Friday, August 14, 2009

Van Slyke Uncredited When It Comes To Granderson's Outfield Play

The eyes were quite alive, twinkling even. That little kid look you see in grown men, particularly when they put a baseball glove on their hock.

Something happens to the adult male when he slips a mitt on.

The twinkling-eyed man was checking out the glove breaking-in talents of his young pupil. He had one area of concern: some of the laces were too long. It brought up a funny story.

The pupil was Curtis Granderson. The cut-up telling the story was Andy Van Slyke.

It was a quiet moment, over three years ago, before the Tigers were to take on the (then) defending world champion Chicago White Sox.

Granderson, who was fresh off beating out a kid named Nook Logan for the Tigers' center field job, was being gracious to a locker invader who was striking up some chit chat when Van Slyke joined us.

"I had long laces, too," Van Slyke said. Then he proceeded to tell a story of how those long laces turned on him one night in Pittsburgh. Seems Van Slyke went for a shoestring catch and caught his spikes on the offending laces of his glove, yanking the mitt off his hand and causing him to tumble all over the Three Rivers Stadium turf.

It was impossible not to laugh.

Van Slyke was who I came to see, anyway. I wanted to know what in the world he was doing, coaching first base for the Detroit Tigers. Oh, and what he thought of the team's outfielders, not the least of whom was this kid Granderson.

We ended up in the coaches' locker room, which is nothing more than a glorified walk-in closet. It was something you'd expect from old, creaky Tiger Stadium. Not from supposedly state-of-the-art Comerica Park, built with the pizza dough of Mike Ilitch.

Van Slyke had this piece of clay named Curtis Granderson and I wanted to know what he planned on doing with it.

And, you could do worse than to talk outfielding with Andy Van Slyke, who only happened to be one of the finest of his time, or anyone's time. He was a funny, wise-cracking soul, but no clown.

First, there's the matter of who Van Slyke learned his trade from.

"Bill Virdon taught me," AVS told me.

Ahh. Say no more.

But, for the kiddies out there, I'll say a little bit.

Virdon, who played for the Pirates in the 1950s and early-1960s, was an exemplary center fielder. He got lost in the shadows of contemporaries like Willie Mays and Duke Snider and even Jackie Jensen when it came to glove work. Heck, Virdon got lost in the shadows of his own teammate. Some dude named Roberto Clemente.

But Virdon was a terrific outfielder, and he remained close to the Pirates organization after he retired. He managed the team, and functioned as both a coach and a spring training instructor.

Van Slyke, clowning with Miguel Cabrera, had fun as a player, but also worked very hard at his craft

On that day in April 2006, when AVS and I talked about Granderson and other outfielders on the team, Van Slyke spoke with parental overtones.

"I watch my kids play a lot of baseball," he said, referring to his own children, "and I think I'm more nervous watching my outfielders play than watching my kids play, because I have a lot of time invested in their (Tigers outfielders') success."

Granderson, Van Slyke said at the time, had tons of potential to become a better outfielder.

And Curtis has.

I've been down on Granderson a lot this year, because his bat has been limp for most of the season, except for the occasional home run. Infrequent have been the doubles and triples that Grandy was known to slap around the ballpark. The batting average doesn't cause one to seek out pen and paper in order to write home about it. It's not even been worthy of a quick e-mail.

But the glove hasn't abandoned him, and that's saying something, for often times players let their offensive struggles affect their defense.

As much confidence as I may have lost in Granderson's bat, I've lost none in his mitt---long laces and all.

Van Slyke's in his fourth year now of working with the Tigers outfielders, and it shows. Not only with Granderson, who has become very comfortable in the vastness of Comerica Park's outfield, but with others--even someone like Marcus Thames.

Thames will never be an upper echelon outfielder, but he gets good jumps on fly balls and can make the occasional circus catch.

I hope Van Slyke's next project is Clete Thomas, because Clete has committed acts of butchery this season that have cost the Tigers.

Van Slyke said it all involves hard work.

"Even after I started winning Gold Gloves in Pittsburgh, I felt I could be better," he imparted to me. "I thought, 'You know what? I need to continue to win Gold Gloves.'"

The Tigers' defense was a weakness last season, during their 74-88 debacle. Now, it takes center stage again, but this time as a crutch for the beleaguered offense.

Pitching and defense. The time-proven recipe for success. The Tigers seem to have both of those ingredients in full, undiluted force.

"We work on things," Grandy told me way back when about Van Slyke and himself, long before we started expecting playoff appearances from the Tigers. "Angles, positioning. Stuff like that."

Not sure which is better: Van Slyke The Teacher, or Granderson The Listener.

Something's working, though.


Blogger Michael David said...

More good stuff. Even coaching Little League, it's hard not to jump at the grounders and pop flys that come my way. I have to force myself to let the kids get them.


3:19 AM  

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