked?” I ask.
“Probably never,” Skubal said.
But the result is all positive. Skubal says this the “most fun” he’s ever had in a dugout.
Even if he doesn’t quite understand where Maton gets the energy.
“I don’t know how he does it,” Skubal said. “Like when he sleeps at night, does he get a lot of sleep? Does he not sleep? He’s at the field; and it’s like he’s going, going, going, going, going.”
But Maton thinks this team can reach a different level. Can get louder. Can get even closer.
“No one’s crazy here yet, but we’ll get there,” Maton said. “It will come out of these two.”
He pointed at the lockers of Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson.
“Tork and Greene?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Maton said. “We’ll get there with these two. I mean, Carps (Kerry Carpenter) — he’s a competitor, man. He’s a grinder, too. That’s what’s great about having young guys. They’re so energetic and want to buy in.”
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A pack of wolves
Ultimately, in darn near every game, the success of this team will come down to hitting and pitching.
But attitude matters.
“We are screaming and barking and just, you know, being good teammates,” Greene said. “And that’s what it’s all about right there. Just having each other’s backs. Really being good team guys. Doesn’t matter what you do on the field, as long as you win, and you’re a good team guy, and you’re backing your teammates up, that’s half of it right there.”
That culture can make the difference when you are playing a doubleheader on a cold, miserable day — on Tuesday, in their first action since Saturday, the Tigers swept the Guardians in about four hours’ time.
The culture can help you snap a losing streak.
And the culture can fuel a winning streak. Like five straight, their streak entering Wednesday’s tight loss.
“Once you get a little taste of what it’s like to win and everyone’s striving for that, I mean, it’s there’s no better feeling coming in locker room after a win,” Maton said.
But it’s far more than Maton’s bark.
It’s his energy. It’s his unflinching desire to win.
“This is how baseball is supposed to feel,” he said after the Tigers won their fifth straight. “It’s just momentum. You don’t have to have the best squad out there if you’re pushing harder.”
But Maton has more than a bark. He’s got some bite. He has taken other leadership roles, holding his teammates accountable.
“He’ll come at you,” Greene said. “He’ll make sure you’re on top of your crap, because Wolfie is gonna call you out if you’re not, which is a good thing, which is a great thing, and I love it.”
So that is one of the reasons why I think this team has changed. Why it’s getting better. Just by adding Maton’s spirit and energy. It’s contagious. And it’s part of the reason why the Tigers won five of their six games during this homestand.
Remember the Rally Goose of 2018?
Ah, that was mere child’s play.
Compared to a pack of snarling wolves.
Contact Jeff Seidel: firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.
To read Seidel’s recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.