Monday, June 30, 2008

Monday Morning Manager

(my weekly take on the Tigers)

Last Week: 5-1
This Week: (6/30-7/2: at Min; 7/3-6: at Sea)

It's crazy where these baseball sabermatricians (sp?) come up with some of their fodder.

The Tigers, it was revealed, became the only team in modern history to edge over .500 for the first time in a season at the exact halfway point of the season. They are 41-40 now, thanks to a five-game winning streak.

Chew on that for a moment -- not that it has any flavor. But there it is.

What's far more important than any statistical oddity is that the Tigers are -- FINALLY -- playing the type of baseball that everyone expected they would when the curtain was raised on March 31. So much has happened since then; it almost seems like another season, doesn't it -- the sleepwalking of April and May?

Certainly the roster has changed. And the positions of the players. And the look of the starting rotation. And the complexion of the bullpen.

You could fill a decent sized book with the lives and times of the Tigers in the first half of the 2008 season -- a first half that may go down in franchise history as being one of the most bizarre and turbulent of any, at anytime.

Yet here the Tigers are -- five games out of first place and about to play a quote-unquote big series against the Twins in Minnesota, in that damn Metrodome (frequent Grubber readers know of my undying affection for that piece of garbage stadium). All those twists and turns, and managerial moves that were mostly made out of desperation, and still the Tigers have landed at the halfway point in (no pun intended) halfway decent shape.

Half of the Toledo Mudhens' position players and several of their pitchers have spent some time in Detroit, at one point or another. Even now, many of them wear Tigers uniforms, mainly due to injuries. Here's how well things are going for the Tigers, who are 17-4 in their last 21 games: a weak-hitting catcher named Dane Sardinha smacked a triple to drive in the winning run yesterday. It was his first career MLB hit. And the night before that, the Tigers shrugged off a four-run Colorado Rockies rally in the ninth -- a rally that put them down a run -- and simply went out and needed just three batters to score two runs to win the game in the bottom half of the ninth. Both of those games -- Saturday and Sunday -- the Tigers probably would have lost had they been played in the season's first two months.

But now, more injuries. Magglio Ordonez, shelved for two-plus weeks with another of those oblique injuries, the kind the Tigers are now becoming famous for. Brandon Inge still smarting from the same type of malady. Jeremy Bonderman, of course, out for the year with a circulation problem in his arm. Dontrelle Willis a riddle wrapped inside of an enigma. Or vice-versa. Either way, he's of no use to the team right now.

The Tigers have begun winning games because they are playing the game right and exhibiting the ability to come from behind and answer their opponents' body shots. Toss in a settling-down rotation (featuring Toledo grads Eddie Bonine and Armando Galarraga) and a tighter defense and a healthy Gary Sheffield, and this is the result. A genuine pennant race looms in the season's second half. How about that?

The Tigers, as their nickname implies, are like the proverbial cat that somehow lands on his feet.


Friday, June 27, 2008

Sheffield's Healthy Return Very Alluring

Gary Sheffield is healthy. Praise the Lord. And about 150 pitchers in the American League are squirming -- or should be.

I must admit, I never thought I'd see the day. I figured Sheffield -- who's battled a variety of shoulder and side injuries for about a year now -- would never be right. In fact, I openly speculated that he would retire, or be cut, before the 2008 season was over with. I wasn't alone. It wasn't anything personal; but Sheff couldn't stay healthy, and it was almost painful to watch him try to swing the bat with half a working body. He wasn't just a shell of his prior self; he was a child's drawing.

Here's what I wrote, sometime in May:

Sheffield, by the way, is done. I've said it before: I'll bet you three coneys that Sheff hangs 'em up before the season is over with. That'd be sad, as we only got to see the REAL Gary Sheffield for about half a season. But he's still hurt, isn't getting any better, and it's only out of deference to his great career that the Tigers haven't cut him loose by now.


He's menacing, once again

But something amazing has happened, for since Sheffield's latest return from the disabled list, he's been the Gary Sheffield of old. He's smacking lasers over the fence. He's getting clutch hits. He's having multiple hit games. He's helping the Tigers win. You know, just like old times.

For a while it looked like we were only going to get about half a season from Sheffield, after the Tigers acquired him from the Yankees in November 2006. He put the team on his shoulders last May and June, and when he hurt his shoulder diving for a ball in the outfield, he wasn't the same. Not even close. Nor was he the same this spring, or in April. Or in May. That's when the whispers began: Gary Sheffield is done. Actually, it was more than a whisper. It became a deafening roar at times. And I was one of those who joined in the hysteria.

But Sheffield is 6-for-13 since re-joining the team this week, with two clutch hits in two days: a game-winning single Wednesday night, and a ninth inning, game-tying homer on Thursday. The idea of a healthy Sheffield wreaking havoc is absolutely delicious.

Luckily for us, Sheffield didn't listen to the naysayers.

"I never had a doubt," he said, that he'd return to 100% health -- and that's what they're calling it. One hundred-freaking-percent.

He was so not a factor in April and May that his return to health now is almost like the Tigers have added a new bat via trade or waiver pick up. It's that significant.

Maybe there's hope for this year, after all. Gary Sheffield is hitting lasers again. Hallelujah.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Baseball Digest: Chicken Soup For The Soul

Oh, how I miss The Baseball Digest.

They still publish it, I know. I could probably drive over to Barnes and Noble right now and lift one off the rack -- provided I can find it among the myriad of magazines that get churned out every month. I'm not sure why I don't. Maybe I want to keep the memories of my childhood relationship with The Digest pristine. Maybe I'm afraid the current version will disappoint me, somehow (it probably would).

TBD -- and in this case that doesn't stand for "To Be Determined" -- was also how I made my one and only pen pal in my life. But more on that later.

If you haven't seen it, TBD was a Reader's Digest-sized publication that came out monthly -- although maybe not as frequently during the off-season; I can't recall. Anyhow, stuffed inside its relatively small package were tons of stories, interviews, features, and regular departments. And at the back were statistics -- either from the current season (of course, outdated as soon as you bought it) or from history. And, rosters of all the teams (again, likely outdated). Plus ads, of course -- but the understated, black-and-white ads, like the ones you'd see in comic books.

I could have picked any number of images, but this comes from the era of which I speak (no, that's not my address label torn off, but it might as well be)

They'd run something called "The Game I'll Never Forget", in which a current star would recall a certain game in detail, always with the subtitle, "As told to ...." They had letters to the editor in the front. Quizzes about rules. Trivia. And a crossword puzzle, which was always fun. It was cover-to-cover reading, and as a subscriber, there wasn't anything better as a 13-year-old to see than the new issue arrive in the mailbox every month.

The same folks who put out TBD also published digests for football, basketball, and hockey. And those had similar departments and features, like "The Game I'll Never Forget."

But the baseball version was the only one I subscribed to, though I'd have my mom pick up one of the other sports' versions if she happened to see them at the Little Professor book store near our house in Livonia.

Now, about that pen pal.

Somehow, through TBD, I got hooked up with this kid from New York, a Yankees fan named Michael Maurer (still remember his name clearly). He was about my age, and we began exchanging letters -- remember those? We wrote back and forth maybe a half-dozen times each, him talking about the Yankees and placating me by telling me that my Tigers (this is circa 1977) were up-and-coming (the Yanks were of championship caliber, as usual). He was a nice kid, I recall. But we lost touch, and that was pretty much that. I think the digest was encouraging kids to get pen pals; I think that's how we met. We might even have been matched up by the magazine.

Maybe I'll do it, after all. Maybe I'll grab a copy of TBD, and at least thumb through it. Not that I'm too cheap to buy it, but I'm eager to see the flavor and "feel" of the current product.

I'll let you know.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Monday Morning Manager

(my weekly take on the Tigers)

Last Week: 4-2
This Week: (6/24-26: STL; 6/27-29: COL)

Oh, how easy we are to please nowadays.

A 36-39 record isn't typically one that elicits high fives and hip bumps, but when you were once 24-36 and 11 games out of first place, buried at the bottom of the division...well, 36-39 looks pretty good. What looks even better is being just 5 games out of first place with almost 90 games to play.

That's the Tigers' situation this morning, and with the first-place Chicago White Sox about to start a west coast trip, the Tigers have just completed one -- and a successful one at that. They took four of six from the Giants and the Padres, losing the first game each time and rallying to capture the last two.

The tide is turning, ever so slowly.

"We're not sprinting yet, we're crawling," manager Jim Leyland said of his group, which is 12-3 since falling to 24-36. They've won four straight series.

A good week at home -- where the Tigers have won six straight -- and .500 will be theirs.

Sparky Anderson used to say that a team "couldn't do nothin'" until they reached and surpassed the .500 mark. Hard to argue; even the weakest divisional winners have had records of at least a few games over the break even point. It won't matter, in the end, if it took the Tigers some 80-90 games to climb over .500, if the divisional race remains tight after the All-Star break. Don't forget about the 2005 Houston Astros, who stunk up the joint for much of the first half before making a charge that led them all the way to the World Series. Those Astros were 21-35 as late as June 7, yet finished with 89 wins and the Wild Card (thank you,

The Tigers ought to be thrilled with their situation right now. It's as if they've been given a second chance at life in the '08 season. Not often can you start as horrendously as the Tigers did (0-7, 2-10, 24-36) yet still have a chance to play meaningful games after the All-Star break. You need others in your division to stumble, and the Tigers have gotten that. The White Sox just got swept in Wrigley Field. The Twins are hot, but that's OK. The Indians continue to teeter and totter. The Royals are, once again, irrelevant.

The leader in the AL Central is just seven games above .500, and that's why the below-.500 Tigers have a shot. Five games out at this point is practically nothing. That is, if you continue to play well -- which the Tigers have done now for over two weeks. It's their best stretch since going 12-5 to climb within one game of .500 after they swept the Yankees in New York.

The offense has come alive, and timely hits are now part of the team's makeup. There's a feeling now that the Tigers will come back, or will get that key hit in the late innings. There's not as much of that feeling of "here we go again" when something goes wrong.

The only trouble is that the Tigers dug themselves such a hole that you almost HAVE to go on one of those 21-6 kind of rolls to get yourself back in it. Check it out: if the Tigers make it to .500 this week, they will have gone 15-3, or something similar, just to do it. Then if they lose a few, as will inevitably happen, you have to claw your way back up again. It leaves little margin for error. Nothing says the White Sox won't heat up and before you know it, you could be 8 or 9 games out again.

But that's speculating. All you can do is keep winning as many ballgames as you can and hope that it gets you somewhere.

If nothing else, this current hot streak is serving notice that the Tigers aren't dead yet, despite attempts to bury them -- by know-it-alls like bloggers and such.

How appropriate that one of the symbols of that magical 2006 season -- the St. Louis Cardinals -- come calling this week. They're handing out replicas of the 1968 road jerseys, too. Maybe another good omen.


Friday, June 20, 2008

Pete Rose May Be Unlikely For A Lot Of Things, But Certainly Not Hitting Advice

So this is what Pete Rose has now been reduced to.

Rose, the most qualified Hall of Famer not enshrined, is now being referred to as an "unlikely" source of hitting advice.

Since when does having the most base hits in the history of the game make on an "unlikely" source of hitting advice?

The scuttlebutt is that Yankees 3B Alex Rodriguez has been text messaging Rose for quite some time, exchanging thoughts on hitting, among other things. And Rose's status as the banned Hall of Famer has raised eyebrows over this practice, which really shouldn't be all that surprising or make Rose all that unlikely of a source.

I could think of worse people to turn to when it comes to hitting a baseball than Pete Rose.

OK, now THIS is an unlikely use of Pete Rose

The two met, apparently, in Las Vegas in early 2006, during a signing show. Rodriguez struck up conversation and became enamored with Charlie Hustle -- a nickname that has taken on a twisted new meaning ever since Rose has been placed under a cloud of suspicion over his gambling ways. OK, so maybe it's not a cloud; maybe it's a hurricane. But I digress.

So now Rose, it seems, has been functioning as an "electronic batting coach", as one published report put it. Rose has also offered advice on things beyond hitting, the reports say.

Here's an example (taken from this report from the New York Daily News website):

During last off-season, while A-Rod was agonizing over whether to opt out of his Yankee contract or return to the Bronx, Rose texted A-Rod: "Got five reasons why you should go to Boston."

"Name 'em" was the reply.

"1. You'll win. 2. You can play shortstop until Mike Lowell leaves and you love shortstop. 3. You'll hit behind Manny and in front of Big Papi. 4. You'll hit 800 home runs with that short porch. 5. The Red Sox fans will love you because you told New York to go screw itself. But I take it all back if Mark Cuban buys the Cubs. You'll end up as part owner of the team and that's a pretty nice ballpark to play in, too."

Rodriguez, of course, re-upped with the Yankees. Rose apparently then congratulated A-Rod for his loyalty.

The Hall of Fame has banned Pete Rose. Baseball has, too, in its own roundabout way. But that doesn't extend to the players, nor should it. Plus, it's not as if Rodriguez was going to Al Capone for business tips.

Pete Rose, an "unlikely" source of hitting advice? Try, "so obvious that you can't see the forest for the trees."

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Mets Didn't Fire Randolph; Everyone Else Did

Willie Randolph has been fired, and he has the Internet to thank. And sports talk radio. And the newspapers. And the TV people. New York Mets GM Oscar Minaya? He's the least culpable, ironically -- though he's the guy who pulled the trigger, or to be more accurate, the plug.

Randolph, the now deposed Mets manager, was taken off life support at the rather symbolic time of 3 a.m. on Tuesday, for that's not an unusual hour for the moribund to bid farewell -- in the dead of night, pun intended.

Minaya yanked the plug, mercifully, thus putting an end to not only Randolph's tenure in New York but to all the speculation and chatter that was threatening to become a season-long distraction.

They engaged in another of those manager/coach "watches" in New York, and those never end well for the one being watched.

Randolph, who presided over last season's September collapse, was said to be on thin ice ever since they threw the last pitch of the World Series -- maybe even earlier than that. Everyone said so. There was the "Randolph Watch" even as the teams practiced under the palm trees in Florida.

But it wasn't Mets management who said there was such a watch. It was everyone else. Those aforementioned media and blogging folks, each with shovel in hand, ready to throw dirt over Randolph's figurative grave. Granted, some weak statements from the front office didn't really do much to quell the rumors, but once a watch begins, there's really no stopping it, short of saying, "Willie Randolph is safe! Safe, I say! Now, get on with your lives! Sheesh!"

Nothing close to those words were uttered by Minaya and company.

So the watch continued, unabated.

The Mets have piddled around the .500 mark for much of the season, which wasn't going to cut it in a city that expected its team to pick itself off the mat after last season's disappointment and contend for a playoff spot yet again. The watch gained steam; Mets management was feeble in its resistance to it.

Randolph would be fired any day now, the shovel holders said. Maybe today, perhaps tomorrow. The team left for a west coast trip, and the smart money was on it returning to New York with a different manager. Randolph's condition deteriorated.

He must have slipped into a coma overnight, after the Mets' win over the Angels, because Minaya stepped in and, seeing no hope and declaring his manager a vegetable, provided his mercy killing. He did a Jack Kevorkian, at the behest of the shovel holders.

It's not always the front office who fires a coach or a manager.

Willie Randolph is fired -- dead, if you will. Driven out by a mad mob of speculators and shovel holders. Pummeled into a comatose state.

Minaya pulled the plug. What else was there to do, really?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Monday Morning Manager

(my weekly take on the Tigers)

Last Week: 6-1
This Week: (6/16-18: at SF; 6/20-22: at SD)

Five games in a week.

That's how much ground the Tigers gained on the first-place White Sox over the past seven days. At this rate, they'll be in first place before July begins.

OK, OK -- I'm getting a little ahead of myself. But it's fun to dream when the dream doesn't seem as much like the pipe variety -- which is how it could be classified one week ago today. Last Monday, the Tigers lost a yawner to the Indians to fall to 11 games below .500 -- with the White Sox coming to town and on a seven-game winning streak. The Tigers were 11 games out of first place.

This morning, the Tigers are riding a six-game winning streak, the White Sox have cooled off -- largely due to a sweep at the hands of the Tigers -- and suddenly the Bengals are but six games out of first place. Not terrific, but plenty of teams have been six out in mid-June and come back to win.

Of course, there's that tiny matter of there being two teams between the Tigers and the White Sox, but neither the Twins nor the Indians seem to be exhibiting any sort of propensity toward winning these days. It may be only a matter of a couple weeks before the Tigers leapfrog them in their pursuit of the White Sox.

For whatever reason, the Tigers feast on interleague play -- and have been for several seasons now. It may just be a sports oddity, but there it is.

There are six more of those IL matchups this week -- three each in San Francisco and San Diego. Neither of those ballclubs are among the National League's best. Then again, neither are the Tigers among the AL's best -- but that's just overall. They're trending toward the upper echelon right now.

Just one week ago, I wrote that the impending return of relievers Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney was coming too late; that it was likely to not have much of an impact on a mediocre team. I said so, back in the days of double-digit deficits in the standings.

I'd like to take my mulligan on that.

Since the Tigers' offense appears to be gaining steam, the bullpen suddenly becomes more relevant, since there are now leads to protect in the late going. So maybe Zoom Zoom and Rodney can still help, after all.

By the way -- and this I've mentioned before but will repeat -- there's no one in the big leagues more powerful or stronger than Marcus Thames. Period.

Thames continues to rank among the likes of Willie Horton and Cecil Fielder as the most physically strong hitters ever to grace a batter's box in Detroit.

Thames doesn't just hit home runs when the pitcher obliges by throwing a fastball in his wheelhouse. No sir. He reaches out, lowers himself, extends himself -- whatever it takes -- and still somehow has enough power to thwack the ball some 390, 400 feet to the alley and over the fence. He did it again yesterday -- and he's done it all week, smacking five HRs during the just-completed 10-game home stand. If Gary Sheffield is famous for launching his lasers that get out of the park as if they were heat-seeking missiles, then Thames' home runs could be classified as hand grenades, launched in high, arcing parabolas that explode on impact. A Sheffield home run zips out of the park in seconds; it's quite possible that you'll miss it if you're not looking. A Thames home run gives everyone a chance to marvel at it -- even the folks who weren't paying attention until tapped on the shoulder -- because they are lazy, high fly balls that seem to enjoy being airborne and the center of attention.

Oh, and Sheff should be back in a week or so from his oblique muscle injury. He says he feels great.

Not too late for his help, either.


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Is Dontrelle Willis Another Steve Blass?

It's never good when they name a syndrome after you. Or a disease. Unless you're the one who discovered it.

For Steve Blass, the syndrome discovered him, and so his name is the one used -- and hardcore baseball fans will know instantly what you're referring to if you say a pitcher has "Steve Blass Syndrome."

Blass was a fireballing righthander who was an integral part of the successful Pittsburgh Pirates teams of the early-1970s. He pitched two complete games in the '71 Series, giving up only two runs in the process, for a 2-0 mark and 1.00 ERA against the Orioles. He was the winning pitcher in the seventh game. The next year, in 1972, Blass won 19 games and posted a 2.49 ERA. He was still only 30 years old and had won 100 games exactly in the big leagues. He was recognized as among the very finest pitchers in the National League, if not in all of baseball.

Then everything went horribly wrong, and by April '74, Steve Blass was out of baseball.

He couldn't find the plate, plain and simple. In 1972, Blass walked 84 batters in 250 innings. In 1973, he walked the same number -- but in 89 innings. His ERA went from 2.49 to 9.85.
He hit four batters in 1972 and 12 in 1973 -- or one every seven-plus innings.

There was no explanation found. Nothing was wrong with Blass physically. The trouble lie between his ears, but just because everyone knew it was a mental thing, didn't mean they knew how to cure it. It got to the point where Blass had no clue where the ball was going when he released it. He literally expressed concern that he was going to seriously injure someone one day.

Steve Blass

Blass gave it another try in '74, but after just one game, five innings pitched, seven walks, a wild pitch, and two home runs allowed, the once-great righthander called it quits. Shortly thereafter, any pitcher who suddenly lost it, control-wise, was said to have Steve Blass Syndrome (SBS).

I bring up Blass because I wonder if Tigers lefty Dontrelle Willis is suffering from SBS.

Willis was never a control freak, per se, but never was he as wild as he's been since being traded from Florida to Detroit. It started in spring training, but it was written off as merely a rough start or some mechanics that needed tweaking. He'd be ready to go, we were told, when the curtain rises for real.

Well, he wasn't. Not even close. Willis walked a ton in his first start the first week of April, then hurt himself in the first inning of his next start, but not before exhibiting more wildness. Then some rehab assignments in Toledo, with mixed results.

Everything finally came to a head Monday night.

Willis started at Comerica Park against the Indians, and manager Jim Leyland said he felt for his young lefty. Willis struggled mightily, not really coming close to throwing strikes. He's now walked almost twice the number of innings that he's pitched: 11 innings, 20 walks. It's a hideous ratio, and it's very SBS-ish.

Now Willis has been shipped down to the minors, wayyy down, all the way to Lakeland. Class A ball. Scraping the bottom of the minor league barrel. There, says GM Dave Dombrowski, Willis can get the attention and care that he so badly needs.

They still talk of mechanics -- Willis included -- when breaking down Willis's troubles. Not yet has the talked really turned to what's going on in his cranium. Which is funny, because I'm pretty sure that's where the problem lies. Maybe no one wants to admit it publicly. Especially Willis himself.

The Tigers had a lefty reliever named Kevin Saucier. "Hot Sauce" was his nickname, and he was the team's closer in 1981. He was brilliant in '81, picking up 13 saves and posting an ERA of 1.65. No control problems, either. But in 1982, Saucier started to lose it a bit. Like Blass, he worried about hurting someone. He retired in July '82, in order to put those worries to bed permanently. Saucier wasn't yet 26 when he quit.

It's probably still too early to definitively say that Dontrelle Willis has Steve Blass Syndrome. But there's nothing yet to prove to me that he doesn't.

That's what's spooky.

(stats retrieved from

Monday, June 09, 2008

Monday Morning Manager

(my weekly take on the Tigers)

Last Week: 2-4
This Week: (6/9: CLE; 6/10-12: CWS: 6/13-15: LAD)

The Tigers' lineup is still in flux. Marcus Thames still isn't the leftfielder, really, despite manager Jim Leyland's declaration to that effect a couple weeks ago. Thames plays there, but not all that more frequently than before the declaration. Brandon Inge has disappeared again, not a week after being given another taste of his true love, third base. An injury to his side has contributed to that.

But let's put that aside and talk about something that is sure to be propped up as a sign that help is on its way.

That something is the imminent return of relievers Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya to the pitching staff.

It will be hailed as much needed help, and it's hard to argue with that thinking. What team in baseball wouldn't like to have two of their best relievers from two seasons ago return to active duty? Who wouldn't see a boost from something like that?

Zumaya (top) and Rodney (above) will be nice additions, but are not the panacea the Tigers need

But here's the rub: it's too late. Too late for Rodney and Zumaya to come in and make a lick of difference in a season that's been careening out of control almost since Opening Day. Too late for them to nudge the Tigers back into playoff contention. Just too late, that's all.

It's too late because neither Rodney nor Zumaya, last I looked, swing a bat -- and therefore are useless to drive in runners from third with less than two outs and to move a runner from second to third and to deliver even one clutch single. Useless.

The Tigers' troubles are flip-flopped, today, from where they were thought to be back in spring training (remember those days, when we wondered about scoring 1,000 runs and winning 110 games?). In March, the hand-wringers fretted over the suspect bullpen -- a bullpen sans Rodney and Zumaya due to injuries -- but had little worry about the explosive offense.

Today, that is flipped, and the team has flopped.

It's the bullpen that isn't so much of a worry, while the offense has been odiferous.

Yesterday, someone named Freddy Dolsi came in during a perilous 8th inning and blew away a couple of hitters on strikeouts, leaving the bases loaded and the Tigers' tenuous 5-2 lead in tact. It was something reminiscent of Zumaya, or Rodney, in their heyday.

But the Tigers are not just a couple of decent relief pitchers away from contention. They're not just biding time until Rodney and Zumaya can get back to work. Their hitting woes won't be any different when Nos. 56 and 54 don their Tigers uniforms again.

Sorry to burst your bubble.


Friday, June 06, 2008

Dr. Strangeglove Would Have Fit Perfectly On Today's Tigers

Dick Stuart wasn't buried, so you couldn't have buried his first baseman's glove with him, which would have been maybe the only way that mitt could be assured of not playing a role in committing yet another error by its owner.

The 2008 Tigers are not God's gift to fine baseball defense. Quite the opposite, in fact. Manager Jim Leyland keeps shuffling players from position to position, hoping they show some sort of competence on the diamond. Already, Miguel Cabrera has become an ex-third baseman and shaky first baseman; Carlos Guillen has become an ex-first basemen, an ex-third baseman, and is now adding left field to his ghoulish trifecta; and Brandon Inge is being used as the world's biggest band-aid, with Leyland no doubt wondering if Inge can not only play third base, but maybe first as well.

All of which would have made Stuart such a great fit in Detroit this year. He would have fit like a glove -- especially if that glove was made of cast iron.

Stuart, grasping what he grasped best -- his bat

Stuart, you see, was nicknamed Dr. Strangeglove -- skewed homage to his reputation as a good hit, no field first sacker. He picked up the moniker because his career was at its peak when the movie Dr. Strangelove, starring Peter Sellers in the title role, was popular.

Stuart was a tall, lanky slugger who was your classic power hitter: an all-or-nothing swinger who, when he made contact, could rocket the ball out of Yosemite Park. He was Dave Kingman before there was Kingman, a rotten fielder whose bat was too valuable to keep on the bench. So the Pittsburgh Pirates, where Stuart spent most of his career, tried to hide him at first base. But it was like trying to hide a white elephant in a broom closet.

Stuart was so bad, that one time a hot dog wrapper floated down from the stands, and when Dr. Strangeglove snatched it up with his glove, he received a standing ovation from the Pittsburgh faithful. He hit 152 home runs in just over 2700 at bats, and on four occasions committed more than 20 errors at 1B in a single season -- including a high of 29 in 1963, with the Red Sox. His lifetime fielding average was .982 -- which means that nine times out of every 500 chances, Stuart made an error. For a first baseman, who handles the ball so much, that's absolutely frightening.

I'll always remember Stuart fondly, because I simply adore his nickname -- my favorite in all of sports. Dr. Strangeglove. I love typing it, I love saying it. And I love thinking about it.

Stuart's last year in the bigs was in 1969, when he got 51 at-bats with the Angels. That followed a nearly three-year retirement. He died in December 2002, at age 70. He was cremated.

I wonder if they burned his first baseman's glove along with him, after all.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Tigers' Pennant Drive? The Pursuit Of .500

Last night, the Tigers lost a baseball game because Jack Cust, who if he was a bicycle or a car would be equipped with squares for wheels, beat out an infield single in the 11th inning.

And you can add that loss to the list of oddities and curiosities that have made up the Tigers' 2008 season, a year that is becoming serio-comic and absurd.

You really have to laugh at this point. The only other alternative is to cry, and why waste tear duct energy on this bunch? They win a couple games, talk about having fun again, then go back into hibernation. Then the manager makes yet another lineup change based on a combination of desperation and hunches, and there are some short-term results, but then it's back to losing, forthwith.

It's clear now, the season more than one-third completed, that the 2008 Detroit Tigers will go down in recent baseball history as one of the biggest disappointments ever to put on cleats and eye black. And that's OK. Someone has to be that, I suppose. And we haven't had too many out-and-out disappointing teams around here in a while.

1969. The year after the World Series win, the Tigers won 90 games, but the Orioles were super-human, winning 109. So you really can't call this all that disappointing, because how are you going to win 110?

1985. The year after the '84 magic. The Tigers started 5-0 and then played about .500 the rest of the way. This was mostly the same team as the year before, but closer Willie Hernandez proved to be human after all, others went down in production, and the other teams in the league enjoyed beating the defending champs a bit too much. Yes, a disappointment, but everyone knew there would not, could not, be another 1984.

2000. The Tigers were moving into a new ballpark, had just traded for a superstar in Juan Gonzalez, and seemed to have the makings of a scrappy ballclub to match the personality of its new manager, Phil Garner. But Gonzalez under-achieved, didn't want to be here, and despite a second half surge, the Tigers settled back into their familiar place near the bottom of the division.

2007. A hot first half start turned cold after an injury to Gary Sheffield. An almost certain playoff spot was lost thanks to a wretched August.

That's about it, folks. And none of those seasons can come close to matching 2008's downer, mainly because of all the pre-season hype and expectation. High profile moves to secure Edgar Renteria, Miguel Cabrera, and Dontrelle Willis -- combined with the team's existing roster -- were supposed to put the Tigers on another plane.

So what to do when such a team disappoints to this magnitude? Nothing, really. Just watch it play out and wonder if there's any surges left to lift it close to .500. That's what this season has been reduced to: a chase toward the break even mark. That'll be our own little, private pennant race.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Monday Morning Manager

(my weekly take on the Tigers)

Last Week: 3-3
This Week: (6/2-4: at Oak; 6/6-8: CLE)

So now it's Brandon Inge at 3B, Carlos Guillen occasionally in LF when he's not DH-ing, Marcus Thames in LF more often than not, Jeff Larish DH-ing when Guillen isn't -- at least until Gary Sheffield returns from the DL. Got all that?

Tigers manager Jim Leyland is apparently opting for the "more is more" method of managing, juggling his lineup so much that you half expect a big top to appear and some calliope music to start playing.

The latest incarnation of Leyland's lineup shoved past the Seattle Mariners yesterday, 7-5, and it was Inge's strong play at third that helped.

Guillen is on his fourth position as a Tiger, and his third in two months. Last year he was a decent shortstop, but with limited range. This spring he was going to potentially be, according to those who supposedly know about such things, "a Gold Glover" at first base. Then he was going to be "one hell of a" third baseman. Now he's going to be "fine" in left field. The quotes are there because they are words that have been used in describing Guillen's have glove, will travel career turn over the past year.

A cynic might suggest -- and maybe not just a cynic but a realist -- that the reason Carlos Guillen is playing so many positions is because he's not any good at any of them. And such a fellow might just be right. But enough negativity.

The Tigers have won three of four, are showing some more esprit de corps, and even the sour puss of Inge is turning jocular. He's "ecstatic" and "thrilled" and all sorts of other nirvanic words about being returned -- at least more often than before -- to third base, the only true love of his baseball life. Not that I'm unhappy about this; Inge is, for real, "one hell of a" third baseman. Even those who DON'T know much about such things can see that. So it's not a bad thing to have his glove in the game, especially after seeing how Guillen and, before him, Miguel Cabrera, butchered the position earlier this season. It's that .225 bat that gets me. Ahh -- but nothing negative.

It's too bad that the Tigers can't feast on the Mariners more, but maybe they're showing signs of life. Six games against the surprising A's and almost-as-disappointing Indians this week give the Tigers a chance to cobble together some more momentum gleaned from this successful weekend series in Seattle. We'll see.

At least Brandon Inge is happy. It's a start.