Friday, April 30, 2010

Maggs is Maggs (Again)

The rumors of Magglio Ordonez's death are greatly exaggerated.

Look who's batting third for the Tigers and hitting over .300 and displaying power and run-producing ability. Just like the good old days.

There were folks who wanted to run Maggs out of town last year, when he was 35 years old and looking every day of that, and then some.

The batting average was pedestrian. But what was most troubling was the power looked to have been cut.

Ordonez was a multi-million dollar slap hitter for most of 2009, when he battled injuries and some pre-season personal strife. He was 35 and the naysayers were out in droves. How quickly these power hitters can go down the tubes, people said while shaking their heads.

Then came September and suddenly Ordonez was himself again. He was torrid---positively scorching. It was he, not Miguel Cabrera, who put the Tigers on his back as they tried like mad to hold off the hard-charging Minnesota Twins.

Ahh, but was this simply one last hurrah for an expiring warrior, or was this a portend of his resurrection?

So far, the answer appears to be the latter.

Maggs is Maggs again. He's hitting .310, but the best part is that he's been plugged back into the power socket: Ordonez has six doubles, four homers, 17 RBI, and a robust slugging average of .517.

So stop writing the eulogies. Put that shovel away.

Yesterday was a milestone day for the Venezuelan.

Ordonez's single in the fourth inning was the 2,000th hit of his career, making him just the sixth player from Venezuela to reach that number.

“It’s huge because there are only 260 players who have done it in more than 100 years of baseball,” Ordonez said of his accomplishment after the Tigers beat the Twins. “I’m happy for me, my family, my country and my team."

The Tigers' batting order, which seemed moribund after the cashiering of Curtis Granderson and Placido Polanco, is now no picnic for opposing pitchers.

It starts with The Kid, leadoff hitter Austin Jackson, who's a rookie but who is hitting well over .300. The nerve!

Then you have 36-year-old Johnny Damon and his slap-happy left-handed hitting bat. After a rough start, Damon is another .300+ guy.

It gets worse.

Third is Ordonez, then you have to deal with Cabrera. Both guys are clutch and gobble up RBIs like Pac Men.

Sadly, the terror decreases dramatically the lower you go in the order. The Tigers' top four are "Nightmare on Elm Street"; the bottom four are "Bambi."

The team's Jekyll and Hyde, schizophrenic batting order is one reason why the Tigers are leaving men stranded by the bucketful. It's the worst display since FEMA post-Katrina.

Still, the Tigers might have two 100+ RBI men in Ordonez and Cabrera.

Quite a change from last year, when an $18 million bonus due to Ordonez hinged in the balance because it was based on plate appearances. And Maggs wasn't getting enough of them, because he, frankly, didn't deserve them.

That all changed in August and September, when his bat warmed in the season's dog days.

No one talks about jettisoning Ordonez any longer.

Last year he was an old 35. Now he's a young 36.

Joe Garagiola called it right when he titled his book.

"Baseball is a Funny Game."

Monday, April 26, 2010

Monday Morning Manager

Last Week: 3-4
This Week: at Tex (4/26); MIN (4/27-29); LAA (4/30-5/2)

So what happened?

Here's what DIDN'T happen: significant innings from the Tigers' starting pitchers.

The bullpen was busier than Ben Roethlisberger's PR team last week, having to pitch at least three innings and sometimes more in every game.

It didn't help that Dontrelle Willis had to skip his start on Saturday due to illness, pressing lefty Brad Thomas into duty. Thomas lasted just three rocky innings.

Rick Porcello is starting to get ghoulishly sophomore jinx-ish; Sunday's brief stint was his third poor showing in a row.

The starters' inability to go deep into games couldn't have come at a worse time, given the Tigers' brutal schedule that is devoid of off days. Now would be a great time for a rainout or two.

Offensively, the Tigers are doing OK but are stranding way too many runners on base, which is either costing them games or at the very least making them scramble in the late innings to make up for what they weren't able to do in the earlier innings.

Tonight marks the end of the team's 11-game road trip; the Tigers have gone 4-6 so far.

Hero of the Week

Miguel Cabrera.

Cabrera is an RBI machine right now. He has 22 of them in 75 AB, and he's getting them in all sorts of ways: booming home runs, laced doubles, opposite field singles; you name it. The ribbies are seemingly always clutch, to boot. He never drives in a meaningless run.

Even more impressive is that Cabby has only struck out seven times, which would put him in the 60 strikeout range for the season, which for a punishing hitter like him is amazing.

The BA is .347, the OBA is .437, and the SA is .627. Lots of sevens there, which is what the Tigers seem to roll whenever Cabrera steps to the plate with runners on base.

For the week, Cabrera went 9-for-29 with eight RBI. Six of his hits were doubles, another was a home run.

The guy's a beast and you'd better stop whatever you're doing to watch a Cabrera at-bat. He's like Cecil Fielder in that respect.

Goat of the Week

The Tigers' starting pitchers, collectively.

The bullpen is being called upon way too often, and for far too many innings.

The Tigers' top three of Justin Verlander, Porcello, and Max Scherzer would appear to be so good as to leave most of the bullpen innings for the Nos. 4 and 5 guys. But only Scherzer, who leads the team with 24 innings pitched, has been able to pitch deep consistently.

The back end guys (Jeremy Bonderman and Willis) aren't helping in this area, but they weren't counted on to do so. Bondo (7.20 ERA) did go six innings at the Angels last week, so maybe that's a good sign.

Upcoming: Twins and Angels

The Tigers finish their road trip with a wraparound series finale tonight in Texas.

After that, it's another big week.

Two teams widely considered as playoff contenders visit Comerica Park.

First up are those damn Minnesota Twins, who keep losing key players and keep not letting it bother them.

Joe WHO?

New closer Jon Rauch is 6-for-7 in save chances, with a 2.00 ERA, as he serves a one-year apprenticeship as the injured Joe Nathan's replacement.

Here's another Joe who you don't dare say WHO? about: catcher Joe Mauer, who is on the fast rack to the Hall of Fame.

All Mauer is doing is hitting .382 with 17 runs scored already. He might be the best all-purpose catcher since Johnny Bench, and maybe before Bench.

The Twins are 13-6 and are comfortably ensconced in first place in the AL Central, up three games on the second-place Tigers.

The Angels have clawed back to 10-10 after a rough start, including 2-2 against the Tigers last week in Los Angeles.

Something to watch, though, with the Angels is 3B Brandon Wood, who is in his first year as a regular and is 6-for-53 this season. The 25-year-old Wood went o-for-the Tigers series last week, and has struck out 17 times in 53 AB. How much longer before the Angels look elsewhere for a 3B? The other Angels 3B this season, Maicer Izturis, is hitting a robust .219.

That's all for this week's MMM. See you next Monday!


Monday, April 19, 2010

Monday Morning Manager

Last Week: 2-4
This Week: at LAA (4/19-22); at Tex (4/23-25)

So what happened?

The Tigers' first butt-kicking of the season came on Friday night, when the Seattle Mariners had their way with Jeremy Bonderman. The pitching was uneven all week, the defense shaky at times, and it all added up to a 2-4 week that the Tigers deserved; in fact, they were perilously close to going 1-5, thanks to a rousing 6-5 win on Tuesday (coming back from a 5-0 deficit).

Manager Jim Leyland wringed his hands over the starting pitchers, who have been laboring to give the team six innings, let alone the seven or even eight that Leyland would like to see more often.

But rookies Austin Jackson and Scott Sizemore are not regressing; if anything, they're showing on an almost nightly basis that CF and 2B, respectively, shouldn't be positions of concern this season.

Starting with Jackson and ending with Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers' 1-4 hitters are holding their own, and then some. No. 2 man Johnny Damon's bat is warming up.

Hero of the Week

Austin Jackson.

The kid went 9-for-23 last week, including three more multiple hit games. He's hitting .340 for the season (17-for-50). He's only drawn four walks vs. 15 strikeouts, but that .340 BA will do nicely.

It's very exciting to imagine where Jackson will be in his development after the All-Star Break. Hey---he may be IN the All-Star Game; you never know.

Jackson isn't being swallowed up or dwarfed by his responsibility as leadoff man and center fielder as a rookie---replacing the popular Curtis Granderson, to boot.

And that might be the most exciting aspect of his season so far.

Goat of the Week

The .143 Brothers.

Those would be catchers Gerald Laird and Alex Avila, who are each batting .143 (Laird in 28 AB, Avila in 14). Defensively they're fine, but you simply can't make the playoffs with pitcher-like offense from your catchers.

Laird is hearing it from the CoPa faithful, and if he doesn't get better soon I'm going to start having ghoulish memories of Neiffi Perez.

The bottom line: throwing out potential base stealers is nice, but how many games, really, do you win BECAUSE of your catcher's defense? On the flip side, how many can you lose because of his poor offense?

The rest I leave with you, and the .143 Brothers.

Upcoming: Angels and Rangers

The Tigers' brutal schedule continues unabated.

No days off, despite traveling from Seattle to Los Angeles to Dallas. Not even an afternoon "getaway" game this week between the Angeles and Rangers.

No built-in excuses, though.

The Tigers' opponents this week are going in opposite directions. The Angels have won three in a row to creep to 6-7; the Rangers have lost four straight to sink to 5-7.

The Tigers get the Angels' Joel Pineiro tonight, who is 1-1 with a 2.77 ERA. Pineiro, 31, won 15 games last year. The matchup is Pineiro vs. Dontrelle Willis, who hasn't gained anyone's trust yet, despite two starts that haven't been awful.

This is a big week; the Angels, because they're winning, and the Rangers, because they're struggling. So I guess every week is big, using that theory---which it is.

With this frenetic schedule of games, the Tigers need to give their bullpen a blow; Justin Verlander did his part Saturday, and Max Scherzer had a fine start on Sunday; you could have made a case for him to start the seventh inning.

A 4-3 week would make the Tigers 5-5 on this three-city trip, and that would be very acceptable.

That's all for this week's MMM. See you next Monday!


Friday, April 16, 2010

Rookie Jackson Is Rude Beyond His Years

Who does Austin Jackson think he is?

I tell you, these kids nowadays.

Someone should teach this rookie some manners. He's played about a week-and-a-half in the big leagues and you'd think he owns the place.

It all started on Opening Day, in Kansas City.

The 23-year-old whippersnapper of a leadoff hitter and center fielder for the Tigers was in the box against Zack Greinke. Yes, THAT Zack Greinke---the one who's more stingy in giving up runs than Jack Benny was with his money.

Someone should have told Jackson, "Young man, the proper decorum is to let Mr. Greinke have his way with you in this, your first game in the major leagues."

But instead, the snot-nosed Jackson worked Greinke to a full count, laying off pitches that were tantalizingly close to the strike zone but out of it nonetheless. Normal rookies have the courtesy to swing at those and either strike out or ground out feebly to shortstop.


Jackson got all veteran-like, as if he had the batting eye of Ted Williams or Rod Carew or Tony Gwynn. You know, guys who are in the Hall of Fame because their batting success was 35% or higher.

Jackson, the kid, made the defending Cy Young Award winner work for his out. No, AJ didn't get a hit, but he sweated Greinke through seven pitches (he fouled a couple off), when most rookies would have been disposed of in less than half that many.

It wasn't just Opening Day. Jackson's been looking like a seasoned vet in just about every game he's played so far. The strikeout totals are a tad elevated (11 after his first 36 ABs), but he hasn't really looked overmatched in too many of those whiffs.

Jackson is hitting a cool .306 with an OBA of .375. He already has four multiple-hit games. Nicely done, kid.

The Man who Replaced Curtis Granderson---how much longer before we drop THAT moniker?---is slapping extra base hits, playing solid defense, throwing runners out, and using his speed on the basepaths to make the other team nervous.

And there's that keen batting eye, which belies his tender age.

Now I see why manager Jim Leyland was making such a fuss about Jackson's plate discipline during spring training.

That's all well and good, but someone really ought to teach Jackson some manners. He's not supposed to look this polished this soon. He's bending the learning curve unfairly toward him.

Johnny Damon, 36 years old and who knows a little about prime baseball talent, having played in Boston and New York, says Jackson will be a "superstar." His word.

"I thought he had the stuff to be in the big leagues a couple years ago," Damon said recently about the former Yankees prospect. "But there was no room for him in New York."

No kidding. There's no room for you in the Bronx unless you're a carpetbagger from another town with "future Hall of Famer" on your resume.

You're not supposed to get too excited or too down on anything or anyone in this game after nine games. Sorry. Doesn't apply here.

Austin Jackson is the real deal. He'll make folks around Detroit forget Curtis Granderson soon enough. Because he'll be better than Curtis, when all is said and done.

The kid is rude and doesn't know his place, but he'll grow out of that.

He was in the big leagues all of 30 minutes and was already making Cy Young winners work like the dickens.

Someone ought to tell him.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Monday Morning Manager Returns!

Welcome to the fifth season of "Monday Morning Manager," where I take a look back at the Tigers' past week and a look ahead to the current one.

Last Week: 5-1
This Week: KC (4/12-14); at Sea (4/16-18)

So what happened?

The Tigers have only played one week of the 2010 season, and already they've won four games in come-from-behind fashion.

The kicker, of course, was Sunday's 9-8 thriller over the Indians, capping a comeback from a six-run deficit.

The Tigers could very well be 6-0, but they let one slip through their grasp in Kansas City last Wednesday.

Hero of the Week

So many to choose from: Miguel Cabrera, who I don't think has made an out all season; Magglio Ordonez, who's made maybe one or two; the rookie Austin Jackson, who's holding his own at the leadoff spot; and the bullpen as a whole

Cabrera, who I fawned over in this very space on Sunday, is smoking the ball and when he's not hitting is way on base, he's walking his way there. The guy's OBA is over .600 after Week One. He's one of those guys who, when his at-bat is taking place, you just have to stop whatever you're doing to witness it. You miss a Cabrera at-bat, you might miss the first baseball to be split into two.

Ordonez is picking up where he left off last September. He's moving up the list of the all-time greatest clutch guys in team history. I don't have the numbers, but his batting average from the seventh inning on must be highly elevated from his norm.

Jackson has been impressing me with that keen batting eye that manager Jim Leyland raved about in spring training. He worked defending Cy Young winner Zack Greinke to a full count during an impressive at-bat on Opening Day, and I like the quality of pitches (balls) that he's had the discipline to lay off.

The bullpen is staying steady. No major bungling of things yet. Brandon and Fernando WHO??

Goat of the Week

Leyland, in spring training, spoke of the need for catcher Gerald Laird to pick it up offensively this year.

Sunday's festivities contained Laird's first 2010 hit after an 0-for-17 start.

Newcomer Johnny Damon is 3-for-20 (.150), but his experience paid off with a bases-loaded walk in Sunday's ninth inning, which forced in the tying run.

Upcoming: Royals and Mariners

The Royals are 2-4; big surprise, right?

In the past, it was the Royals' anemic offense that kept them from winning. Now, it's their bullpen, which should be derisively nicknamed "Gasoline Alley."

The Royals' starters handled the Tigers pretty well last week, but their bullpen failed them miserably, with an ERA of over 10.00.

Manager Trey Hillman might be forced to hang with his starters longer than he'd like, given his bullpen's inadequacies. Better to lose with a tired starter than a fresh but "fiery" bullpen.

The 2-5 Mariners have a new look lineup as they try to score more runs. They may not need as many as they think, with Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee anchoring the rotation, though Lee hasn't joined it yet, due to an abdominal injury.

The M's, though, have played the Tigers tough over the past few years.

They also have old Central Division foe Mike Sweeney (Royals) back for another year. Sweeney, 36, made the team in spring training after signing a minor league contract and beating out Ryan Garko for the 25th spot on the roster. Sweeney hit .500 in spring training.


Sunday, April 11, 2010

Cabrera's Future Includes Hall of Fame and Mass Destruction

He’s 6'2", with arms the size of Paul Bunyan’s and thighs that look like folded over sandbags. He doesn’t have a chest, he has Rhode Island, and maybe a little of Vermont.

He doesn’t walk, he advances.

He’s just shy of 27 years of age and already has 211 home runs, is edging nearer to 800 RBI, and has collected over 1,200 hits. He has a career batting average of .311.

Miguel Cabrera is just starting to inflict his damage. If he was a country, he’d be North Korea. He’s his own weapon of mass destruction.

We haven’t seen a specimen of Cabrera’s kind in Detroit since Big Daddy Cecil Fielder was launching rockets from home plate at Tiger Stadium in the 1990s.

But Cabrera is better than Fielder. He hits for average, number one. And Cabrera’s no pylon at first base. He’s among the rarest of players: the big slugger who also has the dexterity of a ballet dancer. He’s a bull at the plate, but light as a feather in the China shop.

This is the Adonis who will, someday, surpass 500 home runs, 2,000 RBI, 3,000 hits, and Iraq as a threat to national security.

I ragged on Cabrera last September. I was cranky. But I still think he had some of it coming.

The Tigers slugger’s shoulders were losing their broadness, I wrote, in the heat of the divisional race. He was the Incredible Shrinking Man.

Some of that, I submit, was truism. Some of it was my inner Chicken Little coming out.

Fox Sports Detroit’s Rod Allen, a poor man’s Joe Morgan behind the mike, but no less knowledgeable about the game, put it this way after the right-handed hitting Cabrera lasered a base hit past the Kansas City Royals’ second baseman this week.

“He (Cabrera) hits the ball as hard to right as a left-handed hitter does,” Allen said in amazement.

It’s another part of Cabrera’s greatness: his power to right field is freaky.

A beleaguered pitcher of an era gone by once said about Henry Aaron, “Trying to sneak a fastball past Aaron is like trying to sneak the sunrise past a rooster.”

You could say the same about Cabrera. Sometimes he swings as if it’s an afterthought. Yet he’s so strong, he drives the ball the opposite way like he’s flicking lint off his shoulder. He goes to his right better than Rush Limbaugh.

Miggy—and someone ought to check with him pretty soon to see if it’s OK that we call him that—has hit two home runs this young season, and both have been to right field. He’s an equal opportunity destroyer.

Cabrera’s power is like a fireworks display. Some of his homers get launched high and in majestic fashion, arcing gloriously above the diamond, scraping the sky before they come to Earth in a crash landing. You could make a sandwich in the time between when he makes contact and when the ball re-enters this atmosphere.

Others are laser shots, as in blink-and-you-miss-it. Those fly under the radar, but still do their damage.

The Tigers aren’t an offensive juggernaut, but they’re not chopped liver, either. They have some pieces.

You take Miguel Cabrera out of that lineup, however, and that jelly-filled doughnut just turned into one with a hole in the middle.

I believe in Cabrera again. I’m impressed with his maturity and his manning up to his ill-timed drinking binge at the end of last season. He took ownership of his life. He made no excuses.

There was some parsing of words this winter—Cabrera's taking exception to terms like “drinking problem” and “alcoholic.” Not that I blame him, but there was a hint of denial in there that caused me to squirm a bit.

But that’s nitpicking. Cabrera has not only said the right things about his behavior, he’s backing it up with actions. He came to spring training in superb physical shape, which for him means that he looked great carrying the world on his shoulders before placing it off to the side.

The man is some kind of big and strong.

He dwarfs base runners who stand next to him at first base. They all look like Eddie Gaedel.

Miguel Cabrera is going to bash his way into the Hall of Fame. The numbers he’s capable of accumulating are enough to make grown men cry. He’s 27, and that’s just wrong. And scary as hell.

The Tigers locked him up for a while with a contract as fat as the day is long, but they’ll probably have to tear that one up eventually and start over. It’ll take the GNP of his native Venezuela to keep him in the Old English D. Cool—a bargain.

You float Cabrera’s name around baseball fans and the words that come back are very violent in nature.

Beast. Terror. Monster. Freak.

An overly sensitive guy might take offense to words like that being used to describe him.

I don’t think Cabrera cares. Not only do I think he doesn’t care, I think he prefers it. A sinister nickname never hurts.

Frank Thomas, the old White Sox slugger, was The Big Hurt. Frank Howard of the Senators was the Capital Punisher. The Phillies’ Greg Luzinski was the Baby Bull. None of them complained.

I don’t know how many World Series the Tigers will win with Miguel Cabrera entrenched as their cleanup hitter. But I know their chances of winning one without him right now, approaching his prime, are similar to seeing pigs fly. And I think I might place my money on the pigs sprouting wings.

That’s why I was so cranky about this guy last September. I knew that with his talent, if Cabrera would have just turned it up a notch, to even a low simmer, the Tigers would have won the division in a cake walk.

His shoulders are plenty broad enough to carry the Tigers for stretches of time this season, if need be. And the need will be. Whether he does so won’t depend on his ability—it will depend on the space between his ears. The only thing Miguel Cabrera doesn’t have quite yet is a killer instinct in crunch time, when the games matter the most.

He’ll get that, too.

Scary, isn’t it?

Friday, April 09, 2010

November Baseball: It Doesn't Have to Happen

Major League Baseball says it's likely---read: a sure thing---that the 2010 World Series will end in November, yet again.

So why is it April 9 and we're only in the first week of the season?

November baseball makes me wince, every time. You may as well say "cod ice cream."

Two things, and two things only, can prevent this travesty from becoming an annual occurrence: a) shorten the season, and/or b) start earlier.

We know that a) is probably out, because it would mean fewer games, which means less revenue from ticket sales and concessions. It's the lead balloon of solutions.

So what's wrong with b)?

What's MLB doing, starting the season on April 5?

They should have gotten a move on earlier.

Under the expected playoff format, the World Series won't begin until the last couple of days in October. Unless they play some Fall Classic doubleheaders, we're looking at another November finish.

Last year, the excuse for a later start in April was the World Baseball Classic taking up some time in spring training. Fine.

Yet here we are in 2010, no WBC, and we still have a tardy start.

Not that April 5 should be considered a late start; it should be just about right. But with the extra tier of playoffs and off days in the post-season that are somewhat unnecessary, April 5 (actually the 4th; the Yankees and Red Sox opened up on Sunday night) isn't soon enough to open the season.

I'm no fan of March regular season baseball either, but it's the lesser of two evils, as far as I'm concerned.

Why not shorten spring training---or start it earlier if you're afraid of losing revenue from those games, too---and hold Opening Day in late March?

But here's my caveat: try your hardest, MLB, to schedule at least the first week's worth of games in warm climates.

It's not possible to do so in all matchups, but there are enough warm weather teams to host a lion's share of openers.

In the American League, the Angels, A's, Rangers, Blue Jays (dome), Rays, and maybe the Royals should all have home games the entire first week, at least. In the NL, the Giants, Dodgers, Astros, Marlins, Padres, Braves and maybe the Cardinals should do likewise.

In the AL, those six teams would gobble up all but two other cold weather teams as opponents, leaving just one series played in a cold climate at a time. In the NL, you have the seven above-mentioned teams hosting, again leaving one series at a time played in a cold climate.

There are 14 AL teams, 16 NL teams.

So that gives the warm weather teams seven or eight games in a row at home out of the gate, and some teams would open the season with a West Coast trip---so what?

They're still going to play 81 at home, 81 on the road, like everyone else.

Keeping those warmer climate teams at home for the first week or so would allow many of the colder weather teams to rotate through those cities, delaying their own chillier home openers until well into the first week of April.

Again, there'd be some exceptions, thanks to good old fashioned math. It's still better than November baseball.

For example, this year's season could have started on Monday, March 29. The first Sunday night game would still have been on April 4, with MLB's precious Yankees-Red Sox tussle. This would necessitate that series beginning on Friday, April 2 in Boston, but at least it's in April.

Under this arrangement, the Tigers' home opener would likely have been on Monday, April 5, after playing on the road in Kansas City and, say, Tampa.

MLB should do whatever it can to keep the World Series played---and completed---in the month of October.

Is it too much to ask to finish baseball before Halloween?

Monday, April 05, 2010

Even the Tigers' Offense Looks Palatable on Opening Day

The Boston Red Sox's magic number to clinch the AL East is down to 161.

The Bosox have a one-game lead over the New York Yankees with 161 to play.

It's never too early to crow about having a leg up on the Yanks, if you're a Red Sox fan.

I'm still not thrilled over Sunday night MLB openers. How can anything be "Opening Day" if it takes place under the lights?

I also don't think baseball starts with the Tigers until they have the home opener. Until then, it's "opening day." The first game with the creamy whites and the Old English D is "Opening Day."

My opinion.

We love to jump the gun when it comes to pro sports openers. The NFL, especially, can't help itself, and opens its season on Thursday night.

What's the rush?

Baseball used to allow the Cincinnati Reds to go first. No season could officially begin---unwritten but no less magnanimous---until they threw the first pitch in Cincy. Time was you didn't even think of doing anything else.

I remember there being a hub-bub in 1986, because the Tigers dared to schedule their home opener---and by extension, the MLB opener---earlier than the Reds' that year.

The Red Sox were in town, and while the good people of Cincinnati were still squawking about starting a close second, Boston's Dwight Evans turned on Jack Morris's first pitch and drove it into the left-center field seats.

I remember it vividly, because I was sitting about 30 feet to the left of where Dewey's ball landed.

Kirk Gibson---he always had a flair for the dramatic, eh?---saw Evans's homer and raised it, smacking two in the Tigers' 6-5 win.

I remember the second dinger wasn't even on its way down when Red Sox catcher Rich Gedman ripped off his mask and started screaming at pitcher Sammy Stewart. I think Sammy must have shaken off a sign or something. Catchers don't like that, when the ensuing pitch gets clobbered into next week.

Ahh, opening day/Opening Day.

The Tigers start in Kansas City today, at the very old-fashioned time of 3:10 p.m. local time. That's when most of the day games began, pre-lights. Gave the working stiffs a chance to at least put in most of a day's work before traipsing to the ballpark.

Four years ago, the Tigers opened in KC, and they brought in this rookie named Joel Zumaya to pitch the seventh inning, clinging to a 2-1 lead.

Zumaya walked the first batter then struck out the next two in dramatic fashion. The next day, I wrote that the seventh inning just became something more than one that contains a stretch.

Zumaya, from that day forth, owned the seventh and eighth innings for the Tigers in 2006. They don't make the playoffs without the kid.

Not opinion this time---fact.

This afternoon, all eyes will be on Austin Jackson, the rookie center fielder with the movie hero name. Whereas the rookie Zumaya made late innings chic again in Detroit in 2006, Jackson's heroics can't wait that long. He's mandated with making something happen immediately; the youngster is not only the new guy in CF, he's the new leadoff hitter---for now.

After Jackson in the batting order comes another newcomer, but only in that he's new to the Tigers: Johnny Damon. I think some folks are mildly interested in what Damon might do, too.

Jackson stung the ball in spring training; Damon has a track record. Suddenly an offense that looked moribund after the trade of Curtis Granderson and the fleeing of Placido Polanco due to free agency looks like it has a pulse again.

If Jackson hits, and Damon does his thing, and Magglio Ordonez returns to form and Miguel Cabrera gives us the usual and Carlos Guillen doesn't sniff the disabled list, the Tigers from spots one through five aren't half bad. Which means they're more than 50% good.

They still won't get a lick of help from the lower third of the order---assuming Brandon Inge bats sixth. The trio of rookie Scott Sizemore, catcher Gerald Laird and shortstop Adam Everett won't have Zack Greinke shaking in his cleats today. Hell, they couldn't even scare Zach Miner.

Sizemore might have the best stick among that threesome, and he's another of those unproven rookies who didn't hit much in Florida, save a few homers. At least Jackson's batting average was robust in March.

Reminds me of a player named Timmy Corcoran, a Tiger from 1977-80.

Corcoran would smack the baseball around in spring training like he was Ted Williams. Then he'd go north and hit his .270---in a good year.

The Tigers might be thrilled with .270 from Sizemore, but Jackson will be eventually expected to do about 20 points higher than that, batting leadoff. Either that, or AJ better walk a ton.

The games count for real now. The Timmy Corcorans of the world have a chance to prove that the Grapefruit League and The Show aren't necessarily mutually exclusive from one another.

I'll have double mustard on my dog, by the way. If you're buying.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Robertson Last of a Dying Breed

They used to be scattered all over the state, particularly in the tri-county area.

The tony suburbs of Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills were popular for them, but towns like Washington and Livonia were home to some of them as well.

Theirs was a time when you not only played baseball for the Detroit Tigers, you stuck around to experience our winter months, too.

They weren’t commuters. The Tigers’ roster, when it contained names like Horton and Stanley and Lolich and Kaline, was liberally spread with guys who called Michigan home year-round.

Mickey Lolich lived in Washington, Michigan for most of the time that he pitched for the Tigers, and it took me until my grown-up years to finally learn that Washington was in northern Macomb County.

Al Kaline, though a Baltimore kid, made the Detroit area his 24/7 home. He wasn’t a commuter, either.

Every winter, they traded their bats and gloves for ice scrapers and mittens, those stay-at-home Tigers players did.

Granted, they were in essence indentured slaves, thanks to the eventually illegal but always improper reserve clause—that archaic mandate that said a player was the property of the major league team that owned his rights ad infinitum. Free agency was still a glimmer in someone’s eye.

So it made sense, in a way, to keep a home in metro Detroit in those days (pre-1975) year-round, because if you were a Tiger, you’d remain one, until the team traded or cut you.

It was a time when players came up through the minor leagues together, became big leaguers together, and so formed a bond due to familiarity, if nothing else.

And they lived here. All year—not just during baseball season.

The Tigers player who was a year-round Detroiter wasn’t such an anomaly back then.

Nate Robertson has been traded. He’s a Florida Marlin now, thanks to last week’s deal that sent the lefty pitcher Robertson to the Marlins for a minor league pitching prospect.

It is the irony that is woven into the fabric of sports; Robertson has returned home, in a baseball sense, in a trade that has ripped him from his home, in a real-life sense.

Robertson was drafted by the Marlins, and was part of the Florida organization for several years before being acquired by the Tigers in January 2003.

Now he’s back with the Marlins, but during his tour of duty with the Tigers, Robertson liked our town so much he decided to plant roots here.

And he moved not to the fancy-shmancy suburbs of northern Oakland County, but to west side Canton, which could be described by a cynic as nothing more than a bunch of strip malls and some churches. When Ford Road is your main drag, you could make some jokes.

But Robertson fell in love with the area, and started his family there.

The Tigers fan base didn’t go into mourning and weep when Robertson was dealt, like it did when the Kewpie Doll Curtis Granderson was traded to the Yankees over the winter.

Curtis is a great guy, alright, but he was a commuter, too. For all of his kind deeds, Granderson is a Chicago homey and he didn’t move himself to Detroit year-round.

Some rogue elements of Tigers fans said they would no longer support the team—not even watch them on television—because Granderson was traded.

Granderson, the commuting Tiger from Chicago.

Robertson got traded last week and you could hear a pin drop in the Tigers community of supporters. The silence was deafening.

Nate Robertson, the year-round Detroiter, didn’t get much love from Tigers fans in the wake of his rather surprising trade to Florida. Robertson had pitched well in spring training, but got caught up in a logjam in the pitching rotation.

So off he went, and the eyes were noticeably dry among Tigers fans.

No one swore they’d never cheer the Tigers on again, as multitudes did when Granderson was moved.

Since when do we embrace the commuter more than the year-rounder?

“We made our life in Detroit,” Robertson said after the trade. “This is harder than normally getting traded, because beyond leaving a team, we are leaving home. This is really tough.”

Indeed, Robertson was the only Tiger in recent years to make his home in the Detroit area for 52 weeks every year.

Free agency, clearly, has been maybe the biggest culprit in this downward trend of year-round ballplayers. No one sticks with a team long enough, it seems, to make it worth it to sell a home and buy one, just for the sake of living year-round where you play.

But even the big shot guys, the ones with the long-term contracts and who are often the “face” of their respective franchises, they commute, too.

Carpetbaggers, the lot of them.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for Miguel Cabrera to have snowball fights with his kids in Michigan.

Nate Robertson was the last of a dying breed in this respect.

“We have so many friends there,” he said of Canton and the surrounding area. “There are people we know at church and in the community.”

These aren’t baseball cards that are being traded. These are people and families. Sometimes we lose sight of that.

Imagine being called into your boss’s office to be told that you will report to work tomorrow in Seattle, or Houston, or Kansas City. Tomorrow.

Not long before the Robertson trade was made, Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge announced that he plans on making the Ann Arbor area the year-round home for him and his family. Like the Robertsons with Canton, the Inges became enamored with Ann Arbor and want their kids to finish high school there.

Thanks to the Robertson trade, Inge will be the only one of the 25 Tigers to call the Detroit area home both in winter and summer.

It may not matter to a lot of fans where their Tigers heroes lay their hats in the offseason. But doesn’t hearing that Inge plans on entrenching himself in our community make you feel good?