Friday, March 26, 2010

Ordonez of Old is the Straw that Stirs Tigers' Drink

Did you hear? Sounds like Magglio Ordonez is going to have a big year.

Literally--sounds like.

The audible feeling is that Maggs is going to look more like the Ordonez of 2006-07 than the impostor who wore his uniform for all but the final month of the 2009 season.

Manager Jim Leyland and GM Dave Dombrowski have, more than once this spring training, alluded to the sound that Ordonez's bat is making when it connects with the baseball.

I'm not exactly sure what that sound is, but I know this: if you think that the Tigers' offensive fortunes ride on the broad shoulders of Miguel Cabrera or the rough-whiskered face of Johnny Damon, or the potential of young Austin Jackson, you're barking up the wrong tree.

It says here that Ordonez's performance will, more than anything, determine the Tigers' chances of contending in 2010---pitching notwithstanding.

Maggs's struggles in 2009 are well-documented, and painful to recall. He was a power and gap hitter turned Punch and Judy. His average was pedestrian, and he was unplugged from his power source; if he was a beer, he'd have been Ordonez Lite.

Then, as mysteriously as it vanished, Ordonez's gap hitting returned in late-August. It was a time when Cabrera desperately needed another bat in the lineup to join him in his fight to create some semblance of an offense for the Tigers.

From September 1 until the end of the season, Ordonez went 43-for-98 (.439) with seven doubles. He raised his average from .275 to a season-ending .310, thanks to 15 multi-hit games among the 28 in which he appeared. "Snap" and "crackle" were reunited with "pop."

As Ordonez heated up, Cabrera cooled off. The Tigers were a one-man offense for the last couple weeks of the season, but that one man was Maggy, not Miggy.

Ordonez tried mightily to bring the Tigers across the finish line ahead of the Minnesota Twins all by himself, but it proved to be too daunting of a task. An electric extra base hit in the final week against the Twins wasn't only a game-changer, but it looked like it might have clinched the division for the Tigers; it was the game where the Tigers moved three games ahead of the Twins with four to play.

You know what happened after that.

The last hurrah for Maggs was a clutch home run that tied Game 163 in the eighth inning. He finished the season on an incredible 24-for-49 (.490) tear.

If Ordonez can regain his mojo, the Tigers offense not only "sounds" better, it IS better.

It'd be terrific if the rookie Jackson and the grizzled veteran Damon can form a solid 1-2 punch at the top of the order. Cabrera will get his 30+/100+ in HR and RBI, no matter what.

But if the 36-year-old Ordonez, who figures to hit third, isn't the Maggs we know and love, then the house of cards collapses.

If Cabrera hadn't vanished on the Tigers, with Ordonez's resurgence taking place simultaneously, the Tigers would have waltzed to the divisional title in September.

Let's hope spring training's sounds don't prove to be deceiving.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Baseball’s Glamour Position Kid Jackson’s Now in Detroit

It’s the most romantic, glorified position in our most romantic, glorified sport.

Even when baseball was played with mushy balls by men wearing baggy uniforms and pillbox hats, when you traveled to the ballpark by horse and buggy or traipsed there by foot, centerfield was the glamour position.

Ty Cobb started it, pretty much.

Cobb used his freakish speed and sheer determination to patrol center, in between slapping base hits all over the field at a robust .370+ clip every season.

Then there was Tris Speaker, the Texan who splashed onto the scene with the Boston Red Sox before being shipped mysteriously to the Cleveland Indians in a trade that doesn’t get panned as badly as the sale of Babe Ruth, but was almost as bad for the Bosox.

Centerfield’s standing in baseball as the Rolls Royce of positions grew as time marched on.

Joe DiMaggio, a skinny Italian kid from California’s Bay Area, turned centerfield into Beverly Hills. Left and right fields were Fresno.

Then came the 1950s.

Baseball’s epicenter was New York. The Dodger Bums from Brooklyn, the Giants from northern Manhattan, the Yankees from the Bronx—it was the most storied time for baseball in and around Gotham. Every team was competitive; one of the three was always in the World Series.

Centerfield was lockstep with all that team glory in New York.

Duke Snider with the Dodgers. Willie Mays with the Giants. Mickey Mantle with the Yankees. The debate about who was the best centerfielder among the three raged throughout the five boroughs. No player from any other team was even in the discussion.

The Tigers’ Al Kaline started as a centerfielder. And he was every bit as good as Snider, Mays, and Mantle, but someone realized that to waste a howitzer of an arm like Kaline’s in center, when it could be better put to use in right field, would be an egregious mistake.


It’s the pulse of the diamond. It’s where the fastest, best, most sure-handed players are assigned. The greatest outfield plays in baseball history have been made by centerfielders.

The great centerfield debate in New York was fueled by the fact that the three ballparks involved—Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, and Yankee Stadium—each had vast outfield acreage to cover. If you wanted to play some good centerfield in those stadiums, you had to be part gazelle, part park ranger.

The centerfielders also usually batted in the glamour spots of the order—leadoff or No. 3 or cleanup. They were the defensive wizards and the offensive spark plugs.

The comedian/actor/director Billy Crystal said he used to dream of playing centerfield for the Yankees. He and millions of other little boys.

Tiger Stadium was another of those vast ballparks in centerfield. It was 440 feet to dead center, with power alleys that could cause lesser outfielders to want to phone a cab if a gapper got slapped into left or right center.

Mickey Stanley played it as well as anyone. Mickey was a Grand Rapids kid and after playing center for a few years, he was all of Michigan’s. With Stanley in center, you could relax when the ball left the infield.

Ronnie LeFlore, practically straight from Jackson State Prison and into a Tigers uniform, had a devil of a time with centerfield in the late-1970s. LeFlore was signed from prison because of his speed and his bat. When it came to his defense, everyone politely looked the other way.

Chester Lemon was brought over from the White Sox for Steve Kemp in 1982, and manager Sparky Anderson took leave of his senses and made Lemon a rightfielder for a season, before re-depositing him in center, where he played with brilliance before the trade—and where he wowed us for the Tigers for eight seasons.

Others have come and gone since then: Gary Pettis and Brian Hunter, who each had blazing speed but cooked noodles for arms; Milt Cuyler, who also had the required speed but who lacked the anticipation and proper routing needed to chase down baseballs driven to his right or left; and a host of others who leased time in center, and whose names wouldn’t be worth the time for me to write nor for you to read.

Today, all of Tigers fandom is still in mourning over the trade of good guy Curtis Granderson. Four years ago, in Granderson’s first full season as the Tigers’ everyday centerfielder, I wrote that he’d turn the town on with his splendidness, both on and off the field. It was one of the few times when I was spot on.

Granderson’s play in center took me back to the days of Mickey Stanley and, really, to even those big boys of the 1950s from the three New York boroughs.

He’s gone now—so fitting that he’s with the Yankees—and centerfield in Detroit will now be entrusted to a raw rookie.

Austin Jackson hasn’t played an inning in the big leagues. But he’s supposed to be quite a player—the best prospect in the Yankees’ organization before being traded to the Tigers in the Granderson deal.

Reggie Jackson, no less, has raved about him. Tigers manager Jim Leyland’s eyes light up when he talks about Austin Jackson’s play this spring training.

In one fell swoop, the Tigers are asking the kid to: a) replace Granderson in centerfield; b) take over the leadoff spot in the batting order; and c) get on base and steal bases.

That’s all.

And oh, by the way, if you don’t do those things too well, Austin, our chances to win decrease exponentially.

It’s a glamour profession, centerfield is. It’s bright lights, big city out there. No one hides an iron glove in center. You can’t be inconspicuous batting leadoff.

“Leading off, playing centerfield…”

It rolls off the tongue. And millions of boys have inserted their own names into that fictitious P.A. announcement. Billy Crystal is hardly alone.

We’re about to find out if this kid Jackson has the goods to not be dwarfed by the specter of playing centerfield in the big leagues. He’s not following Cobb or DiMaggio or Mantle or Mays, but you’d think so, gauging by the fans’ take in post-Granderson Detroit.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Robertson of Old Would Be Infinite Help to Tigers

If Nate Robertson were a right-handed pitcher, he'd be as expendable as a finished bag of potato chips.

Robertson ought to thank the right-minded God who made him a lefty, because that's what's keeping him in the big leagues right now.

The Tigers say that, if worse comes to worse, they'd be happy to venture north with five righties in their starting rotation---if they are the five best, most capable starters.

That's a bunch of bull excrement.

There isn't a team in the big leagues that doesn't want at least one southpaw starting every five days, with most lineups featuring a couple of dangerous left-handed bats, or more.

The Tigers play the Minnesota Twins ad nauseam, and the Twins swing left more than MSNBC.

Other teams in the Central Division can trot out their share of lefty bats---all except the Tigers, that is, Johnny Damon notwithstanding.

Robertson, 32, has a lot of bulldog in him and I like that. He just hasn't been healthy as of late. And where have you heard that before, when it comes to Tigers pitchers?

There was a time last season, though brief, when I thought Robertson's career might be over. His pitching performances as he struggled to come back from shoulder troubles were frightfully below average. His pitches were flat, his command almost non-existent.

But then in the final third of the 2009 season, Robertson got better. And he got more fearless. Robertson's at his best when he seizes the inside of the plate against lefties, claiming it as his own. He's downright nasty if he's not afraid to pitch the lefties inside and tie them into knots.

His appearances in 2010's spring training have mostly been impressive, though you never can tell what you're going to get until the games start for real in April.

The Tigers, publicly, would have us believe that they can take it or leave it when it comes to a dependable lefty in the rotation. Privately, I suspect the feeling is different. It ought to be.

The Tigers' chances of making noise this year are much better if Nate Robertson is taking his turn every fifth day, giving the team 180-200 innings and lasting into the sixth inning and beyond.

Robertson doesn't have ace stuff, but he doesn't have to be the ace. He only needs to navigate through those dangerous left-handed hitters two or three times a game, then turn it over to one of the multitude of southpaws the Tigers figure to have in the bullpen.

Robertson, like Jeremy Bonderman and Brandon Inge, is one of the few guys left over from that horrific 43-119 team of 2003. Nate's been through a lot as a Tiger, as Bondo and Inge have. He's played in big games, he's struggled to come back from injury. He's been reliable, he's been a big, fat question mark.

Robertson, when healthy and confident and attacking the plate, is as tough a son-of-a-bitch as any lefthander in baseball.

And the Tigers would accept five righties in the rotation?


Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Brookens Back Where He Belongs, and Where He May Stay Awhile

The catcher’s gear dangled and hung on him like dad’s suit on a kid playing make believe. Thanks to the ill-fitting chest protector and shin guards, he looked like the loser of a bet as he traipsed from the dugout.

He took his position behind home plate as the Tiger Stadium crowd murmured. He was the answer to the question from the half-inning before: Who’s going to catch NOW?

Tommy Brookens was the funny-looking guy wearing those tools of ignorance that day, when injuries and the game’s personnel jockeying left manager Sparky Anderson with no one to function as catcher.

In a 15-inning marathon on July 20, 1985, Brookens, the Pennsylvania Poker third baseman, had to don the gear and catch the final five innings against the Texas Rangers. He did so flawlessly. tells us that Tommy caught five innings, made seven putouts (all strikeouts), and committed no errors. The Rangers stole two bases against him, but neither hurt the Tigers, who won 6-5 in walk-off fashion.

The Pennsylvania Poker moniker was given to him by Ernie Harwell, a nod to Brookens’ being born in Chambersburg, PA.

Brookens looked like a PA Poker. He was a stub of a man who choked up and had a short, compact swing. He poked the ball, alright. If he hit a home run, it was by the accident of physics, not due to any great power.

Brookens never played in a clean uniform. I swear he’d run out to his position at third base at the start of the game, and by the time he took his spot, his threads were dirty.

Brookens was the primary third sacker for the Tigers from 1980-88, although he was mainly a defensive replacement during the storied 1984 season. He was a career .246 hitter who never hit more than 13 home runs in a season.

Yet he was behind the plate that July day in 1985, because no one else wanted to do it, basically. Sparky asked around, and Brookens raised his hand. So he switched from his comfort zone at the hot corner and moved behind the plate. From the frying pan into the fire.

It was that kind of attitude and team-first approach that ingratiated Tommy Brookens with the baseball fans in Detroit. The PA Poker became a favorite, because the people around town could relate to him: not the most talented guy in the world, but someone with a heart as big as Belle Isle.

Tommy could play some third base, too. He wasn’t Brooks Robinson, or even Aurelio Rodriguez, but he wasn’t an iron glove, either. He had some range, and could throw guys out more often than not.

Tommy would hit his .250 and accidentally hit his eight homers and knock in his 50 runs and not hurt you in the field too much. He came to play everyday, and didn’t bitch.

Brookens played 12 years in the big leagues because of that last sentence.

Brookens (left) will coach first base for Jim Leyland in 2010, and probably beyond

Now he’s back with the Tigers, as first base coach and tutor of the outfielders, and it’s about damn time.

The spot was created when Andy Van Slyke chose not to return, and manager Jim Leyland didn’t wait too long before naming Brookens as AVS’s replacement. Tommy had been managing several years in the Tigers’ organization, and he made no secret of his desire to do so at the big league level.

Leyland, no stranger to minor league managing himself, has known Brookens for over 30 years, and he was more than happy to add Tommy to his staff.

"I've known Tom for 30 years," Leyland said when he hired Brookens last November. "He's been around in spring training and has been a great manager for us in the minor leagues. Tom is a tremendous baseball person with tremendous people skills.”

Brookens, 56, said he began thinking about getting back to the big leagues in 2003, and took a job at the lowest level of the minor leagues, managing at Oneonta, in order to pursue that goal.

"I've been a player who went through the good and the bad. I started and sat the bench,” Brookens told Steve Kornacki after being hired by Leyland to coach first base. “I've run the whole gamut. Teaching the fundamentals will take care of itself, but I'm capable of relating to players better from my experiences. Coaching is about relationships and trust."

I’m not the first to play this hunch, but don’t be surprised if the next manager of the Tigers is the Pennsylvania Poker. And something tells me that that would be just fine.