Friday, February 19, 2010

2010 Tigers Better Have Memories of Elephants

From the moment that Dick McAuliffe hit into that season-ending double play, the Tigers wanted spring training to start immediately, if not sooner.

If they could have waved a magic wand, those broken-hearted 1967 Detroit Tigers would have found themselves in Lakeland, ready to get on with the ’68 campaign.

There was no playoff tier in ’67. You won the league, or you didn’t. Nothing in between. No LDS, no LCS. Either in the World Series, or out.

The Tigers, after second baseman McAuliffe hit into the only double play he’d hit into all season, thus ending the final game against the California Angels at Tiger Stadium, were on the outside looking in after a frenetic, legendary four-team race to the finish line.

The Boston Red Sox, who’d finished ninth in 1966, ended up as AL champs, while the Tigers, who were forced to play consecutive doubleheaders on the season’s final two days, finished a measly one game out of first place.

They arrived in Lakeland in 1968 as perhaps the angriest, most focused Tigers team that ever slipped on the creamy whites and Old English Ds.

The 1967 pennant belonged to them, they believed. They weren’t disappointed, they were pissed.

The feeling was mutual: we were the best team in the American League in 1967, and we sure as hell are the best team in 1968. So let’s get it on.

Those ’68 Tigers burst out of the gate 9-1, took over first place in early May, and were never headed off.

Ah, taking over first place in early May. We know something about that around here.

Like, nine months ago?

The 2009 Tigers will go down as one of the all-time great choke artists in modern baseball history. Nothing can change that. Nothing.

But a division championship—or at least a Wild Card berth—can accelerate the memory loss from last season’s debacle, when the Tigers frittered away a seven-game lead in early September and a three-game lead with—gulp—four games to play.

There’s only one thing better—and safer—than a three-game lead with four to play, and that’s a four-game lead with three to play. But the Tigers still managed to find themselves left out of the post-season party.

The 1968 Tigers, I will concede, suffered no significant loss in personnel from the ’67 club. They were pretty much the same group of guys. The 2010 Tigers are scrambling to find replacements for 2009’s Curtis Granderson and Placido Polanco, and are trying out a new closer, Jose Valverde.

But there are enough of them who will start straggling into Lakeland over the next several days who remember the pain of blowing the ’09 division to the Minnesota Twins. And they’d be best served to do what is the opposite of what they’ll say they’re going to be doing.

We’ve forgotten about it, they’ll say. Yeah, it hurt, but this is a new season, they’ll tell the press.


If anyone ought not to get a case of amnesia, it’s these Tigers of 2010. The fans, the press? They can forget all they want. But these Tigers better have steel traps when it comes to memory. They’d all better turn into elephants.

True, the 1967 squad didn’t really blow anything, per se. The division was a frantic race to the end, and no team really ever took control. But the Tigers still felt like they were the best of the four, and that they let the Red Sox off the hook. So they were beside themselves when spring training ’68 began.

The Tigers, frankly, may not have been the best team in the AL Central last season, but they put themselves in a position from which they never should have relinquished. So that’s on them. And they should be mad as hell.

And they should channel that anger into making the 2010 AL Central theirs and theirs alone.

Friday, February 12, 2010

If Damon Signs, Time for Tigers to Make Guillen Full-Time DH

How ironic, that the Man of Many Positions for the Tigers may soon be the Man of None.

If the Tigers sign Johnny Damon, as has been widely speculated, and insert him in left field, there wouldn’t seem to be any place for Carlos Guillen to play—at least not that involves putting on a mitt.

Guillen, whilst a Tiger, has been seen in various years at shortstop, first base, third base, and, most recently, in left field. Sadly, he’s also been seen very frequently on the Disabled List. He’s been more fragile than a carton of eggs.

The Damon signing might force the Tigers to do something I’ve been beseeching them to do for months: forget this notion of designated hitter-by-committee and make Guillen the full-time DH. Better than him being on the full-time DL.

Guillen’s glove ought to be swiped by the Tigers and hidden somewhere. Maybe that’s the only way to keep him healthy. Damon isn’t exactly a Gold Glover in his own right, but Guillen breaks too easily.

Just ask Gary Sheffield what can happen when an aging veteran ill-suited to play the field decides to don the glove and roam around the outfield.

It was Sheffield who was tearing up the American League in the summer of 2007, after a slow start—primarily as the Tigers’ DH. But then he got restless, thought of himself as half of a player, and nagged manager Jim Leyland to let him play left field. The Tigers had the best record in the AL at the All-Star break; then Sheff dove for a ball and hurt his shoulder. He, and the Tigers, were never the same that season.

Guillen is another of the proud men who play this game. He is, to be sure, one of the finest gentlemen in all of baseball. He’s professional, classy, and a favorite of Leyland’s—with good reason. But he ought not play the field in 2010.

It won’t be an easy sell to Guillen, despite the extended and successful careers players like Edgar Martinez, Eddie Murray, and Harold Baines have enjoyed as full-time DHs. Guillen won’t like it, if he’s told that he’s to be a batsman and nothing else.

But where is he going to play, otherwise?

The infield is set, pretty much, and with the addition of Damon, so would be the outfield—presuming rookie Austin Jackson can handle center field.

The Tigers, to my consternation, have preferred to keep the DH position open as a sort of Wild Card, Flavor of the Day deal—a stop-off point for the veteran guys to take a breather from time-to-time. They feel this gives the manager more flexibility.

Where they see flexibility, I see just another decision that doesn’t have to be made.

Stick Guillen, a switch-hitter by the way, into the DH slot full-time and let him go. He might grow to like it—you never know. It’s not easy being a DH; plenty of players simply can’t get into the rhythm and preparation. I get that. But shuffling guys in and out of that slot has often proved the theorem: quantity does NOT always equal quality.

Leave left field, when Damon needs a break, to youngsters like Ryan Raburn and Clete Thomas, if there’s room for them on the 25-man roster. Guillen could be the third-string, “disaster” left fielder, if it comes to that.

It’s been a tough off-season, with staples like Curtis Granderson and Placido Polanco already having bid farewell. No one wants to run Carlos Guillen out of Detroit, too. He’s a proud, professional guy. He’s also the type who understands that sometimes you have to step outside of your comfort zone for the betterment of the team. He’s already done it around the diamond, with the glove.

It’s time now to do it with the bat only.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Kaline Has Work Cut Out for Him with Rookie Jackson

If Austin Jackson was coming to town to learn the guitar, you'd send for Eric Clapton. If you needed to teach him baking, you'd put out an APB on Betty Crocker. If he needed a quick primer on parting seas, you'd check Moses' calendar.

But Jackson needs to learn center field, and quick---so the Tigers will be calling for Al Kaline.


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It's an annual rite of spring in Lakeland, FL---Hall of Famer Kaline, under the Florida sun, learning young Tigers outfielders how to get the best jump off the bat, where to go once the ball comes their way, and---perhaps most famously---how to catch and throw in the most fluid motion possible.

Kaline's been traipsing down to Lakeland with the rest of the team since 1975, his first year in retirement. His charge has been to do his best to keep the young fly chasers from turning into butchers.

Kaline becomes even more important this spring for two reasons: rookie Jackson just might be designated as the Tigers' starting center fielder as a true freshman; and the team no longer has Andy Van Slyke on board to coach the outfielders on a day-to-day basis during the season. Van Slyke resigned after last season, and let no one dismiss the work he did with Curtis Granderson, especially, in Andy's four years as a Tigers coach.

Jackson is about to get a crash course on how to play the outfield---specifically, the vast center field at Comerica Park---from perhaps the most qualified man alive.

No. 6 has been teaching Tigers outfielders in spring training since 1975

Van Slyke had his guru, too. He told me a few years ago that Bill Virdon, the old Pirates center fielder and former manager who was no slouch as an outfielder, worked with Van Slyke when Andy was with the Pirates. Virdon helped turn Van Slyke into one of the best outfielders of his time.

But Andy's off to other pursuits, so Kaline will have to take the lead. What a shame.

We have no idea, really, how this kid Jackson, acquired from the Yankees organization in the Granderson trade of December, is going to manage the Grand Canyon-esque outfield of CoPa. It can be unforgiving terrain.

And there won't be much help, it doesn't look like, coming from the corner outfielders. There's Magglio Ordonez in right, mainly because the rules dictate the Tigers play someone in right field. And there's either Carlos Guillen or Ryan Raburn or the flavor of the day in left, which might be good news only if you're an opposing right-handed pull hitter.

That leaves Jackson to patrol more ground than a park ranger.

Center field in Detroit was a battle of attrition for the entire 20th century, and it's not getting any easier in the 21st.

When the team played in Navin Field/Briggs Stadium/Tiger Stadium, center field meant 44o feet straightaway and gaps that had to be covered in matters of seconds, with as fast as the ball got out there in that hitter-friendly ballpark.

You had to be part outfielder and part track and fielder. On any given batted ball, you might be asked to run a country mile or dart into left or right center with the quickness of a jackrabbit. It was baseball meets the Summer Olympics. Half the time, the Tigers needed Kaline. The other half, they needed Michael Johnson.

It took a man to play center field at Tiger Stadium. In Comerica Park, it really takes two men.

You think Tiger Stadium's outfield was vast? CoPa's lawn extends as far as the eye can see, and continues even beyond that. If a ball is hit into the gaps, the great outfielders get on their horse. The smart ones call for a cab.

Young Jackson isn't going to get much help from Ordonez in right or (fill in the blank) in left. If the Tigers sign Johnny Damon, that won't help either. Now, if they could play a fourth outfielder, like in softball, then maybe we wouldn't have to worry so much.

Enter Kaline, who started as a center fielder until someone found out that Al had a howitzer for an arm and, as you know, cannons are best reserved for right field.

We don't know if Jackson is up to the task. Perhaps Kaline doesn't even know---at least not until he gets his meat hooks into the kid. And even then it will be in the hands of God, eventually.

But in spring training, at least, the Tigers will have Jackson in the care of the next best thing.