Monday, April 30, 2007

Monday Morning Manager

(my weekly take on the Tigers)

Last Week: 3-3
This Week: (4/30/5/2: BAL; 5/4-5/6: at KC)

Only 24 Tigers games have been played and I think it's readily obvious: the AL Central race will be a thrilling, wonderful ride that is sure to go down to the last weekend -- maybe even the final game of the season. Perhaps the final pitch.

What makes it extra special is that this isn't a two-team race, or even a three-team struggle. Four teams, I believe -- everyone except Kansas City -- have a shot at the title and/or the Wild Card. And don't be surprised if the winner wins 90 games, tops (although I predicted before the season that the Tigers would win 95+ games; perhaps I dipped my ladle into some of the Lions Kool-Aid that was nearby). All the clubs will beat up on one another, although with all the combinations, there's sure to be one pairing that appears to be one-sided; that's just baseball. Remember how the Tigers had a devil of a time with Chicago last season? But guess who was sitting home, watching the playoffs on TV?

Some youngsters are hitting speed bumps in 2007. Last week it was Joel Zumaya's turn. He needed that 1 1/3 innings scoreless outing Sunday the way a corn dog needs mustard. Zumaya said some stirring things after blowing Friday's game, using phrases like "I have no clue" when referring to the location of his fastball. So it was good to see him hurl some shutout pitching, though he did walk two more batters.

And Gary Sheffield is throwing the dirt off himself and rising from the shallow grave that was his April.

But what's up with Sean Casey? ONE, count it, ONE run-batted-in in 70+ April AB? That's only one more than me, and I didn't even suit up. It's a statistical oddity that I presume will correct itself. I doubt he's ever had a one-RBI April -- or any month, for that matter.

I still say things are OK, because the club has yet to click "on" when it comes to hitting as a team. Brandon Inge went 3-for-3, including a walk-off HR yesterday, and still is hitting an unsightly .145. When you go 3-for-3 and your average is still lower than your playing weight -- especially early on when you don't have many AB, then you know you've been struggling.

The Tigers need to keep beating up on the Royals (they play them in KC this weekend). It's always nice to see them on the schedule.


Friday, April 27, 2007

A New Poll: Never Too Early To Track Mediocrity

I keep hearing talk about how bad the Washington Nationals are this season. In fact, there's a notion going around that they're so putrid, they might challenge the 2003 Tigers and 1962 Mets for ineptitude. That's appropriate, considering '03 Tigers alum Dmitri Young plays for the Nats, along with former Tiger Robert Fick.

As of today the Nationals are 7-15. It's early, but that's a 51-111 pace.

To have some fun, I decided to create a poll this season. Quite simply, "How many games will the Washington Nationals lose in 2007?" (to vote, see the red box in the sidebar)

I already cast mine: between 100-105.

Last season it looked like the Royals might threaten the '03 Tigers, but they "recovered" to lose 100. So to make things interesting, I'm going to cut the polling off by the end of May -- when they'll have played about 50 games or so, or 1/3 of the season. Then I'll dust it off at the end of the season to see how close the results matched the Nats' real record.

1961 Cubs Update

I know this was just bugging the hell out of you.

"I wonder how Eno's replay of the 1961 Cubs is going?"

Glad you asked.

Using my Strat-o-Matic cards, I'm replaying the 1961 Cubs, who went 64-90 in '61. (Actually, I'm playing an 84-game season -- each team twelve times).

So far? It ain't pretty. We're talking '62 Mets/'03 Tigers/'07 Nationals here.

The Cubbies, MY Cubbies, are 2-9. They lost their first two to the Milwaukee Braves, won, then dropped seven in a row before beating the Giants, 11-2.

I might fire myself before all is said and done.

But hey, don't blame me: Ernie Banks is hitting .150 and my starters can't get out of the fourth inning half the time.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Inge, Not Sheffield, Leads The List Of Slow Starters At The Plate

He's battled a flu bug; maybe that's the reason. He's hit a few homers, so maybe it'll all come together soon. And he bats ninth, so at least there's no pressure, from that standpoint. Besides, he's still playing a solid third base.

Gary Sheffield has gotten the most attention among all the Tigers who've gotten off to painfully slow starts at the plate, and with good reason. Actually, with tens of millions of good reasons -- the green paper with presidents' faces on them.

But the cold bats go beyond Sheffield. Every night the Tigers, it seems, are starting four guys with BA under .200. And the furthest away from .200 is third baseman Brandon Inge.

Inge is at .111, and there have been enough AB this season to make this a genuine, full-blown slump. What's worse, other than the three homeruns, Inge is barely making good contact. He's striking out a lot -- though that's not unusual. But he's striking out A LOT. Twenty-four K's already, in just 63 AB. Them are Rob Deer numbers.

When I spoke to Sheffield last week for a piece for Michigan In Play! Magazine, he talked with the quiet confidence of an 18-year veteran. I wondered aloud whether it was too early to panic about his snail-like beginning.

"I never panic in baseball," he said. "I know what I can do."

Inge is far younger than Sheffield, but he doesn't strike me as a panicker, either. But I've been watching Inge after one failed at-bat after another, and there is certainly frustration, which I haven't really seen from Sheff. And Inge's body language after some of his strikeouts tell me that there might be some confusion in his batter's mind.

All of which I'm sure isn't news to manager Jim Leyland, batting coach Lloyd McClendon, or anyone else associated with the ballclub.

One of the reasons the Tigers were so successful in 2006 was because of the production they got from the bottom of the order -- specifically Craig Monroe and Inge. But Monroe is slumping, too (.172 BA, 1 HR) -- and so is #7 hitter Sean Casey (.188, 1 RBI in 69 AB).

But the worst of these offenders is Inge. He's nowhere near getting himself out of this malaise, it appears. Not much has been spoken about him by Leyland -- maybe because of the higher profile Sheffield's slump.

Brandon Inge won't be able to fly under the radar much longer. Nor will Monroe, nor will Casey. Sooner or later these guys have to start contributing to the cause. Amazing that the Tigers are 11-9 despite such horrific starts by so many key hitters.

The Tigers have hit the 1/8 mark in the season, and so many batting averages are still below people's playing weight around here. Heck, Inge's is below an anorexic actress's weight.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Monday Morning Manager

(my weekly take on the Tigers)

Last Week: 3-3
This Week: (4/23-24: at LAA; 4/25/26: at CWS; 4/27-29: MIN)

Interesting fact that the Free Press' Jon Paul Morosi pointed out in today's paper: yesterday's 6-5, 12-inning Tigers win over the Chicago White Sox was their first extra-innings win at home since last June. And, Morosi said, that streak included five such losses in September, when the Tigers were in the middle of their 19-31 slide to close their regular season.

Things that make you go, "Huh!"

No matter if it was the first in ten months or ten days, the Tigers needed yesterday's win in the same way that Rosie O'Donnell needs a prophylactic between her thoughts and her words. Our blessed boys were staring down the barrel of a four-game losing streak and a three-game sweep at the hands of their bitter rival White Sox. Down two runs. Two outs, nobody on base. Dead in the water.

Ahh, but as all Tigers' rallies seem to do nowadays, this one started with Carlos Guillen. He usually walks to start it, but this time he slapped a single. That brought up Marcus Thames, who slammed a two-run homer to tie the game.

My new nickname for Placido Polanco: Mr. Reliable.

Seriously, is there anyone you'd rather see at the plate when a base hit will win a ballgame than Polanco? Goodness gracious.

Mr. Reliable with his ALCS MVP Award (we won't talk about the WS)

And it was Polanco, of course, who sent everyone home happy -- and relieved -- with a smoked line shot into left field, scoring Pudge Rodriguez (who'd just drawn his first walk of the season) with the winning run, who'd been sacrificed over by Brandon Inge.

This week, the Tigers have a scheduling oddity. They play in Anaheim on Tuesday afternoon, then play the White Sox in Chicago the next night. You rarely see that. At least MLB made the Tuesday game a matinee.

Another oddity is to play a team over the weekend and then play them again on Wednesday.

Something else to make you go "Huh!"


Thursday, April 19, 2007

Unsupported Bonderman Not Discouraged

He sat in front of his locker, nursing a Bud Light, and waxed casually about baseball, a game where you "win some you shouldn't and lose some you probably deserved to win."

If Jeremy Bonderman is discouraged about being winless after four quality starts in 2007, he's doing a great job of hiding it. He is, however, disappointed -- but for the team, not necessarily for himself.

Bonderman addressed us after yesterday's tough, 4-3 loss to the Kansas City Royals in 10 innings at Comerica Park. Yours truly was there, working for Michigan In Play! Magazine.

"This is a funny game, man," Bonderman said after going seven strong innings (86 pitches; three hits; one earned run; six strikeouts, no walks). "But their guy (Royals starter Gil Meche) pitched great, too."

Bonderman was told that closer Todd Jones, who blew a two-run lead in the ninth, had said that he felt bad for ruining Bonderman's off day.

"He didn't ruin anything. I'll be fine," Bonderman said, chuckling. "Jonesy's been great all year. He can't be perfect. He'll go out and shut them down for us the rest of the season."

Bonderman expressed some dismay that the team is 1-3 in games in which he's started, but that can hardly be blamed on him. In 28 innings this season, the Tigers' new ace is 0-0, but with a 2.25 ERA.

Yesterday was the second straight pitcher's duel that Bonderman has been involved in. Friday night in Toronto, he locked horns with the Blue Jays' Roy Halladay, going nine innings and only allowing one run. The Jays won that one in the 10th off Fernando Rodney (0-3), who was the loser Wednesday as well. Yesterday Bondo went toe-to-toe with Meche, the Royals' big free agent signee in the off-season.

I asked Bonderman if he tends to bear down more during such duels.

"You always bear down, but pitcher's duels are fun, man. It's fun to go out there against their big boys and get it on. Meche is a great pitcher and today he showed why he got all that money in the offseason."

Bonderman got a lot of money, too, in his contract extension -- and nobody can accuse him of stealing it. It's amazing that he's winless (although, justifiably, without a loss, too) after four starts that have been Cy Young-ish.

Naturally, Bonderman was asked if he wanted to go back out in the eighth inning, in which he was replaced by Joel Zumaya.

"Of course. I never want to get taken out of a game. But skip (manager Jim Leyland) said I was done, so I was done."

He later admitted that he's "0 for whatever" in trying to convince Leyland that he should be left in a ballgame.

Centerfielder Curtis Granderson said it's up to the offense to pick up Bonderman.

"Got to get him a few more runs," Granderson said, adding that the Tigers had the Royals where they wanted them, but let them slip off the hook.

Last season it was Nate Robertson who was the victim of a lack of run support. This year it's Bonderman, proving an old baseball adage that one guy will feast, and another will famine.

The Tigers are 9-6, though, with an offense that continues to sputter. Yesterday the team started four regulars whose BA were each under .200.

"Exactly," first baseman Sean Casey said when I said it should be encouraging that the Tigers are winning with a less-than-stellar offense. "Maybe there'll be a time this season when we're not pitching well but we're swinging the bats good. Right now we're winning with pitching and good defense."

Casey was 0-for-4. He's one of the under-.200 offenders. He had an opportunity to break out of it in the eighth inning, when he got ahead of Meche 3-0 and a runner on first. But after two strikes, Casey popped out to third base.

One of those days?

"You got that right," Casey said. "You got that right."


Click here to read portions of my pregame interview for M.I.P. magazine with designated hitter Gary Sheffield, in which he discusses coming to Detroit (he had uncertainty at first), his slow start, and the team's chances in 2007.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Monday Morning Manager

Last Week: 4-3
This Week: (4/16-18: KC; 4/20-22: CWS)

The signs are there.

The signs are there that the 2006 Tigers may not have been a fluke. The signs are there that this season, the team will pull games out of the fire with entertaining regularity. The signs are there that this is a ballclub that believes in itself more and more everyday.

The recently completed ten-game road trip is over, and the Tigers came out of it in good shape -- 6-4 on the trip and some one-run wins and late rallies tossed in. Already Craig Monroe is picking up where he left off last season, re-establishing himself as one of the team's more clutch players. His grand slam in the cold of Baltimore in extra innings Wednesday night was testament to that. Pudge Rodriguez slammed a three-run homer in the ninth inning in Kansas City a week ago Saturday. And then there was the improbable four-run rally in the ninth to steal Saturday's game in Toronto.

Sure, they lost a 2-1 match Friday night in ten innings, thanks to Roy Halladay's pitching, but for the most part, the Tigers are showing more and more of that swagger that all good teams have.

Nine Innings.

That's the mantra -- play a full nine and anything can happen. The fact that the Tigers are, this soon, displaying the uncanny knack of "stealing games," as reliever Todd Jones put it, is extremely encouraging.

The bad news is Gary Sheffield is 2-for-2. Huh? I mean, two Monday Morning Managers in 2007, and he's being mentioned in both for his slow start. Five-for-41 isn't what the Tigers bargained for when they traded for Sheff in November. But, as I pointed out in Friday's post, not to worry. Sheffield will heat up, and when he does, there'll be hell to pay for some poor pitching coach and his staff.

This week, more Central Division action -- the Royals and White Sox at CoPa. KC is strugging again -- though they have more talent than last year -- and the Chisox are scuffling along early. They limited the Indians to one hit yesterday ... and lost.

These gutty wins in April mean the same as wins in September. Maybe more so, if they build confidence -- which they clearly are doing.


Friday, April 13, 2007

Don't Worry -- Sheffield Is No Nate Colbert

New slugger comes to town -- the big righthanded bat that the Tigers feel they're missing. He has an impressive homerun ratio on his resume, and once smashed five homers and drove in 13 runs during a doubleheader.

He gets off to a terrible start with the Tigers, though, and is struggling to bat his weight -- heck, even half his weight. People within the organization start to look at each other cross-eyed, for this isn't the player that they thought they had acquired. By June he's gone -- cut and released -- with an unsightly .147 BA and four measly humeruns in 156 AB.

That's the cautionary tale of Nate Colbert, and in 1975 his was but one of many sad stories for the Tigers, who finished the season 57-102 and in last place for the first time in over 20 years.

The Tigers could maybe have seen Colbert's nosedive coming, though. In his last year with the Padres in '74, Colbert batted a then career-low .207 and his homerun total was but 14 in 368 AB. But maybe it would be asking too much to say that anyone could have predicted such a drastic tumble in 1975. By June of '76, Nate Colbert was finished at age 30.

Gary Sheffield is no Nate Colbert, not even close. Sheffield is a Hall of Famer who will finish his career with over 500 HR. But he's nonetheless in a Colbert-like funk to begin his maiden season with the Tigers. His BA is barely scraping .100, and he seems perhaps too eager to make a good first impression on his new teammates.

"I've always had to make an adjustment when I come to a new team," Shef said the other day in reference to his attempt to become a full-time DH for the first time in his career. He then went on to say that he has no doubts that he'll work his way out of this early-season malaise. And I don't think there are many who will argue that.

In watching Sheffield's at-bats, it's obvious that he approaches the batter's box with a ferocity that I don't really remember seeing in Detroit by a Tiger. Maybe Cecil Fielder, but not really. In fact, Sheffield might be the best combination of free-swinger and demolisher that the Tigers have ever employed.

But it's not happening for Shef right now. It was said by FSN's Rod Allen last night after Sheffield blooped a single into left field in Toronto that something like that could be all it takes to get a hitter of Sheffield's status untracked. Maybe, but I think the untracking is more likely to come from a brutal onslaught of homeruns and extra base hits -- the slew of which is going to make opposing teams shudder.

It'll happen. There's nothing on Sheffield's resume to suggest that it won't. Just a matter of time.

No, Gary Sheffield is no Nate Colbert. Or maybe that should be written vice-versa. Regardless, the Tigers won't be cutting their big new bat in mid-June. By that time, Sheffield should be at least a month into terrorizing opposing pitching again.

Besides, the Tigers are 6-3 without their big new bat heating up. So who needs him now, anyway?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Aaron's Plan To Be AWOL A Huge Blow To Bonds

About 25 years ago or so, he made a subtle lobbying effort to be considered a candidate for commissioner of baseball. This after a much-publicized complaint that he was one of the few blacks employed as a baseball executive. And that after enduring what no hard-working American should have to at the workplace, in the midst of his pursuit of baseball's all-time homerun record.

Now Henry Aaron is again showing us the resolve and, frankly, brass baseballs that make him one of the most underrated icons that this country has ever seen -- at least since World War II.

Aaron publicly admitted that he plans to be nowhere in sight when Barry Bonds has a chance to break his all-time HR record of 755, which could very well happen this summer. Bonds is 22 away.

"I'd probably fly to West Palm Beach to play golf," Aaron was quoted as saying in Terence Moore's column the other day in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Again, it has nothing to do with anybody, other than I had enough of it. I don't want to be around that sort of thing anymore. I just want to be at peace with myself."

Certainly Bonds's run is re-opening old wounds for Aaron, who went through his own personal hell as he chased Babe Ruth's 714 back in 1973-74. But that was the result of the disgusting, lowest form of citizenry -- the racist boobs who would resort to even death threats and kidnapping his daughter if he went through with his assault.

This time, the backlash has nothing to do with Bonds's skin color and everything to do with the magic creams and elixirs and pills that he probably applied and inserted into his body over the years, turning him from baseball's version of Bill Bixby to Lou Ferrigno. It's a record-breaking that even today's mealy commissioner, Bud Selig, seems completely unable to handle or address.

Not so with Aaron.

"I don't want to answer questions. It's going to be a no-win situation for me anyway. If I go, people are going to say, 'Well, he went because of this.' If I don't go, they'll say whatever. I'll just let them make their own mind up."

And this: "I'm 72 years old, and I'm not hopping on a plane and flying all the way to San Francisco for anybody."

Aaron doesn't want to see Bonds repeat this moment from 1974

So there you have it. The current homerun champ, 33 years into his reign, has spoken and there's no doubt where he stands. We can't come close to saying either about Selig.

I'm sorry, but this is huge. Baseball's HR record might be the sexiest, most alluring of all the sports records, bar none. And to hear the current champ say he wants no part of the celebration -- however muted -- and will even go to lengths to avoid it, speaks volumes.

For his part, Bonds took the high road in reaction to Aaron's comments.

"He has every right to do what he wants to do. I respect that," Bonds said. "There's no reason for me to be disappointed. If he has other plans, other things to do, I respect that. He's his own man. He can do what he wants to do. I respect that. No hard feelings."

But I would be shocked if those words weren't trying to mask a certain hurt that Bonds must feel over Aaron's stance. Whatever you feel about Barry Bonds, Aaron's refusal to be present when Bonds breaks his record is a tough blow for the Giants outfielder. It has to be.

Prior to this week, we were waiting to hear about Bonds's imminent ascent to the homerun throne from two key individuals: Aaron and Selig.

Predictably, the latter is the one who still remains silent.

Monday, April 09, 2007


(my weekly take on the Tigers)

Last Week: 3-2
This Week: (4/9-4/11: at Bal; 4/12-4/15: at Tor)

Three wins, three one-run wins. Not a bad recipe for success -- winning close ballgames, and the Tigers have done it in three different ways. But all have involved power.

Game 2: an 8-run explosion early -- featuring Curtis Granderson's first career grand slam -- made it appear as if the game with the Blue Jays would be a walk in the ballpark. But then a 10-2 lead was chopped to 10-9 when the Jays scored seven times in the eighth inning.

Game 4: a workman-like, grind-it-out win over the Royals. A 4-1 lead erased by a three-run fourth by KC, but then Pudge Rodriguez and Granderson went yard to provide enough offense to complete the 6-5 win.

Game 5: a dramatic, three-run homerun by Rodriguez in the ninth turns an 0-2 deficit into a 3-2 lead, which Todd Jones protects for his third save of the season.

It's encouraging to see the Tigers come out of the gate with three one-run wins -- even though the 10-9 game shouldn't have gotten that close. It is the recipe for division winners and postseason celebrators.

Jones has three saves right away, and this wasn't happening early last season, because Jones missed the first several weeks of the season due to injury. Nice to see confidence boosting happening in the first week.

Pudge is off to another hot start; April has been his month every year he's been a Tiger.

But there are some minor concerns; there always are in any given week of a 162-game season.

Brandon Inge: the happy-go-lucky, self-made third baseman is 0-for-17 in 2007, but he says he isn't worried. Manager Jim Leyland isn't losing any sleep, either.

"The other team has 20 infielders and outfielders out there," Inge says, and I too am not overly worried. He likes his swings; the balls just aren't finding the holes. That's a good attitude to have. But still, let's get that first knock out of the way sooner rather than later, OK?

The bullpen has been shaky, sort of. It lost the game Opening Day, and allowed the Jays that ridiculous seven-run eighth on Wednesday. Of course, Magglio Ordonez's misplay on a wind-blown flyball opened the floodgates.

Now for a not-too-minor concern.

It's not pleasant to think about, but if backup catcher Vance Wilson's throwing elbow doesn't get better soon, we could be looking at a chronic problem all year, even without surgery being needed. So far, surgery doesn't look necessary -- just rest and some rehab. But keep an eye on this situation, for if Wilson is out of action for the majority of this season, the Tigers will have suffered a major loss. How can that be? Well, Wilson is perhaps the game's finest #2 backstop who works marvelously with the staff here. His value can't be overstated -- and that's coming from the pitchers, and Leyland, if you were to ask him. Better hope for a quick recovery. Fill-in Mike Rabelo gets the start Thursday, apparently.

This week the Tigers will get the Jays again, for four games in Toronto. An interesting early road test, as many feel Toronto has what it takes to make the AL East a three-team race.

First up though this week is Baltimore, my most-hated baseball team of all-time. I hate the Orioles for the same reason I hate the Minnesota Vikings: because the Orioles were the thorns in the Tigers' sides during the early 1970's, when I first started following baseball. Much like how the Vikings terrorized the Lions in the same era.

Sock it to 'em, Tigers!


Friday, April 06, 2007

20 Years Since Tigers' AL East Miracle

Hard to believe, but it's been 20 years now. Twenty years since the Tigers pulled off a Phoenix-like comeback from the dead. Twenty years since they treated us to maybe the most exciting week of baseball this town has ever experienced.

The 1987 Tigers were a ragtag group, to be truthful. They weren't very highly regarded by the so-called experts. They were coming off a good but not great 1986 campaign. And they had lost catcher Lance Parrish to free agency, to the Phillies. With Mike Heath hurt, someone named Orlando Mercado was the Opening Day catcher. Things weren't looking great for the local boys.

An 11-19 start cemented what most folks believed: that the '87 Tigers would be also-rans in the AL East.

But the team acquired veteran hitter Bill Madlock, languishing on the Dodgers' bench, in early June. Mad Dog had been a batting champion, and his short, compact swing still had some spray left in it.

With Madlock infusing the offense and the pitching settling in, the Tigers began their gradual rise. They simply won with incredible consistency.

The Toronto Blue Jays were the team to beat in '87. They did their best to hold off the charging Tigers. The season looked like it would come down to a showdown in Toronto during the next-to-last weekend of the season. It was a four-game set, and the Tigers hit town 1/2 game behind Toronto. They lost the first three games of the series, prompting Kirk Gibson to declare, "Maybe we're setting the biggest bear trap in history." Tough talk, considering the Tigers were 3 1/2 games behind with eight games to play.

On that Sunday, the Tigers won a gutsy extra-inning contest, needing a run in the 9th to tie it.

They were 2 1/2 games behind with a week to play.

Incredibly, the Blue Jays wouldn't win another game. They finished their season 0-7 -- inlcuding a three-game sweep in Detroit that clinched the division for the Tigers. It was a wonderful, wild final week.

For 19 seasons, the last Tigers' bright spot was the image of Frank Tanana finishing his 1-0 win by fielding Garth Iorg's comebacker and underhanding the ball to Darrell Evans at first base.

The Tigers imploded in the ALCS, getting blasted out by the Twins in five games. But manager Sparky Anderson took it in stride, realizing his team had given him all it had. He said in his book, They Call Me Sparky, that he was never more proud of any team he managed than that 1987 group.

The lesson? Don't let a slow start by the Tigers, should it happen, dampen your spirits. Twenty years ago, a far less talented bunch than the 2007 Tigers was able to rebound from an 11-19 getaway to win its division.

Not the best way to do it, but it's how you finish, right?

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Granderson's Bright Smile Is Sure To Dull Opponents' Senses

The last time a Detroit sports team employed a smiling assassin, he wore #11 and made his living on the hardwood.

Isiah Thomas, the cherubic point guard, took great joy in twisting the knife in his opponents' backs even as he was grinning from ear-to-ear. And he smiled all the way to two World Championships and within seconds of a third. The other team rarely smiled, though, when Isiah got into one of his zones.

There's another happy-go-lucky athlete toiling in town who will just as quickly steal your lunch as he will chomp on his ever-present gum.

Curtis Granderson has a smile that could light up Woodward Avenue if there was ever a massive power outage. He is rising in stature now -- functioning as a baseball commentator for Sirius Radio Network, and blogging for He traveled overseas last winter, teaching baseball to youngsters and spreading good cheer.

But there won't be too many pitchers smiling, I submit, when Grandy steps into the batter's box this summer. He has worked hard to exhibit patience and a better eye at the plate, trying to cut down on those unsightly 174 strikeouts for a leadoff hitter, which he had in 2006.

Early indications are that it's working. He only fanned seven times in spring training. And if he becomes more of a contact hitter, then opposing teams are going to be even more miserable handling the Tigers' lineup.

Carlos Guillen is still, in my mind and that of others, the team's MVP, if you have to pick one guy for that honor. Placido Polanco is right up there, too. And you can toss Granderson in there, because if he improves as anticipated, the Tigers will have a very dangerous leadoff hitter.

Against righthanders, anyway. The lefty-swinging Granderson is slated to be the Tigers' leadoff hitter against righties, and will slip down the order against lefties -- when Pudge Rodriguez is expected to bat leadoff.

Granderson showed some more of that potential today, golfing a low changeup over the right-centerfield wall for a grand slam. It wasn't the easiest pitch to hit out -- especially on a cold day like today -- but Curtis did it, and that's what he can do: offer power at the top of the order, which means the Tigers have power at the top, in the middle, and at the bottom. Did I leave anything out?

It'll be fun to watch Granderson mature as a ballplayer, and something tells me this is going to be a breakout year for him. I think .300/25/80 is possible. Last season, Granderson went .260/19/68.

But the most important number -- the one that will officially tell us whether he's turning the corner -- is that awful 174. That many strikeouts from a leadoff guy -- especially one who doesn't bunt or steal bases, as Granderson doesn't do enough yet -- is completely unacceptable. And he knows it. Granderson, I can tell you, is a student of the game. He respects it. So when the strikeout number rose to Rob Deer-like levels last summer, Granderson knew he'd have to go to work to stunt that growth.

So if the 174 can be cut drastically -- like maybe to just a tad over 100 for starters -- then the Tigers will have one of the game's best leadoff guys. As if that lineup needed to get anymore formidable.

Grandy can go right on smiling. The more he does, the less likely the other team's guys are following suit.


Monday, April 02, 2007

Whether It's Opening Day Or Opening day, It's Special

Jim Bouton had it right.

Today is either Opening Day, or Opening day -- depending on how you feel about it.

Bouton, the former big league pitcher and author of the groundbreaking book, "Ball Four," described baseball's first day thusly in his book. He also ended it by saying that, as a ballplayer, you spend your life gripping a baseball, and it turns out it was the other way around the whole time.

Today is an unofficial holiday in Detroit -- maybe it IS official, come to think of it. Work attendance is going to take a hit today. But do schoolkids still carry tarnsistor radios with them, and listen to the game surreptitiously? Doubtful, but then again they have BlackBerries and other devices with which to monitor the match's progress.

In my school daze -- I mean days -- our teachers would have a TV rolled in by the geeky A/V dude, and he or she would let us watch a few innings. This was circa the early 1970s. But I also remember doing the transistor radio thing outside during afternoon recess. In 1972, when the Tigers were in the ALCS, the TV privilege returned. I remember hustling home to watch the final innings of the decisive Game 5 -- a heartbreaking 2-1 loss.

But back to Opening Day/day.

Few cities, if any, I believe, do it better than Detroit -- though I've never experienced another city on Opening Day/day. I just can't imagine any city's denizens celebrating it the way we do here. It's still not QUITE the same as it was during the Tiger Stadium days, but it's more than just about the ballpark, of course. It's an environment. An underlying feeling of fellowship. The few times when we all feel like we're in this thing together.

Proof of this is that you don't even need a ticket to the game to feel the energy. I've never done so, but one year I might just go downtown, sans ticket or media credential, and just hang out -- walking around and keeping my eyes and ears open. Yes, I just might do that someday.

Today I'll be in front of the tube, watching it on FSD. It can be special at home, too. Plus, free parking.