Right or wrong, everyone knows how Mike Maroth's career will be remembered in the history books. The 9-21 record from his 2003 season in Detroit tells that. The procession of well-wishers getting in touch will remember him a little differently than that footnote.
There have been a lot of well-wishers, more than Maroth ever expected.
"It's been kind of overwhelming," he said Wednesday afternoon. "I've been humbled by it. It's definitely ... I'm very thankful for it."
Before the Tigers had Justin Verlander and his 99-mph fastball or Rick Porcello or Jacob Turner or Andy Oliver, they had Maroth. The left-hander was never a top prospect, and with a fastball that sometimes touched 90 mph, he didn't have the stuff that wowed scouts. But he had a variety of pitches, a good idea how to approach hitters and a strong reluctance to give in to them.
And in 2003, on a Tigers team in full rebuilding mode, he had the top spot in the rotation. He had a half-season of Major League experience at the time, but it was a good half-season on a '02 Tigers team that wasn't very good. And with 21 Major League starts, it was more experience than anyone else in Detroit's rotation.
What followed was partly the result of Maroth's inexperience, partly the result of his role as a frontline pitcher on a very bad team, partly a snowball effect. Maroth lost his first seven starts and had a 0-9 record after 10 outings -- half of them quality starts -- before earning his first win.
The rest is history: Maroth became the first pitcher with 20 losses in a season since Brian Kingman in 1980. He won three of his final four starts after that, including the season finale that ensured the Tigers wouldn't have a 120-loss season.
To some, the story ends there. To others, especially teammates, the class with which he handled the season was just as important. He never argued, never begged out of starts, but simply took the ball every five games. He also won nine games on a team that won just 43, a percentage that would've equaled a 19-win season on a 90-win team.
"I can't control how people look at it, view it," he said. "I can only control the way I handled things. I can confidently say I gave it everything. All the results were part of all that hard work, good and bad. I'm not proud of having that by my name, of course not. But that doesn't mean I didn't work as hard that year as the year I won 14 games."
To others, the seasons that followed are part of the story. Maroth just missed out on a winning season in 2004, going 11-13 with a 4.31 ERA. He also produced one of the best single-game pitching performances in Comerica Park history, a complete-game one-hitter against the defending American League champion Yankees. He earned another piece of redemption the next year, going 14-14 on a 70-win team.
He was poised to be the best story of the Tigers' run to glory in 2006 before injuries denied him his place. He went 5-2 with a 2.18 ERA over his first seven starts before a sore elbow forced him to the disabled list. He underwent surgery to remove bone chips and missed three months.
He was healthy in 2007, but struggled to regain his old form, and the Tigers traded him to St. Louis in midseason. He never made it back to the Majors, but it wasn't for lack of trying. The injuries that sidelined him were all different -- a shoulder problem in '08 after signing a Minor League contract with the Royals, a torn meniscus in his knee suffered two days into Spring Training with the Blue Jays in '09, then elbow surgery last year to remove more bone spurs.
"[I] went to Minnesota and pitched really well in Spring Training," he said. "I pitched with their Triple-A team in Rochester, and after three starts, my elbow was killing me. I lost so much range of motion, I had to do something.
"I went through a lot of surgeries over the years, one after the other. I gave it every chance to come back, because I felt like I could still perform. Each year, it was something new."
More than once, he admits, he went into a season thinking he'd retire if he didn't make it. This time, he had his mind made up. He went to winter ball in December in the Puerto Rico Baseball League, where a strong campaign the previous winter earned him his shot with the Twins, and hoped for the same good fortune.
After a month of starts, he went home at peace with hanging it up. It wasn't the results on the field, but the feeling in his elbow.
"The more throwing that I would do, the more that it would get sore," he said.
Even at age 33, Maroth has no regrets. He couldn't pitch more than a month without somehow getting hurt for the last three years. That was enough of a sign for him.
"[I] gave everything I have, don't have any regrets about it," he said. "I exhausted all my options."
His options now are open. He's taking classes online toward a degree in management, completing an education that began at the University of Central Florida a decade and a half ago. He's also open to staying in baseball in some capacity, whether it be coaching, scouting or another role.
"I've thought a lot about what's next over the past few years with what we have faced, [my wife] Brooke and I," he said. "I've had that question out there, and I'm not sure what comes next. I have some ideas that I definitely would like to pursue."
His legacy, he figures, is for others to decide. If it's baseball's last 20-loss season, so be it. If it's for his comeback from that, he'd be happier. If he's remembered more as a role model, he'd be much, much happier.
"I hope that when people look at me, they don't just see me as a player," he said. "Yes, that's what I did. Yes, I wore a uniform and had my name on the back of my jersey and tried to help teams win games. But mainly, I'd want to be known for who I am rather than what I did."
On that note, there's one more thing worth mentioning about 2003. While Maroth was making history on the field, he was also trying to find ways to make an impact off the field. He and Brooke found their opportunity with Rock and Wrap It Up, an organization that helps donate extra food from large events to local soup kitchens.
At that point, the organization was geared more toward concerts and other catered events. The Maroths worked with the Tigers and clubhouse manager Jim Schmakel to take extra food from the clubhouse.
The effort earned Maroth the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Award, but more importantly, it expanded the program. Today, Rock and Wrap It Up has a sports division called Sports Wrap, which has partnered with 60 sports franchises since 2003 according to its website.
The calls, texts and good wishes he's been receiving are directed at the person, not the pitcher.