Friday, March 30, 2007

Toto, I Don't Think We're In 2006 Anymore

It didn't take long for the baseball gods to hint that 2007 will be no walk in the park for the defending American League champion Tigers.

Last season, the Tigers sailed thru the season with hardly any major injuries to key players. Lefthanded starter Mike Maroth and second baseman Placido Polanco were the only regulars who missed significant time.

Now comes news that lefthanded starter Kenny Rogers, who gave us a postseason to remember last fall, has had successful surgery on his left shoulder to remove a blood clot and fix some arteries.

He'll be out until at least July, according to team president and GM Dave Dombrowski.

Righthander Chad Durbin becomes the Tigers' #5 starter.

This is Rogers's first visit to the DL since 2001, and last season he was most durable. Last season, most of the Tigers were. Last season, things mostly went right.

Last season.

It shouldn't surprise many folks around here that the Tigers could be just about as good in 2007 as they were in 2006, yet not make the playoffs. It also shouldn't surprise them that the yellow brick road might have some potholes in it -- that didn't exist ... last season.

Rogers's setback might -- might -- be the first indicator that 2007 and 2006 are one year apart according to the calendar, but light years apart in baseball time.

Then again, maybe this is it for the Tigers, when it comes to major injuries. And Rogers will be back -- in time for the season's second half.

The question remains, though.

Will that be soon enough?

Thursday, March 29, 2007

As The Mercury Rises, So Does My Penchant For Board Baseball

I know baseball season is growing near, because I'm getting the tabletop board game itch again.

As some of you might know, I am a tabletop sports junkie. No video games here. Uh-uh. Gotta be the dice and the cards. APBA, Strat-o-Matic, Dynasty League, Replay. I have them all, and more. While interviewing Jeff Daniels last fall, I found out the actor and I shared the same passion. I'm sure there are other closet game players out there. If you're one, or think you might be a candidate, check out

Anyhow, I'm starting to break out the games now that the weather is getting warmer. My hockey and basketball games are about to take a backseat. Last night I played the second game of my latest project: replaying the 1961 Chicago Cubs season (well, half of it anyway) courtesy Strat-o-Matic. The Cubbies went 64-90 that season. For some reason I get fascinated with replaying bad teams. And, after last night's wild 9-7 loss to the Milwaukee Braves (Hank Aaron homered), my North Siders are 0-2.

No electricity required.

I also have the 2003 Red Sox on hold. I'm replaying their ENTIRE season with Dynasty League (the best baseball game out there), and left off with their schedule in early May. I'll pick them up on May 8th -- so I can replay the rest of that season "real time", thru October. So far the Red Sox are 18-16.

It doesn't stop there. I have the 1974 Twins on hold in APBA, along with a miniature, 36-game 1959 American League season with SOM. I'm sick, I tell you.

But there's just nothing like "rolling them bones" when you're a 43-year-old who wouldn't know a GameCube from a flash cube.

Tonight I'll give my Cubbies their third crack at Aaron's Braves. I smell an 0-3 start. These are the Cubbies, after all -- and a BAD Cubbies team, to boot.

By the way, those early-1960s Cubs teams tried a miserable experiment called the "College of Coaches." Instead of one manager, the higher-ups thought it would be swell if nine -- nine -- different men tried their hand at it, rotating throughout the year. When they weren't serving as manager, they simply became another coach. The results were predictably disastrous.

So add me to the 1961 faculty.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Tigers' Catching History Is Rich; Who Will Continue It?

The lineage is impressive, and runs thru generations. In fact, it goes back to the 19th century, when the Detroit baseball club toiled in the National League.

Charlie Bennett was the catcher back then, for the old Detroit Wolverines, and so much was he admired, the franchise named its baseball grounds after him: Bennett Park.

There was Black Mike, Mickey Cochrane, player-manager of the powerhouse teams from the 1930s. Hall of Fame.

When the Tigers contended and made a World Series in the early-1940s, Birdie Tebbetts was the backstop. He wasn't spectacular but he was solid and ended up being a fine manager after his playing days.

The catching pedigree resumed in the 1960s and has continued mostly unencumbered since.

It resumed with Bill Freehan, who gave way to Lance Parrish, who gave way to capable Mike Heath. Brad Ausmus, a defensive wizard, came and went a couple times in the 1990s. Then a dry spell, before Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez signed in 2004.

Rodriguez (top) and Freehan: the tradition continues

So it'll be interesting to see who the Tigers follow Rodriguez with behind the plate. Pudge is 35, and though he's in marvelous shape, things can fall apart quickly for catchers that age and above.

There isn't a hotshot prospect, really, wearing a catcher's mitt in the Tigers' system. Hence, it's likely the Tigers' next backstop is currently with another organization. Backup Vance Wilson is terrific in that role, but he's not an everyday player. And he's no spring chicken, either.

The old baseball adage has been true when it comes to the Tigers. Every championship-contending team they've fielded, just about, has been strong at catcher.

Rodriguez, perhaps, is the top man the Tigers have employed at the position, ever. Certainly an argument could be made as such. But whether you agree with that or not, it can't be debated that Pudge is in the top two or three.

Every team has its strengths in franchise history. And its weaknesses. The Yankees have excelled at catcher, too. The Mets have struggled mightily at third base.

I wonder when talk will start to be serious about Rodriguez's successor as Tigers catcher. He's one of the few position players the team has whose future is not likely to last too much longer.

The new catcher, it appears, isn't anywhere in the Tigers' organization currently. Don't say Brandon Inge. Or Chris Shelton. Their catching days are over with. Pudge Rodriguez figures to have three more years, at best, as everyday catcher. After that?

I wonder what age Freehan's grandkids are getting to be.

Friday, March 23, 2007

LaRussa's Nap Can't Be Shrugged Off

By now you've probably heard of St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa's DUI misdemeanor in Florida, in which he was found slumped at the wheel, asleep, at a traffic light -- at least through two cycles before a motorist reported him. Maybe you chuckled at the absurdity of the visual. I confess I snickered and rolled my eyes.

But it's not funny; not at all.

If LaRussa, who reportedly registered a 0.093 in a field sobriety test at the time, was too inebriated to stay awake at a traffic light to which he drove, then how fit was he to be behind a wheel in the first place?

It's frightening, really, to think of what could have happened in this instance -- what could have transpired if LaRussa stayed awake, after all. You've seen and heard enough drunken driving horror stories for me to have to spell it out to you.

It'll be interesting to see how the Cardinals and MLB handle this situation. Will they simply let the legal system do its thing, or will they feel compelled to do something separate from that?

LaRussa's mugshot

My feeling is that there should be some penance paid to the Cardinals and MLB, perhaps in the form of a suspension, if LaRussa is found guilty of these charges. And, frankly, I don't think there's any question that he acted improperly, at the very least. Not to pile on the Cardinals' manager, but if baseball did nothing after a finding of guilt and culpability, then I think that's wrong. I'm not talking anything unreasonable here. But I think a suspension of at least three regular season games isn't too harsh.

I don't know enough about Tony LaRussa to know if the behavior that led to this incident earlier this week is part of a pattern, or is isolated. I pray that it's the latter. But regardless, baseball -- and his employing team -- can't just be satisfied with whatever punishment the legal system deems fair.

Again, just think of how bad this could have turned out, had LaRussa not drifted off to an alcohol-induced slumber.

This time, being asleep at the wheel was probably a blessing. Not so, 99% of the rest of the time.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Perez, Fans Need To Forget 2006 ASAP

Neifi Perez needs a do-over. He needs a clean slate in the worst way, and then maybe everyone can go on with their lives.

OK, maybe a tad dramatic, but Perez, aiming to be the Tigers' main backup middle infielder, isn't on the best of terms with Tigers' fans at the moment. After being acquired in late August from the Cubs, Perez quickly fell into disfavor, victim of a feeble batting average and average defense. It didn't help that he joined the team when it was in the throes of the 19-31 finish that robbed them of the Central division title. In fact, the slide almost coincided with Perez's arrival, so he became a symbol of the team's struggles.

Then, during the Tigers' winter caravan, manager Jim Leyland, criticized for having a fascination with Perez last year, stated that the blame should be put on him for bringing Perez to Detroit. Leyland then stated the obvious, which was that Perez didn't perform well; basically, he wasn't what the manager had bargained for.

All that didn't lessen the derisiveness that the Tigers public heaped upon Perez. He was too expensive, and not much of a help to the cause, in their eyes.

Now, in Florida, Perez seems to be making a bid to get out of the doghouse. He is exhibiting patience at the plate, and had a single after a terrific at bat in the ninth inning of yesterday's loss to the Pirates. He will most likely make the team, and thus will get his chance at the aforementioned clean slate. And if anyone needs it, it's Perez. There aren't too many goats on a defending league champion team, but if there's one on the Tigers, it certainly is Neifi Perez.

It's amazing, really, that Perez fell out of favor in such a relatively short period of time. But some of the explanation can be derived from the at bats and playing time he took away from Omar Infante, who enjoys moderate adoration from Tigers fans, and with good reason.

But it's a new season, and Opening Day has a way of washing away some bad feelings held over from the previous campaign. When Neifi Perez lines up on the third baseline at Comerica Park on Opening Day in his creamy white Tigers uniform, I hope that everyone can forget 2006 and allow him to begin 2007 fresh.

Isn't that what a new baseball season is for?

Monday, March 19, 2007

Late Spring Training Trade In '84 Sealed The Deal For Tigers

The Tigers were toward the end of another spring training, the countdown to the regular season done in days now, instead of weeks. After a second place finish the season before, the same cast of characters, mostly, was being counted on to take the record and finish up one more notch.

Then a bombshell, of sorts.

It was late March, 1984, and the Tigers made a trade that interrupted the laziness and warmth of the Florida sun.

Gone to Philadelphia were outfielder Glenn Wilson and catcher/first baseman Johnny Wockenfuss. Coming to Detroit would be first baseman Dave Bergman, known as an outstanding fielder and capable hitter, and a relief pitcher named Willie Hernandez, who labored in relative anonymity with the Phillies and, before that, the Cubs.

Nobody knew it at the time, but GM Bill Lajoie had just locked up the pennant and the World Series with that deal.

Hernandez wasn't even considered the key acquisition; it was first baseman Bergman

Wilson was a decent outfielder with a little pop in his bat who had a strong upside. But he fell out of favor with manager Sparky Anderson, for whatever reason, and once that happened with Sparky, the move was irreversible. Wockenfuss had been a faithful Tigers veteran for ten seasons, a popular dude in Detroit.

Ironically, it was the slick-fielding Bergman who was considered the key acquisition at the time. The Tigers had signed free agent Darrell Evans, but he was slated to play mostly third base. Bergman would shore up the Tigers' defense at first base and maybe hit .270 or so as well.

As for Hernandez, he was to provide some bullpen depth -- a lefthanded foil to Senor Smoke, Aurelio Lopez.

Without Hernandez, who knows where the Tigers would have been in '84. And Bergman did what he was expected to do, including his memorable at bat against Toronto's Roy Lee Jackson on a Monday night.

Wilson went on to some good, solid years in Philadelphia before finishing with Pittsburgh in 1993. Wockenfuss played two seasons with the Phillies before retiring.

Hernandez would end up being booed out of Detroit by 1989, but for one season, he was untouchable, and won both the Cy Young and MVP Awards in 1984.

Sometimes the trades that wake up spring training can also reverberate through an entire season.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Kuhn Didn't Always Do The Popular Thing, But He Was Relevant

Bowie Kuhn, at times, was a commissioner of baseball who was bigger than the game itself. And one who took the responsibility of being the game's keeper extremely seriously, probably too much so in certain instances. But he was relevant, which is more than you can say about others who came before him and who succeeded him.

Kuhn, who died yesterday at age 80, presided over baseball through what may have been its most important time -- at least its most evolving. He was commissioner from 1969 to 1984.

World Series games played at night. A switch to divisions, creating LCSs. The designated hitter. Free agency. All this happened when Kuhn was baseball's commissioner, and all were big moments in the game's history.

Kuhn was both vilified and hailed, especially when he made decisions based on, in his words, "the best interests of baseball." Maybe the most famous of these occurred whenever Kuhn would go toe-to-toe with Oakland A's owner Charlie O. Finley. Kind of like Pete Rozelle's tussles with Raiders managing partner Al Davis. When Finley tried to hold a mideason fire sale in 1976, attempting to jettison players like Joe Rudi, Vida Blue, and Ken Holtzman to the Yankees and Red Sox, Kuhn stepped in, blocking the transactions. Not on his watch would he allow an owner to sell his players off like it was a huge clearance event.

But Kuhn was also baseball's proprietor during the lengthy strike of 1981, which created the much-derided "first half" and "second half" divisional champs and ushered in an era of recurring labor problems. Some say the '81 strike greased the skids for his replacement, which happened in 1984 when Olympic executive Peter Ueberroth took over.

Baseball enjoyed an attendance boon in the 1970s, and much of it was because of the elements Kuhn helped to bring to the game, like the DH and free agency. Like them or not, those two introductions left an indelible mark.

But the bottom line is this: Bowie Kuhn was relevant. He was immersed in the game. And he wasn't always very popular as a result. But you knew who he was, and you talked about his decisions.

Kuhn often didn't care what others thought of his ideas and his vision for baseball. He only cared about keeping as much integrity and credibility in the game as possible. Some criticized him for being, in their eyes, a self-appointed caretaker at the expense of progress or the louder majority's desires. But nobody could accuse him of not caring.

He was one of sports' better commissioners, really.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Lamont Went Yard Early, And Is Still Doing So

He had the most auspicious of major league debuts, the kind that is storybook, even if the book isn't as compelling as you'd like it to be.

Gene Lamont hit a homerun in his very first at bat in the big leagues, on September 2, 1970. It turned out to be the Tigers' lone run in a 10-1 loss to the Red Sox at Fenway Park.

Lamont has come full circle, now in his second season as the Tigers' third base coach. He's manager Jim Leyland's right hand man so to speak, a former big league manager himself who knows the game as well as anyone.

Lamont's playing career, unfortunately, failed to live up to his first at bat. A catcher, Lamont spread 159 big league AB among five seasons as a Tiger, hitting .233 with three homeruns.

But isn't it so often the poor big leaguer who makes the best brain in the dugout?

Lamont had some success as a major league manager, leading the White Sox to the 1993 and 1994 divisional titles. With the Pirates, Lamont's teams never finished above .500, but he didn't have the talent he had in Chicago, either. The man he followed in Pittsburgh? None other than Jim Leyland, who first met Lamont when the former was a young minor league manager and Lamont was a catching prospect.

Being a third base coach isn't for anyone who's seeking praise and pats on the back. Often, you only get mentioned when something goes wrong, like a runner being gunned down at the plate. But Lamont, I'm telling you, is one of the game's best, mainly because you don't see Tigers runners making many mistakes as they round third, or second.

Believe me, there's more to Lamont's job than this.

Lamont has no eyes on Leyland's job that I'm aware of, but the skipper told a funny story last April about a blown tire he experienced on an Ohio highway.

"I called the team to let them know what happened," Leyland told us reporters gathered around his desk during an informal pregame press conference. "Lamont said, 'He's not OK, is he?'"

It broke up the room.

Lamont hit a homerun in his first at bat in the bigs, and he's still hitting them for the Tigers as a competent third base coach and de facto manager.

Monday, March 12, 2007

McLain, Again, Misses An Opportunity To Take His Own Bullet

Denny McLain's book is mistitled.

His latest autobiography, I Told You I Wasn't Perfect, is out, and this isn't a book review, for I haven't read it. Nor do I plan on it. I'm getting enough snippets from the newspapers to know where Denny is going with his latest rewriting of history.

It's mistitled because if there was ever a perfectly named memoir for McLain -- at least one that was told in the first person -- it would be I Told You It Wasn't My Fault. Such a named publication could be placed on a bookstore's nonfiction shelf with at least a small measure of credibility.

McLain throws the usual suspects under the bus, like fellow starting pitcher Mickey Lolich ("Lolich was miserable in the middle of the '68 season because I was going so well and he was pitching so badly," McLain writes, according to published reviews. "There's nothing worse than somebody wallowing in his own misery, and Mickey was a miserable guy in 1968."), but he also unleashes some venom toward Al Kaline, albeit in an unfactual manner.

He chides Kaline for missing 40 games in 1968 after jamming his bat into a bat rack in anger, then accuses the media of covering it up by reporting that he broke his arm after being hit by a pitch thrown by the A's' Lew Krausse. The truth, as usual, eludes McLain. Kaline's bat rack incident happened in 1967; the broken arm was factual, and indeed occurred in 1968.

Also in the book, McLain "exposes" the supposed alcohol-drinking excesses of manager Mayo Smith.

"Mayo drank so much that it usually took him three or four innings to sober up and get his head into the game."

Whether Smith drank too much, I don't know. But even if he did, it must not have affected his ability to manage; the Tigers won 103 games in '68, and you don't win that many with a drunk for a skipper.

I've already spent too much time on McLain's book, cowritten by broadcaster Eli Zaret. Because in it, he fails to own up to anything of any real significance. Jerry Green, semi-retired and writing for the Detroit News online every Sunday, offers up a nice preview of the book for those interested, here. Green does give a nod, however, to the poignancy when McLain talks about some of his personal tragedies, including the death of his 26-year-old daughter. So Denny does have feelings; that much I suspected.

It's a conscience that I'm still trying to find.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Thankfully, Tigers Won't Bid Lakeland Adieu In Near Future

This spring, the Los Angeles Dodgers are training in Vero Beach, Fla. Nothing new there; they've done so for some sixty years. And they'll do it again next year. Business as usual. But in 2009, the Dodgers will train in Glendale, Az. -- a move being made for a number of reasons.

That will leave Lakeland, Fla. as the dean of spring training sites. The Tigers started training there off and on in the 1930's before settling on it permanently in 1946.

The Dodgers cited being closer to their fan base, a sparkling new facility, and other factors in moving from Vero Beach to Glendale. But it won't, and shouldn't, happen without some moist eyes. Dodger Town in Vero Beach is hallowed ground. It's where Roy Campanella gave catching advice from a wheelchair, and where Sandy Koufax signed autographs after practice. And a zillion other memories.

The Tigers have memories, too, in Lakeland. It's where an 18-year-old kid named Al Kaline first put on the Old English D, never to play a day in the minor leagues. It's where manager Charlie Dressen had his annual chili parties, and where he suffered a heart attack the evening of the 1966 shindig. It's where Joe Coleman got beaned on the pitcher's mound, and where Billy Martin quit briefly as Tigers manager, complaining of meddling by GM Jim Campbell. It's also where Norm Cash used to make fans smile by wearing sunglasses with battery-operated windshield wipers on them. And on and on.

The Tigers, thankfully, have no plans to leave Lakeland high and dry, as the Dodgers will do to Vero Beach in two years. Some folks might not think where a baseball team trains in March is all that important or consequential. And, truthfully, it doesn't mean a hill of beans to a team's chances once the real games start in April. But the Dodgers' fleeing Dodger Town in Vero Beach should be marked with some sadness.

It's one more thing that breaks today's game away from the simpler times. And that can never be good, can it?

Monday, March 05, 2007

Bonds And Aaron Don't Have Much In Common, After All

The way I see it, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds have two things in common in their respective pursuits to be the game's all-time homerun king: both men are black, and both have received death threats regarding said chase.

But on second glance, there isn't all that much in common with the death threat thing. So you may as well just say it: both were/are black men chasing the game's penultimate record. And that's it as far as common threads.

Aaron endured such disgraceful behavior by his fellow citizens as to be absolutely repugnant. This was 1973-74, and as Hammerin' Hank closed in on Babe Ruth, when the record looked to be inevitably his, there were those miscreants who harassed him with hate mail, catcalls, and other crap that suddenly drew solid comparisons to Jackie Robinson's foray into the major leagues in 1947.

No black man (few used that term, of course) is going to break that white man's record without at least suffering for it!, was the prevailing "wisdom." Others went further, of course, and offered to end Aaron's pursuit permanently.

Recently, Bonds, who's a couple of dozen homers shy of breaking Aaron's record -- a feat that will be done under a shroud of shame -- revealed that he's received death threats because of his closing in on Aaron.

Ahh, but those threats aren't because of the color of his skin -- presumably no, anyway. Rather, the anger that is turning to hate that is turning to such threats has everything to do with the presupposition that Bonds has attained this level by not playing fair.

No bulked up hulk is going to break that fine man Aaron's record without at least suffering for it!, is the new mantra.

Irony reigns and is dripping.

I wonder, if anyone else happens along to threaten Bonds' record, whether that person will be vilified, presuming he's clean as a whistle. Black or white. Or Latin American. In other words, is it the record that gets people's juices flowing, or the person chasing it? When Aaron busted Ruth's mark, the Babe hadn't played for nearly 40 years. Now, Bonds is on the verge, some 31 years after Aaron finished his career as a Brewer. And who knows how many more years will pass before someone is in position to be the next homerun king?

Will that person suffer thru death threats and hatred?

The beef with Aaron by the miscreants in 1974 was his skin hue. Today, the beef with Bonds is with his magic creams and elixirs.

See? Not all that much in common, after all.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Inge's Exploits At #9 Unprecedented; A Retired Number In His Future?

It used to be the throwaway spot in the batting order. A place where the team's worst hitting position player resided. Only batting ninth because it was impossible to bat him tenth.

Brandon Inge isn't the first #9 hitter to have a significant impact on his team's offensive production. But he, I believe, is the premier ninth hitter of his time, which is right now.

In 2006, Inge had 542 at bats. In them, he managed 27 homeruns and 83 RBI. You'd take that from plenty of #4, #5, or #6 hitters. But Inge accumulated the vast majority of these numbers hitting ninth in an order that was most dangerous, it seemed, the further down you traveled it. No team in baseball got more production from the 7/8/9 spots in the order than the Tigers got last season. Not even close. This is a lower third that includes the powerful and clutch Craig Monroe, don't forget. And often, the smiling, competent-swinging Sean Casey.

But it's Inge who's the topic du jour. He's revolutionizing the #9 spot, I submit. It will be interesting to see how many other major league teams follow the Tigers' lead and place a power and RBI guy who might normally hit in the middle of the order down at the flat bottom. Of course, not many lineups feature bats as impressive as the Tigers do, one thru nine. But still, Inge's unprecedented production at #9 will surely cause other teams to rethink their paradigm.

He does all this offensive stuff, while at the same time carving himself a place as one of the game's finest third basemen -- a position he learned on the job. He'll be 30 this May, and entering the prime of his career.

Brandon Inge, I am telling you now, has a great chance to be the face of this Tigers organization for years and years. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if he ends up being a lifelong Tiger -- the 15 to 20 year variety. It's not even too much to suggest, frankly, that his #15 may never be worn by another Tiger again.

Who else, do you think, has a better chance of being the next Tigers player to be so immortalized after his playing days are done?

Unlike the old time #9 hitter, who you placed there in the hopes that you could hide him, Inge hits #9 because nobody else does what he does from that spot in the batting order.

The Tigers as trend-setters?

Other MLB teams could do a lot worse than to try it on. But they don't have Brandon Inge, so anyone else they try will be a knockoff. We have the original here.