Saturday, July 31, 2010

GMs Sometimes too Chicken to Trade Their Prospects

The line from a pithy sportswriter was legendary in both its smarminess and its eventual inaccuracy.

“He would be a great pitcher,” the words from a now yellowed news clipping said, “if the plate was high and outside.”

Sandy Koufax barreled into the big leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers with a prized left arm but with absolutely no control over it. The next pitch could be a perfect strike or end up in Secaucus.

Koufax, before he became arguably the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time, started his career with six seasons of trying to gain dominion over the strike zone. It was epic in its scope.

Koufax and the strike zone was baseball’s Captain Ahab and Moby Dick.

But unlike Ahab’s elusive whale, Koufax’s demon stared him straight in the face, mocking him. The strike zone was hidden in plain sight during Koufax’s early years with the Dodgers.

Compiling Koufax’s statistics from his rookie year of 1955 thru 1960, it’s discovered that Sandy averaged 4.6 walks per nine innings pitched. You could get to first base with Koufax easier than you could with the town floozy.

Then something clicked, and from 1961 thru the end of his career in 1966, Koufax dominated National League hitters and surrendered just 2.4 walks per nine innings. Koufax had become the reverse Clint Hartung.

Clint Hartung died a few weeks ago at age 87. His legend will live on, and I’m about to make sure of it.

Hartung was a 6’5”, 210-pound pitcher/outfielder from Hondo, Texas. With a town called Hondo and in a state like Texas, being 6’5” must have been a requirement.

Hartung was a blue chip prospect, a can’t-miss kid. The Minneapolis Millers of the old Northern League signed Hartung in 1942. He was shortly thereafter drafted into WW II, where he played on military teams against other drafted pros.

As a pitcher, he went 25-0 during the war years, striking out an average of 15 batters per game. As an outfielder, he batted .567.

The New York Giants signed him in 1946 for a then-high sum of $35,000.

Sportswriter Tom Meany said, “Rather than stop at the Polo Grounds, they should have taken him straight to Cooperstown.”

Clint Hartung was supposed to make Northern Manhattan go crazy as a modern day Babe Ruth: a player whose pitching prowess was only matched by his hitting acumen.

Instead, Hartung became the poster child for the overhyped rookie.

Hartung pitched just 511 innings in the big leagues, compiling a 29-29 record and a 5.02 ERA. In 378 at-bats, he hit .238 and struck out 112 times.

Koufax was the reverse Hartung because he started as a flop and then earned his hype. The lesson? You never really know with prospects, do you?

The can’t-miss kid exists in every big league organization.

He’s somewhere—whether in the lowest of the minors, or in Double-A, or maybe even on the 25-man major league roster. He’s young and sleek and wows the scouts and general managers with his “tools.” If he’s a pitcher, he’s said to have stuff that’s “nasty” and “filthy.”

The can’t-miss kid is a blue chip prospect that holds up trades between big league teams on an annual basis—right about now, as a matter of fact.

The inter-league, non-waiver trading deadline in Major League Baseball is upon us. As I bang on my keyboard, the deadline for making trades between the two leagues without the necessity of players clearing waivers is about 15 hours away.

Big names have been mentioned as destined to be wearing different uniforms come Sunday morning. The usual pre-deadline rumor mill, churning as briskly as ever.

Whether these big names get moved will largely depend on certain GMs and their hesitancy to trade their so-called can’t-miss, blue chip prospects.

There are still a bunch of Clint Hartungs lurking in every big league organization. And they are going to determine the fate of pennant races in both leagues—either by their being traded, or by their GM’s reluctance thereof.

Matt Wieters is a catcher for the Baltimore Orioles who was supposed to be the next coming of Johnny Bench—or at the very least, Joe Mauer. Wieters’ debut with the sad-sack Orioles was looked forward to with almost biblical anticipation.

Wieters is 6’5”—there’s that measurement again—and bats left-handed. He’s 24 years old and was the Orioles’ first-round draft pick of 2007. He was touted as the organization’s designated can’t-miss kid.

Wieters debuted for the Orioles in May 2009 against the Tigers. In his second game, Wieters had a double and a triple and scored a run.

But after 28 at-bats, Wieters had just four hits.

His year-end numbers were OK: .288 BA, nine HR, 43 RBI in 354 at-bats.

Hardly numbers that make your eyes pop out.

This year, Wieters is hitting .248, striking out every five at-bats and the Orioles are still lousy.

Yet if it had been suggested a couple years ago that the Orioles trade Wieters for an established big league player, the suggester would have been tossed into the Potomac.

Hey, remember Cameron Maybin?

He was the Tigers’ designated can’t-miss kid from a few years back. Maybin, an outfielder, was said to have all the “tools” that baseball people fawn over.

Maybin was practically an untouchable prospect—a blue chip that would never be seriously considered to be played at the blackjack table.

The Tigers rushed him to the big leagues in 2007 and plopped him into the lineup in Yankee Stadium during an important August series. That’s not a debut, that’s a blood-letting.

Maybin proved to be not ready for the majors.

In December, 2007, the Tigers did the unthinkable and traded Maybin, along with pitcher Andrew Miller, to the Florida Marlins.

Slugger Miguel Cabrera wouldn’t be performing feats of mass destruction as a Tiger had GM Dave Dombrowski not played the Maybin blue chip.

Maybin has compiled very pedestrian numbers as a Marlin since 2008. Currently, he’s batting .225 with a truckload of strikeouts, while Cabrera flirts with a Triple Crown and MVP contention.

Prospects are just that, while established big league players are also just that.

Give me an established player over a prospect any day!

Suck it up, trade the can’t-miss kids if they’ll net prime time players, and go get more prospects. That’s why you’re paying your scouting staff, right?

Oh, the trades that could be made if can’t-miss kids were included in deals more often. So few GMs have the guts.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Monday Morning Manager

Last Week: 3-4
This Week: at TB (7/26-29); at Bos (7/30-8/1)

So What Happened?

Someone call Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John. See if "Hot Lips" Houlihan and Frank Burns can disengage themselves and lend a hand.
The Tigers could use themselves a M*A*S*H unit.

It's almost tragically funny, what happened to the Tigers physically last week.

First they lose their starting 3B, Brandon Inge, to a broken hand early in the week. Then in the same game on Saturday, RF Magglio Ordonez and 2B Carlos Guillen go down; Ordonez to a broken ankle, Guillen to a calf injury.

The Tigers are now Toledo North, with all the rookies they're being forced to play.

While all that was going on, the Tigers struggled---and MMM means STRUGGLED---to go 3-4 last week against the Rangers and the Blue Jays at Comerica Park.

Somehow, the Tigers are still only two games behind the front-running White Sox and one game behind the second place Twins. It wasn't all that long ago when the Tigers led the Twins by four games.

Hero of the Week

Miguel Cabrera, who else?

They used to call NBA great Jerry West "Mr. Clutch." So what does that leave Cabrera?

I watched Kirk Gibson come through time and time again as a Tiger. For my money, Gibby was the best clutch hitter I've ever seen in Detroit, and I've been following the team since 1971.

But Cabrera is threatening Gibson's status. He only has to start doing it in September and October to surpass Kirk.

When the Tigers absolutely need a run driven in, especially late in a ballgame, Cabrera drives it in. Period.

He's as reliable as tomorrow's sunrise.

Cabrera is an equal opportunity run producer. You need a sacrifice fly? Done. A single blooped into the outfield which is playing deep? You got it. A gapper to plate a runner from first base? Mark it on your scorebook.

Whatever is needed to drive in baserunners, Miguel Cabrera gives it to you. It seems like he does it every single time. But I'll be darned if I can remember the last time he didn't come through.

Can you?

Cabrera saved the Tigers' lunch, again, last week. And he did his damnedest to do so in the games the Tigers lost, too. He delivered two home runs on Monday night against Texas in a losing cause, and tied the Blue Jays in the eighth inning in Sunday's Game 1 with a bloop single, though the Jays won in the ninth inning.

Cabrera is in his own world, playing in his own league. It's like the baseball is placed on a tee for him to do with it what he will.

Goat of the Week

Brennan Boesch, meet your first slump, son.

It may seem harsh to make super rookie Boesch MMM's Goat this week, but it's out of tough love.

Boesch's batting average is dropping like a lead balloon. We all knew this would happen; we just didn't know when.

Now we'll see how the young man handles it.

Boesch has pretty much had things his way since joining the Tigers in late April as a replacement for the injured Carlos Guillen. His numbers were off the charts and flew in the face of the fact that he wasn't even considered one of the organization's top prospects.

Now he's in a 1-for-20-ish trough, and Tigers fans are holding their collective breath that this doesn't spin out of control.

Manager Jim Leyland said a few weeks ago, when Boesch was feasting on American League pitchers, that he didn't want the kid thinking. At all.

But now's the time when he must be counseled. Hitting coach Lloyd McClendon, this is where you start earning your paycheck.

Boesch did, however, work hard for a walk in the eighth inning rally of Game 1 Sunday, albeit on a pitch that could easily have been called a strike. Still, it was a terrific at-bat by a free-swinging young player who's battling a slump.

And that's why Brennan Boesch should be OK. He has shown an amazing resiliency. He can look awful for three at-bats and then smoke a laser on his fourth.

Or draw a walk.

Boesch is this week's MMM Goat, but it's done without malice.

Upcoming: Rays and Red Sox

Ahh, the American League East.

The Tigers just got done splitting four games with the division's warm-up act, the Toronto Blue Jays.

Now it's time to play the headliners.

The Rays are battling the Yankees for first place. The Red Sox are trying to stay in the thick of the Wild Card hunt. It's doubtless that the AL's Wild Card will come from the East.

Not only are these two of the East's big boys, but the Tigers are playing them on the road, where our guys would have a tough team beating the Pawtucket Red Sox.

The Tigers are a hideous 16-29 on the road, and now they play the Rays and the Red Sox at their place?

Let's hope by this time next week MMM isn't writing the Tigers' obituary for 2010.

MMM won't break the Rays and Red Sox down as is usually done in this space. You know about these teams, and what they're capable of doing.

You think the Tigers could convince MLB to allow them to wear their home whites this week, even behind enemy lines?

Didn't think so.

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


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Houk Bridged Gap for Tigers with Dignity, Respect

Ralph Houk managed the Tigers when the team was in suspended animation.

The Tigers were between eras when GM Jim Campbell tabbed Houk to replace the fiery but out-of-control Billy Martin.

It was just after the 1973 season.

Martin had been fired in August, the last straw being his brazen order to pitchers Fred Scherman and Joe Coleman to throw spitballs in retaliation for the ones he felt Gaylord Perry was squishing to the Tigers hitters.

Martin had been brought in to resuscitate a moribund Tigers team that had laid down shamelessly for Mayo Smith in 1970.

But after a tad less than three seasons of Martin's bizarre behavior and insubordinate comments to the media, Detroit News sportswriter Jerry Green was sitting in the press box at Tiger Stadium one night, shortly before Billy was given the ziggy.

Green asked Campbell what Tigers owner John Fetzer thought of Martin.

"Mr. Fetzer is disgusted with Bill Martin," Campbell told Green, the story related to me by Green not three weeks ago.

Hiring and firing coaches and managers is like experiencing a between-seasons day in Michigan. You get cold and put on a jacket, and keep the jacket on as long as you can stand it. Then you inevitably get too hot and shed the jacket, until you inevitably get cold again.

The Tigers needed some heat when they hired Martin. Then things got too hot and Martin had to go.

Campbell went searching for someone to cool things down.

Houk was a World Series-winning manager with the Yankees whose time in the Bronx was winding down. Familiarity with Houk was breeding contempt in New York. The Yankees hadn't been to the World Series in nine years.

Houk was made available, and Campbell thought Houk's experience and reputation for patience with younger players would be perfect for the Tigers, who were about to enter a long and painful rebuilding process.

The Tigers of 1974 were really nothing more than an older version of their 1968 and 1972 teams that won the World Series and the AL East, respectively.

A much older version.

The core was still Kaline and Horton and Cash and Freehan and Northrup and Lolich. But they were well into their 30s, and some were approaching 40.

Houk was brought in and he had the old guys and peach-fuzzed kids. No in between. For the next four seasons, losing came in bunches as the Tigers hit bottom.

Houk, 90, has died. He passed away today in Florida, dying peacefully after a brief illness.

Channel 4 sportscaster Al Ackerman used to call Houk "fifth place Ralph" for his usual finishes in the East Division. It was a terribly unfair moniker, not unusual for Acid Al.

If Houk was "fifth place Ralph," it was simply because of the proving of a corollary: a manager cannot win if he doesn't have any talent.

Houk managed the Tigers from 1974-78

The Houk years in Detroit were a bridge---something that had to be suffered and endured in order to reach the rainbow at the end. If it wasn't for Mark Fidrych in 1976, the process would have been even worse.

Houk was in Detroit, doing his damnedest to beat the Red Sox and A's and Royals with the likes of Leon Roberts, Danny Meyer and Tom Veryzer, while kids named Trammell, Whitaker, Parrish and Morris were being cultivated on the farm.

By the time the new core of Tigers reached Detroit in 1978, Houk announced it would be his last year as a big league manager.

1978 would be Houk's only winning season of the five he spent in Detroit. The Tigers didn't have another losing campaign until 1989.

Houk retired, but that didn't last long. The Red Sox coaxed him out two years later, making Houk one of the few men who managed both the Yankees and the Red Sox.

Houk was a rookie manager in 1961 with the Yankees when he presided over the amazing, record-breaking years of sluggers Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle.

In his first three seasons of managing, Houk won 309 games.

Again, the corollary was proven, in reverse. A manager with talent has a much better chance of winning.

Houk moved upstairs to be the Yankees GM in 1964 and '65, then returned to the dugout from 1966-73.

Campbell had the utmost respect for Houk, even more so coming on the heels of the destructive Martin. The GM knew Houk didn't have much to work with, but Houk gave Campbell five years in a situation where most managers would have been found dangling from the ceiling, a towel tied around their neck.

The Tigers didn't win much when Ralph Houk managed them. They couldn't, not with the rosters he was provided. OK, so he was "fifth place Ralph," as Ackerman had sneered about him.

But there's no telling how much worse they would have been without Houk's calming guidance and patience. They would have finished south of the equator.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Monday Morning Manager

Last Week: 0-4
This Week: TEX (7/19-21); TOR (7/22-25)

So What Happened?

Do you really want to know?

The Tigers went to Cleveland and they wished they hadn't. That's not unusual---Cleveland's a great town if you want to spend a weekend but only have a few hours---but in this case it was even worse.

The Tigers came off the All-Star Break refreshed, invigorated, and hot. They were a mere half-game behind the White Sox for first place, and three full games in front of the third-place Twins.

Then they went to Cleveland and became their own worst Mistake by the Lake.

The Tigers couldn't hit. Aside from Rick Porcello, they really didn't pitch. The Indians looked like those terrors of the mid-1990s, not the pratfallers of the mid-1980s---as they have for most of this season.

The result?

An Indians four-game sweep, with the Tigers outscored 21-8 and licking their wounds.

The Twins took three of four from the Chisox in Minnesota and have pulled virtually even with the Tigers, 1-1/2 games behind Chicago.

Hero of the Week

Sadly, that's an easy call: MMM chooses Rick Porcello.

The just-recalled Porcello, making his first Tigers start in weeks---after serving time in Toledo---pitched brilliantly on Saturday night. He didn't walk anyone. He had command of his pitches, and even threw a slider on a 3-1 count---something Porcello himself could scarcely believe.

Didn't matter; Tigers lost, 2-1.

But Porcello was very good, which gives hope to Tigers fans worried about the starting rotation's depth. Funny how, back in April, Porcello was counted on as being the solid No. 2 starter behind Justin Verlander. Now, we're thrilled that he looked good after a stint in the minors.

That's baseball for you.

Goat of the Week

Take your pick.

Nothing went right in Cleveland, save Porcello's start.

The heart of the Tigers' order---Magglio Ordonez, Miguel Cabrera, and Brennan Boesch---was as quiet as a church mouse all weekend. The stellar Indians pitching staff---yes, I'm being smarmy and bitterly sarcastic---shut them down, for four straight games.

The pitching was nasty, and not in the good meaning of that word.

The overall play was lethargic and trance-like.

"We weren't ready to play, and that's my responsibility," manager Jim Leyland said. "Frankly, I'm shocked."

Frankly, I'm not; Leyland's second half Tigers have mostly been the evil twin of the first half version since 2006.

Upcoming: Rangers and Blue Jays

Those days of last-place teams invading Comerica Park, bringing switchblades to gun battles, are long gone.

The real big league teams will be frequenting the joint from here on out, with few exceptions.

It all starts tonight with the AL West-leading Texas Rangers.

But the Tigers won't see lefty starter Cliff Lee, who pitched Saturday and is not scheduled to start again until after the Rangers leave town.

Still, the Rangers are formidable. They are second in the league in team batting average. They can rock you with Vlad Guerrero, Ian Kinsler, Josh Hamilton, and Michael Young. All of them are batting .300-plus this season. And don't forget RF Nelson Cruz, who's sailing along at .319.

An intriguing pitching matchup occurs Tuesday, when Armando Galarraga returns to the Tigers after a brief stint in Toledo. He'll go up against right-hander Tommy Hunter, who's 6-0 with a 2.39 ERA.

The Rangers have lost a mind-boggling 11 straight games in Detroit, which makes MMM feel uneasy; those streaks can't go on forever, you know.

A four-game series with the Blue Jays used to make the town buzz in Detroit.

That was when the Tigers and Jays were both tenants of the AL East, back in the good old days.

But the Jays aren't chopped liver, and here they come for a four-game set, starting Thursday.

The Jays are funny; they lead the majors in home runs, yet are batting just .243 as a team and have scored just 421 runs, which puts them in the middle of the MLB pack. So they clearly aren't manufacturing a lot of runs.

But they can bash you---no less then eight Blue Jays are in double digits in home runs.

Jose Bautista is a great example of the Blue Jays' all-or-nothing offense. The RF has 25 homers and 58 RBI, yet is batting only .233. Maybe those 72 strikeouts have something to do with that.

Comerica Park is no haven for right-handed hitters, and most of the Jays' sluggers bat that way. So we'll see which force serves to be more stubborn.

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


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Steinbrenner Removed Owner Anonymity Forever

They used to be venerable, largely anonymous men. Baseball teams were the family business. You never saw them, rarely heard from them.

You had an occasional buffoon (Bill Veeck), or a pioneer (Branch Rickey), or a turncoat (Horace Stoneham). Those anomalies aside, the rest of them wore stuffy suits, counted the day's receipts, and some thought a hit-and-run was a traffic accident.

Their players were indentured. Thanks to the Reserve Clause, a big league ballplayer had the freedom of a goldfish in a plastic bag full of water and the leverage of a six-inch long plank.

Then came George Steinbrenner.

Steinbrenner, the Yankees owner who died early Tuesday morning at age 80, ripped the cloak of anonymity from team sports ownership. He gave it a face.

You may not have liked what you saw, but one thing was certain: You couldn't look away.

Before Steinbrenner, you had no idea how much a team owner could care about winning or losing.

He was born on July 4, which I always found deliciously ironic, and maybe at times very appropriate, for Steinbrenner hated losing, and so do Americans.

Most of us just didn't have hundreds of millions of dollars with which to do something about it.

Steinbrenner bought the Yankees from CBS in 1973. He made his money in shipping, and he only bought the Yankees because he couldn't buy his home state Cleveland Indians.

Can you imagine? All of the bombastic antics, impetuous behavior and soap opera-like drama could have played out on Lake Erie instead of the East River.

Before Steinbrenner, the Yankees were a has-been. Their stadium was run down, their fan base dwindling, and their won-lost record pedestrian. The face of the franchise was Bobby Murcer, a fine ballplayer but with the charisma of a frog.

Steinbrenner bought them and for the first time in Yankees history, the owner was the star, though a polarizing one. The talent on the field lacked fizz, so George provided it. He moved his team into Shea Stadium for two seasons so that Yankee Stadium could be refurbished. At the same time, he set out to dismantle his roster, too.

New Yankee Stadium was unveiled in time for the 1976 season, and it was gorgeous. About the same time, the team itself was getting prettier.

Baseball rules changed regarding free agency, and Steinbrenner was truly unleashed. He went through cash like a teenager does with his allowance.

Never before had baseball owners been able to go to the candy store and buy players. And George, armed with his own cash and money made off TV contracts and the like, blew the doors off free agency.

But no owner, no matter his personality and largesse, is anything without foils, without supporting characters.

Steinbrenner wouldn't have been half of what he was if he didn't have Billy Martin or Reggie Jackson or Dave Winfield around him. Without them, he would have been just a loudmouth guy with a lot of money. He would have been Mark Cuban.

Everyone was on edge who worked for the Yankees, from Jackson to the night custodians.

George seemed to like that, because he wanted everyone associated with the Yankees to detest losing.

"When you put on a Yankees uniform, you're not just putting on pinstripes," Steinbrenner once said. "You're putting on tradition. And you'd better treat that accordingly."

Under Steinbrenner, every Yankees manager was interim. Job security was something to be winked at---like an inside joke.

At times, there was a question as to what Yankees players hated more: losing, or Steinbrenner.

"The more we lose, the more he's apt to travel to see us play," one former player said. "And the more he flies, the better the chance is that his plane will crash."

Graig Nettles went on camera years after retiring.

"He'd light into us when we played bad, and if we started winning, George thought it was because he lit into us," Nettles said. "That wasn't the case, but that's what George thought."

Steinbrenner had success with the Yankees early on, winning four pennants and two World Series between 1976-81. But from 1982-94, the Yankees failed to make the playoffs. It was during that time, in the early-1990s, when Steinbrenner was suspended by Commissioner Fay Vincent from running the Yankees.

The announcement of Steinbrenner's banishment incited a 90-second standing ovation at Yankee Stadium. Part of that reaction was because the last straw for Vincent was Steinbrenner paying gambler Howard Spira $40,000 to smear fan favorite Dave Winfield.

But George came back, in 1993. Those close to him say he was a different man after his suspension. Not coincidentally, the Yankees soon started winning World Series again---four in five years from 1996-2000.

Yankees players and managers took turns feuding with Steinbrenner, always publicly. There was Martin and Jackson, of course, and the three of them formed a menage a trois that was dropped on the media as if it came from the Fairy Godmother of Journalism.

The Yankees with George Steibrenner, Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson was like a summer-long episode of "COPS." The Yankees clubhouse was filled with domestic disturbances in those days.

We'll likely never see anything like that again; the combination of drama, intrigue, pettiness, and winning was at the same time intoxicating and repelling.

Steinbrenner relinquished most of the control of the Yankees to his sons in his later years, but he still went out as a winner. He died on top, as owner of the defending champs.

"What do I want it to say on my tombstone?" Steinbrenner said back in 1998. "I just want it to say, 'He never stopped trying.'"

And we never stopped watching him trying. How could we?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Monday Morning Manager

Last Week: 5-1
This Week: ASB (7/12-14); at Cle (7/16-18)

So what happened?

The Tigers took advantage of two things: another last place club coming to town, and a reeling Minnesota Twins team.

The Tigers finished a staggering stretch of home games in which all they played were last place teams from both leagues. No less than six straight bottom feeders visited Comerica Park (in between some road games) in successive series. The Tigers dutifully went 15-3 in those 18 games.

The latest last place victims were the Baltimore Orioles, who came in for their expected three-game sweep.

Then the Tigers roughed up the Twins over the weekend, taking two of three and stretching their (now) second place lead to three games over the Twinkies.

Meanwhile, the Tigers fell into second place by a half-game to the blazing hot White Sox.

Hero of the Week

Change the last word in the above title to "Year" and just leave Miguel Cabrera's name attached to it.

Miggy was huge last week. He's huge every week. The rest of the league is made up of Lilliputians compared to him.

Cabrera tied up the Orioles last Tuesday with a two-run jack in the ninth---a game the Tigers won in extras thanks to a Johnny Damon walk-off homer.

He got the ball rolling, so to speak, on Saturday afternoon on national TV against the Twins with a two-run homer.

He has 22 HR, 77 RBI at the All-Star Break. He's hitting .346.

Half of the players in MLB would like to be like him when they grow up.

A 5-1 week usually brings many heroes. But MMM goes with Cabrera because he was in the middle of most of the destruction last week.

Goat of the Week

Maybe Andy Oliver isn't ready for the big leagues after all.

Oliver, the lefty starter summoned from Toledo a couple weeks ago, hasn't really come close to matching his first big league start, when he pitched well in Atlanta on June 25.

Overall, he's 0-3 with a 6.38 ERA.

His latest rough outing came Sunday against the Twins, who tagged him for five hits, four walks, and four earned runs in 4.2 innings.

Manager Jim Leyland says Oliver is still on track to pitch next Sunday in Cleveland.

But beyond that, who knows. He's one rookie who hasn't knocked our socks off, like so many of them have this season.

MMM thinks Oliver is a talented pitcher, nonetheless; he just might need more seasoning.

Upcoming: Indians

The Tigers hit the All-Star Break one-half game behind the scorching White Sox, who are riding the crest of a 25-5 wave since June 9.

But the two teams are tied in the all-important loss column, with 38.

After the break, the Tigers get a chance to extend that break, because they play the Indians.

Only half-kidding here.

The Indians are a bad baseball team, made badder due to injuries to key personnel. This roster is little more than a glorified AAA group.

Just three years ago the Tribe was the class of the Central and one win away from going to the World Series. Today, they resemble those ghastly Indians teams of the 1970s and '80s.

The Tigers have made such teams pay, big time, when they've visited Detroit. On the road, the Tigers are far less intimidating.

That has to end this upcoming weekend in Cleveland. Teams generally don't win divisions by playing .390 on the road, as the Tigers are this season.

That's it for this week's MMM. Happy All-Star Break and see you next Monday!


Thursday, July 08, 2010

July Baseball in Detroit Used to Sizzle Every Year

You could feel the buzz the moment you stepped out of your car.

Whether you parked your buggy somewhere along Abbott Street or off Michigan Avenue, or in the Firestone lot across the street from the ballpark, the air was teeming with baseball electricity.

Maybe the Blue Jays were in town, or the Yankees. Perhaps those darn Orioles.

You headed toward Tiger Stadium, looming somewhere several blocks away, and you caught portions of conversations along the way, as you passed peanut vendors and the old-timers waving their hankies and towels, beckoning folks to park in their lot.

"Sparky's got the boys playing..."

"...can't stand that Rick Dempsey. Who's HE to talk about our..."

"Why isn't Ernie Whitt a Tiger? He's from Detroit, for God's sake..."

".,..meeting them at Hoot McInerney's; we're late..."

You hoofed it to the old ballpark---Tiger Stadium with its lights already on despite the fact that sundown was still a couple hours away. You couldn't wait to get there.

Don't start the party without me!

A mental note to stop at Sportsland U.S.A. afterward, maybe pick up a New Era cap, just like the big leaguers wear. Or a few blocks further to down a couple of pops at Nemo's.

Or back to the car for the short trip to the Lindell AC---simply the greatest sports bar that God ever placed on Earth.

But that was hours away. First, there was a big ballgame to witness.

This was Tiger Stadium, circa the 1980s and this was a quote-unquote big series played out in mid-summer.

From 1980-1988, the Tigers posted winning seasons. In many of those, they were contenders until long after the All-Star break---at least.

It was a far cry from the early Comerica Park days, when all the fun happened on Opening Day and that was it Opening Day.

Not until 2006 did the Tigers begin playing meaningful ballgames at CoPa past April.

1981: The players go on strike for almost two months, return on August 9 with the All-Star Game in Cleveland. Kirk Gibson, hitting in the .230s in the first half thanks to a wrist injury, blasts out of the gate in the second half, his wrist apparently OK.

Gibby is sizzling, batting .370-ish and leading the Tigers in a race with the Milwaukee Brewers to a watered down second half division championship. The Tigers come up short, but it's the first "pennant race" in these parts since 1972.

1983: The Tigers are chasing the Orioles, who never seem to lose. The kids of the late-1970s are blossoming into bona fide big league veterans: Parrish, Whitaker, Trammell, Gibson, Morris, Petry, et al.

There's tension at the old ballpark throughout the summer, the scoreboard watched intently.

Look---the O's just got three runs in the eighth in Chicago to take the lead.


It comes down to seven games against the Orioles in September, but the Tigers pretty much have to win all seven to have a shot.

Doesn't happen, but maybe next year...

1984: The whole season is a carnival at Michigan and Trumbull. The only drama is whether the Blue Jays can get the Tigers tuned in, like a radio station far away from home. The Jays are always 8-10 games out, no matter what they do.

A trip to the ballpark that summer wracks no nerves. Most pennant races are suffered through like a root canal. But not in 1984; the Tigers that year are novocaine.

1986: The Gentleman from Virginia, Johnny Grubb, gets smoking hot sometime in July and the Tigers hop on. They're trying to catch the Red Sox and Grubber is Babe Ruth for a few weeks.

The Red Sox are managed by someone else named Joe Morgan that year, and they don't seem to lose, either. But Grubb gives it his best shot as a one-man wrecking crew.

Tigers fade in September. Maybe next year, again.

1987: This wasn't a pennant race, it was a seance.

The Tigers were moribund in May, with a record of 11-19. They died a few days later.

But then they picked up a graying veteran hitter named Bill "Mad Dog" Madlock in early June.

The Tigers came back to life, and began haunting the Blue Jays after the All-Star break.

This time, it was the Tigers who couldn't lose. They charged back, hugging the rail and blowing past all the East Division teams until the only one ahead of them was Toronto.

Even a 3-1/2 game lead with a week to play couldn't save the Blue Jays.

The Tigers swept Toronto in Detroit on the final weekend, capturing the division flag---still their last one, some 23 years later.

The Tigers go 87-45 after their bad start and end up with the best record in baseball.

The Twins' mastery over the Tigers in games played after September 1 begins in '87, when they beat them in five games in the ALCS.

1988: The Tigers pick up veteran hitter Freddie Lynn on August 31. It's a strange race that year, with just about the whole division in it until early-September, when the Red Sox begin to pull away. The Tigers had a lead in August but frittered it away.

Still, they make a September push but it's like a race between two senior citizens with rheumatoid arthritis. Neither the Red Sox nor the Tigers do much winning. The Red Sox nurse a slim lead while the Tigers run in place.

The final standings show the Red Sox winning the division by one game over the Tigers, but it's not that close; the Red Sox slump in the final week, but time runs out on everyone else, the Tigers included.

2010: This weekend, those menacing Twins hit town. It's July baseball, with amperage.

The division won't be decided this weekend; it'll just seem like it.

The three games will be like what legendary manager Earl Weaver once said about baseball: Each game is a series of nine nervous breakdowns.

If you're going to the ballpark, there'll be something extra in the air when you climb out of your vehicle.

The Twins are in town. July baseball with sizzle.

Just like it used to be.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Gibson Gets His Shot, But for How Long?

So how did we get here?

How did we get from a bull-in-a-china-shop football player at Michigan State University to the manager of a big league baseball team?

Well, first of all, Kirk Gibson was a bull-in-a-china-shop baseball player, too. So nothing new there.

Gibson played baseball with the temperament of a bear awakened early from hibernation. He reported to spring training every February scowling, and got crabbier. His face was affixed into a sneer from April to October.

Gibby, especially in his earlier days as a big leaguer, didn't swing at pitches, he flailed at them angrily. The baseball was a house fly, and Gibson was trying to kill it with a hammer.

Gibson was Garfield before his cup of coffee, an infant with colic. He played the game as if someone was about to take it away from him. You could imagine him as a modern day Rogers Hornsby, who was once asked what he did during the baseball off-season.

"You know what I do?," Hornsby said. "I stare out the window at winter and I wait for baseball season."

Gibson played football and baseball at MSU, helping to lead the Spartans football team to a share of the 1978 Big Ten Championship. But the football program was on probation, thanks to squirrelly coach Darryl Rogers. So no Bowl Game for Gibby. As if he needed another chip on his shoulder.

But he chose baseball, probably because he liked the idea of 162-game seasons. No weekly, three-month football season could ever hold his drive and passion.

Kirk Gibson didn't have a Hall of Fame baseball career. His numbers don't reach out and grab you. In any given season, dozens of players were more talented, in that God-given way.

But he was the most clutch hitter I've ever seen in Detroit. Ever. Ask Dodgers fans about that, while you're at it.

Lord knows what Gibson could have done if he didn't play half of every season hurting.

Something was always the matter with him.

A wrist injury one year. His ankle, another. His shoulder, his back. His legs.

Tigers manager Sparky Anderson, in a fit of boosterism, once called Gibson "the next Mickey Mantle."

Forget that Mantle was a switch-hitter and Gibby batted left.

But Sparky was right, in a crooked path sort of way. Gibson WAS the next Mantle, when it came to the aches and pains department.

Mantle played his career on one leg. Gibson would have killed to have just a bad leg to worry about most years.

Kirk Gibson is now the manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, where everyone who's not a player is "interim." Gibby is, and so is the general manager.

No one knows how long he'll hold the job. But pity the army who tries to take it away from him.

Already, the players have spoken. Gibson has been the boss for less than two days, taking over after the firing of A.J. Hinch. Already the colorful adjectives are coming out.

Fiery. Passionate. Tough. Hates to lose.

Gibson has been holding his tongue in big league dugouts for seven years now.

He started his coaching career as bench coach for Alan Trammell in Detroit from 2003-05. He joined the D-Backs in 2007. In that role, it wasn't his place to say what he really wanted to say, to do what he really wanted to do.

Now it is.

May the Lord have mercy on his players' souls.

He can't win, of course---not in Arizona, not with this roster. But by God, his players better learn to hate losing and give it their all.

He's the interim manager, which means he's going to be at the helm until the end of the season and then who knows?

Gibson has a three-month tryout to prove whether he has the goods to be a big league manager---if not in Arizona, then elsewhere. Not just those who follow the Diamondbacks are watching.

I remember Gibson as a snot-nosed kid off the campus of MSU and into a Tigers uniform back in 1979. I saw him develop as a big league player and waited for the rest of him to mature. That took awhile, and he'll admit that.

I saw him limp around the diamond and battle pain every year. I saw him grow old and get thin on top and try to hang on with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Between the 1992 and 1993 seasons, there arose some chatter.

Gibson, who'd played just 16 games with the Bucs in 1992 and who had pretty much retired at age 35, was whispered to be on the Tigers' radar for 1993.

There was nothing to suggest he could be a serviceable player. He had 56 at-bats in '92, gathered just 11 hits. The year before that, he hit .236 for the Royals, playing in 132 games.

He was 35 with the body of 55.

The Tigers signed him in February, 1993. It was thought to be nice of them.

Then Gibson went out and hit .261, slugged some homers---many of them clutch, and the Tigers' charity suddenly looked very much like clairvoyance.

In 1994, Gibson hit 23 homers and had 72 RBI in just 330 at-bats, hitting .276. He was 37 years old and his career wasn't just twitching, it was re-animated.

In mid-year of the 1995 season, Gibson quit. The Tigers' wheels were falling off and Gibby sensed it. He wanted no part of that, and so he limped away.

He retired the same way he broke in: suddenly and forcefully.

Gibson has three months to manage the Diamondbacks. It's a lousy job with a rotten roster and a losing culture and uncertainty in upper management.

Don't bet against him.