Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Like Inge (Maybe), Wockenfuss A Super Sub Who Was Odd Man Out

Perhaps no athlete in Detroit in recent memory has bonded so well with fans, yet had so many infuriated with him at the same time, than Tigers (so far) third baseman Brandon Inge.

Inge is drenched in this community, both on and off the field. His biggest fans are those who, in some cases, don't give much of a hoot about baseball -- but who like him and appreciate him for his involvement with children and other worthy causes. He's adored by teammates, and has made himself into quite a third sacker, considering he has only played the position for a few seasons.

But Inge might be an ex-Tiger when all is said and done this spring training. The mega-trade for 3B Miguel Cabrera could see to that. Unless the 30-year-old (yes, he's 30) Inge acquiesces to a reduced role in 2008 -- i.e. that of a sort of "super sub" who can competently play a number of positions. It was a role that Mickey Stanley gladly played late in his Tigers career, because he knew that was his best chance to remain in Detroit, where he had rooted himself.

But after Stanley, there was another fan favorite who tossed away the catcher's gear and turned himself into a nice utility player.

Johnny Wockenfuss, he of the corkscrew batting stance and Fu Manchu mustache, joined the Tigers in the mid-1970s as a backstop. But by the time the 1980s were here, Wockenfuss had already worn a first baseman's glove, patrolled the outfield, and was a decent DH and pinch-hitter. And with some power.

Wockenfuss was well-liked in Detroit, because he looked like the fans: kind of rumpled, a bit weathered, and with lunch pail written all over him. By '83, Wockenfuss was also a favorite of manager Sparky Anderson, and came up with some big hits. He wasn't a Gold Glover, but he wasn't awful, either.

But the Tigers' surplus of young talent squeezed 'Fuss out, and he was traded in spring training 1984, along with Glenn Wilson, to the Phillies for Dave Bergman and Willie Hernandez. That deal worked out pretty well, if you recall.

Will Inge experience the same fate? He wants to play, and sees himself as a starter, as well he should. It's unclear if he'd be amiable to a reserve role in Detroit. Early indicators are that he seeks a trade. Can't really blame him, though he'd leave behind a bunch of disappointed fans. He'd also leave behind some who would say "Good riddance", due to his maddening offensive struggles. He's not the greatest with RISP, that's for sure.

He's a sort of paradox, Inge is. You either love him or hate him, it seems. But I have a feeling that the tears would outnumber the jeers should he leave Detroit.


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