Friday, November 19, 2010

Adding Benoit Means Coke as a Starter Makes Even More Sense

Phil Coke nestled in the Tigers' starting rotation is looking better and better.

It's been bandied about for months, that the Tigers are about to pluck uber-reliever and southpaw Coke from the bullpen and plop him among the rotation that includes hard-throwers Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Rick Porcello.

With this week's free agent signing of Tampa's Joaquin Benoit, the Tigers have essentially replaced Coke with one of the best set-up men in baseball last year.

That means Coke is free to join the rotation, which needs a lefty in the worst way.

Fortunately, making Coke a starter is doing it in anything but the worst way.

Coke was part of last off-season's larceny that GM Dave Dombrowski committed, when he traded popular CF Curtis Granderson and enigmatic RHP Edwin Jackson and brought in Coke, CF Austin Jackson, RHP Scherzer, and LHP Daniel Schlereth.

You don't need to wait the requisite several years to know that DD hit a home run with that deal.

All Coke did was appear in 74 games, pitch 64.2 innings, surrender just two home runs, post a fine 3.76 ERA, and stabilize the Tigers' pen, especially in the season's first half.

Coke was the most reliable reliever the Tigers had overall, so it was a little off-putting when the rumblings began that he might be moved to the rotation.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul, you might say.

But that all changes with the addition of Benoit, who in 2010 was as lights out as an army barracks after 10:00.

And if Joel Zumaya defies the odds and stays healthy next year, the bullpen will miss Coke even less.

This sort of thing usually works the other way around; it's the traditional starter who will shift to relieving.

You've heard of Dennis Eckersley, Dave Righetti, Goose Gossage and John Smoltz?

All starters---and good ones---who became outstanding relief pitchers.

Coke started the Tigers' final game last season, in Baltimore---his only big league start.

It didn't go so well.

Coke lasted just 1.2 innings, coughing up five hits and two runs.

But that ought not to dissuade the Tigers from moving forward with the Coke Experiment, and it appears that it hasn't.

Of course, Benoit is a righthander and Coke is a lefty. So who becomes the Tigers' primary lefthander in the bullpen?

It could be Schlereth, a strikeout guy who has a world of potential.

It could be Fu-Te Ni, but Ni didn't pitch for the Tigers after June 29.

It could even be Andy Oliver, should he not be traded and should he not be considered worthy of the fifth spot in the rotation.

But with Benoit, if he comes anywhere close to repeating his magical 2010 season, it might not matter if you have a consistent left-handed presence in the pen or not. It could be "lefty by committee" and that might be good enough---especially if Zumaya comes back strong.

Free agent pitchers traditionally make me squirm with uneasiness. Seems an awful lot of them go sideways as soon as the ink dries on their new contract.

Troy Percival, anyone?

Maybe Benoit, who survived surgery and missed the entire 2009 season recovering, has already had his physical calamity for his career. Maybe his terrific 2010 season is proof that he's back and isn't to be derailed.

The Tigers have 16.5 million reasons to hope so.

Meanwhile, Phil Coke as a starter is looking peanut butter and jelly-ish in its compatibility.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Tigers Should Retire No. 11, Alright---But Not Why You Might Think

The number 11 on the back of the Tigers jersey he wore may as well have stood for No. 1 twice.

The number 11 was a Detroit baseball staple, worn by a man who was as closely identified with the Tigers organization as any, including fellow Detroiter Willie Horton.

The number 11 was also the number of All-Star Games he went to, in addition to the World Series and ALCS he appeared in.

Yes sir, the Tigers should retire no. 11, and erect a statue of the man who wore that number proudly.

Why haven't the Tigers so honored Bill Freehan?

Excuse me---did you think I was speaking of someone else?

In the wake of the sad news of Sparky Anderson's passing, there's been a call to retire Sparky's no. 11. The dispute between Sparky and the Ilitches aside, I can see where a case could be made to formally ensure that no Tiger ever again slips on no. 11, even by accident.

But that number shouldn't have been available to Sparky to begin with. So says me.

Freehan, a Tiger (and ONLY a Tiger) from 1961-76, was the best catcher of the 1960s---American or National League, Earth or any other planet you got. Period.

The decade wasn't filled with great backstops, but that's not Freehan's fault. You could run Johnny Bench's career parallel to Bill's and I'd still take Freehan.

Freehan, defensively, was about as perfect as a catcher could be. He handled nearly 11,000 chances and made 72 errors in 16 seasons, for a lifetime fielding percentage of .993.

Mathematics 101 tells us that Freehan's fielding pct. means that for every 100 chances handled, Bill screwed up on 0.7 of them.

Freehan was an Adonis behind the plate---6'3", 200 pounds of sinew and muscle. A player trying to crash through Freehan at the plate was like a car hitting a deer, with the car losing.

They weren't as anal about keeping stats on catchers throwing out would-be base stealers in Freehan's day, but I don't need numbers to tell me that you ran on Freehan at your own risk. His arm was golden, with a quick-as-a-whip release.

Freehan gets a lot of notoriety---as well he should---for the play he combined with left fielder Horton to make in Game 5 of the 1968 World Series at Tiger Stadium. You know the one.

The St. Louis Cardinals were leading the series, 3-1, and were ahead 3-2 in the fifth inning. Roadrunner Lou Brock was at second base, and then Julian Javier singled. Everyone knew Brock would try to score, and would probably make it, for Brock was a gazelle disguised as a human being.

Horton bobbled the ball briefly after fielding it on one hop, then he fired it homeward.

The throw was dead solid perfect, arriving in Freehan's glove after a short hop. Brock arrived at virtually the same time, eschewing a slide for an attempt to plow through Freehan.

Lou got this one wrong.

Freehan denied Brock access to the plate, Lou's cleat missing the dish by mere inches.

Brock was out, the lead stayed at one run, and the Tigers rallied to win the game and eventually the series.

Brock foolishly trying to run Freehan over on his way to home plate in the 1968 World Series, Game 5

Freehan was a miserable 2-for-24 in the '68 World Series, but his pillar of a body kept Brock from scoring a run that might have sent the Cards on their way to a series-clinching victory. It was oh-so-fitting that Freehan caught the final out that made the Tigers World Champs.

Freehan could hit, too, with a career batting average of .262 and 200 home runs. At age 22 and in his second full season as Tigers catcher, Freehan batted an even .300 with 18 homers and 80 RBI. Solid, just like his entire career.

As if Freehan didn't suffer enough physical abuse as a catcher, he also was annually among the American League's leaders in times hit by a pitch. Freehan was plunked 114 times, with highs of 20 in 1967 and 24 in 1968. He was the league's milk bottle at that carnival midway game, with the pitchers paying a buck for three throws at him.

All this, and Freehan was a Detroit kid, born and reared. After he stopped playing, he stayed close to home, working as a manufacturer's rep and then becoming the baseball coach for years at his alma mater, the University of Michigan.

Freehan was the backbone of the Tigers. There was the slugging Willie Horton, the comical Norm Cash, the smooth Al Kaline, the portly Mickey Lolich. With the exception of Lolich, none of them was as durable as Freehan, who'd routinely catch 130+ games a year, before his back started to give out on him in the early-1970s.

Yes sir, I'd say the Tigers should retire no. 11. But I'm willing to compromise and combine Freehan and Sparky in one massive ceremony.

Even though Sparky shouldn't have been able to wear no. 11 in the first place.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

In Detroit, Sparky Made Men (and Champions) Out of Boys

Former big league umpire Al Clark waged a one-man crusade. It was a losing battle but Clark fought it anyway.

Clark's secret war? He wasn't about to call George Anderson by his universally-known nickname.

"I refuse," Clark once said, "to call a grown man Sparky."

Maybe Clark should have hung around the legendary baseball manager during the off-season, for it was then when Sparky assumed the persona of plain old George Anderson.

There were two Andersons, the white-haired skipper loved to remind folks.

"During the baseball season I'm Sparky," he used to say. "But back in Thousand Oaks (California, his home), I'm just George."

George "Sparky" Anderson, one of the great ambassadors baseball has ever known, is dead. He passed away, at age 76, in Thousand Oaks from complications of dementia, according to a statement released by his family.

I hope God isn't busy for the next couple of days, because he's going to get an earful.

I hope the Almighty One is ready to hear about how there was no catcher like Johnny Bench, why pain don't hurt, the art of the intentional walk, why Kirk Gibson was supposed to be the next Mickey Mantle, and how Sparky feared his own hanging.

About that last one...

It was sometime in the summer of 1984, that most magical summer if you're a Tigers fan, and Sparky was bending the ear of some reporters before a game.

"See that flagpole out there?" Sparky said, nodding to the towering pole in deep center field at Tiger Stadium. The reporters looked at it, then looked back at Sparky, because they knew they were about to hear a gem.

"If we don't win this thing, these fans here are going to string me up that pole."

Sparky hated 1984. Or, at the very least, he didn't enjoy it. It was the summer of 35-5 and wire-to-wire and "Dancin' in the Streets" and "Bless You Boys," yet Sparky's stomach was in knots all season.

One thought and one thought only kept running through his restless mind.

What if we lose this?

The Tigers' lead that year in the AL East rarely dipped below seven games from June on, but that didn't soothe Sparky. All he could think of was what would happen if his team somehow blew it. And there was no Wild Card to fall back on in 1984.

Well, the Tigers didn't blow it, obviously. They cruised to a 15-game margin of victory for the division, then burned through the playoffs and World Series, losing just one game. Sparky became the first manager in big league history to win a World Series in each league, having already won two with the Cincinnati Reds.

Ahh, but 1987---now THERE was a year.

Sparky's boys stumbled to an 11-19 start. All-Star catcher Lance Parrish had fled to Philadelphia via free agency. The team looked bad and the future appeared bleak.

In late-May, Sparky went on the Tigers' pre-game TV show and declared that his 11-19 squad wasn't all that bad. In fact, he said, wearing a headset and looking straight into the camera, the Tigers just might surprise us all in the end.


That's Sparky for you, we all said. The same man who called Gibby Mantle and who said Chris Pittaro was so good, Lou Whitaker would have to cede second base and play third.

In early-June, the Tigers signed a former batting champ off the scrap heap.

Bill Madlock was with the Dodgers and looking old. But the Tigers took him off the Dodgers' hands anyway.

Madlock joined the Tigers and before long, Sparky's words turned out to be prophetic.

The Tigers went 87-45 over their last 132 games and won the division on the last day of the season---Madlock being a key component to the resurgence.

1987 was, in Sparky's own words, his most satisfying season of them all. Much more so than 1984, and the '87 team didn't even make it out of the ALCS.

"They gave me all they could give," Sparky said of his players in the wake of the Tigers' five-game loss to the Minnesota Twins. "I couldn't be more proud of them."

Sparky didn't want to manage the Tigers, at least not at first.

He was still stinging from his firing at the hands of the Reds after the 1978 season, doing TV work for the California Angels at the beginning of the 1979 season.

The Chicago Cubs contacted Sparky's agent early in the season and a deal was brokered: Sparky would manage the Cubs, starting in 1980. But it was all a family secret and kept hush-hush.

Meanwhile, Tigers TV announcer George Kell was having a pregame meal in the press box in Anaheim in June 1979. He sat down at a table. Sparky soon joined him.

Before long, Sparky let the cat out of the bag about managing the Cubs in 1980.

Kell finished his meal and made a beeline for Tigers GM Jim Campbell.

"Sparky is managing the Cubs next year," Kell told Campbell.

This intrigued Campbell, who admired Sparky for years, from both close and afar. The Reds used to visit Tiger Stadium every year for an exhibition for charity.

"Are you sure?" Campbell said.

Kell said he had gotten it from Sparky himself.

Kell suggested to Campbell that maybe Sparky could be had; 1980 was still a long ways away. Plus, the Tigers' young talent was every bit as good, if not better, than what the Cubs possessed.

Campbell placed a call to Sparky. The manager said thanks but no thanks; he had given the Cubs his word. Campbell called back. Sparky again rebuffed the Tigers GM.

Campbell called a third time.

Slightly exasperated, Sparky said he'd look at the Tigers roster. After doing so, he told Campbell he might come, but not until 1980.

Campbell said, "There's no way I could look Les Moss in the eye all season, knowing I'm firing him after the last game." Moss was in his first year as Tigers manager.

Finally, Campbell lowered the boom.

"Would you come now?"

Sparky, in his book They Call Me Sparky, said he admired Campbell's persistence.

"OK," Sparky told Campbell. "I'll come now."

The news of Sparky's hiring rocked Detroit. The Tigers hadn't had a manager with Sparky's star power since Billy Martin (1971-73), and Billy made news for a lot of the wrong reasons.

Campbell gave Sparky a couple days to get his affairs in order, and Anderson debuted at Tiger Stadium in late-June.

The Tigers, playing reasonably well under Moss, promptly went into a 2-9 funk after Sparky took over.

But there was a whole lot more winning than losing for the Tigers under Sparky. In his 17 years as Tigers manager, the team finished with a losing record just five times.

It wasn't a rose garden without thorns; Sparky weeded out several good players. His doghouse was almost as famous as his propensity to lift starting pitchers---hence his other nickname, Captain Hook.

Ron LeFlore, Steve Kemp, Jason Thompson, Howard Johnson, Glenn Wilson. All good ballplayers, all run out of town by Sparky, who early in his Detroit career said things would be "his way or the highway."

Pitchers knew the drill when Sparky came out to get them. You were to do nothing other than place the ball in Sparky's hand, "like an egg," the manager said. Then you were to walk off the mound without speaking a word.

Even Jack Morris, who had the countenance of a bear awoken early from hibernation, knew better than to violate that rule.

One pitcher who didn't get lifted was Milt Wilcox, in Chicago in 1983 on the night he retired the first 26 batters, one out away from a perfect game.

The White Sox's Jerry Hairston, pinch-hitting, broke it up with a solid single.

As the Tigers headed for their clubhouse after the win, Sparky said to some reporters who were hangers on about the near-perfect game, "That's too bad. I ain't never managed one of them before."

George Anderson was Sparky during the baseball season and that meant a gumball machine of quotes and stories. It meant there would be no dull moments from April through September. It meant that even if the team wasn't in contention, the manager would keep things interesting.

I learned after a few years to take what Sparky said with a canister of salt. Lots of people never got that, though, and their lives were immeasurably more frustrated and annoyed because of it.

With the Tigers, Sparky took a collection of young, impressionable men who thought they knew a lot and was able to, at the same time, both remind them that they knew precious little, as well as turn them into champions. He also made them into men in the process, even if they didn't know it at the time.

They know it now. Upon the news yesterday that Sparky had been placed into hospice care, one by one his former players spoke of how much he taught them about baseball and about life.

Pain don't hurt, Sparky once said.

But his death sure does.