Sunday, December 11, 2011

Tigers' Laird Back, Now As the Prototypical "Mr. Backup"

The only difference, as far as I can see, between the backup catcher in baseball and the backup quarterback in football is that no one clamors for the former to play. Other than that, you can barely slide a credit card between the two positions, in terms of what they mean to their respective teams.

Both are non-starters for a reason.

Yet in the NFL, there is a mystique about the backup quarterback. He’s not the starter, but as soon as the real starter goes a little sideways, everyone from the crank yankers calling in to sports talk radio to your Uncle Gus can’t wait to see the No. 2 QB jogging onto the field.

Not so with the backup catcher.

The backup catcher is someone who can’t hit, who can’t run and whose only seemingly redeemable quality is that he’s “a good clubhouse guy.”

At least the backup quarterback has been known to save the day on occasion, with a heart-stopping drive at the end of a game or a surprising starting performance that makes him look, for 60 glorious minutes, like the second coming of Johnny Unitas.

The backup catcher is a guy who plays only because the starter can’t possibly catch all 162 games.

The Tigers tried to have Alex Avila catch that many games last year, or so it seemed. He was given less time off than an accountant during tax season.

There was a pseudo rotation between Avila and the newly-signed Victor Martinez for a time, but Victor’s knees couldn’t take the punishment and he was relegated solely to designated hitter duties.

That left Avila, with token appearances by utility man Don Kelly and a couple of dudes from the stands, if memory serves.

The Tigers have provided Avila with some relief, however, for 2012 with the signing of—drum roll, please—our old friend Gerald Laird.

He’s baaack!

For what the backup catcher normally provides offensively, Laird fits the bill. He also fit the bill in 2009 and 2010, during his first tour of duty with the Tigers. Trouble was, he was the starter—and still hitting like a backup.

I don’t have the time or the energy to do the research, but if you were to tell me that the mean batting average for backup catchers last year—or any year, for that matter—was around .200, I wouldn’t bat an eye (no pun intended).

That’s what backup catchers do, you know. They hit around .200, play once a week, maybe twice, and the hope is that they just don’t screw anything up.

They’re like substitute teachers, in a way.

Laird had the last laugh, though. Tigers fans weren’t exactly enamored with him after his less-than-spectacular hitting prowess (he hit a composite .218 in his two Detroit seasons), and were happy when he wasn’t asked back for 2011.

That’s OK—for Laird, who hooked up with the St. Louis Cardinals last December, got all of 95 at-bats in 2011, hit a robust .232 and (here’s the punch line) won a World Series with the Cards.

All the great catchers in baseball history had their caddies, which are what the backups are, essentially.

The Yankees’ Yogi Berra had his Charlie Silvera. The Reds’ Johnny Bench had his Bill Plummer. The Tigers’ Bill Freehan had his Jim Price.

Silvera, Plummer and Price were your typical backup backstops. That is, they couldn’t hit their way out of a paper bag. None was a threat to unseat the starter ahead of them.

Tigers fans might have rolled their eyes at the news of Laird’s signing last week, but he makes sense, frankly. Laird already knows the Tigers pitchers, for the most part, he has no grandiose ideas of taking young Avila’s job and he hits the requisite .200-ish.

But in fairness, the backup catcher should at least field a little, and Laird can do that. His 32-year-old arm is still strong enough to keep would-be base stealers somewhat honest.

The Tigers just need Laird to catch no more than 40 games next season, stay out of the way and don’t screw the pitchers up. It’s all any big league team asks of its No. 2 catcher.

Oh, and be a good cheerleader, that so-called “good clubhouse guy.”

When the Tigers went to the World Series in 2006, they had Vance Wilson around as Pudge Rodriguez’s caddie. If backup catchers were an organization, Wilson would have been a card-carrying member.

Actually, Vance might have been the Chairman of the Board, for he spent several seasons backing up Mike Piazza with the Mets before coming to Detroit to give Rodriguez an occasional breather. That’s playing second banana to two Hall of Famers. Not bad.

Wilson actually batted .283 in 152 at-bats with the ’06 Tigers, and he was widely recognized as one of the best backup catchers in the game—not that they give out any awards for that.

And Wilson was consistent. Before his career ended with a bad elbow injury after that 2006 season, Wilson in his final three seasons had 157, 152 and 152 at-bats from 2004-06, respectively. He was Mr. Backup—the Sultan of Squat.

Wilson was manager Jim Leyland’s attitude guy, too.

After he hurt his elbow in spring training, Wilson stayed with the team all season in 2007, rehabbing and keeping his spirits up—and those of his teammates with his practical jokes and loosey-goosey demeanor.

I saw him in the clubhouse a couple times in ’07, and on both occasions I asked him how close he was to coming back and playing.

“REAL close. REAL close,” he’d say.

Wilson never did play after 2006.

No matter. The backup catcher is the never-say-die guy on the baseball team. He’s often the least pretentious and with the smallest ego. He’s just happy to be in the big leagues.

As well he should, given his hitting skills.

Welcome back, Gerald Laird! It’s nice to have your .200 batting average, good defense and slow legs back with the Tigers.

Just don’t screw anything up.

Labels: , ,

Friday, December 02, 2011

Tigers Independent Scribes Announce 2011 Awards

Tigers scribes announce 2011 awards
Justin Verlander wins fifth DIBS award

The Detroit Independent Baseball Scribes (DIBS) are back at it again. Established in 2005, the ever-growing group of Internet-based baseball writers honors Detroit Tigers players through a list of traditional and wacky awards each offseason. This year, DIBS sent out a record number of ballots for a record-number of categories, as suggested by DIBS members each year. Twenty-two voters from 17 different sites voted on nine different categories.

Justin Verlander earned the title of Most Valuable Tiger, giving him his fifth DIBS victory. Earlier in his career, he was named 2010’s Best Pitching Face, 2009’s Tigers Pitcher of the Year, 2007’s Tigers Pitcher of the Year and 2006’s Breakout Player of the Year. (DIBS did not vote in 2008, although Verlander would have undoubtedly won for something.)

First-time winners in 2011 include Al Alburquerque (Best Rookie), Alex Avila (Best Hair), Victor Martinez (Best Victor Martinez) and Ramon Santiago, who earned DIBS’ inaugural Best Roleplayer victory.

DIBS also fondly remembered Austin Jackson’s double-play against the Indians as 2011’s Best Moment, but had a three-way tie in 2011’s Goofiest Moment.

The details:

Most Valuable Tiger -- Justin Verlander
With AL Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player victories, Verlander has a cupboard full of hardware already for his 2011 season. Unsurprisingly, he added another laurel after receiving 15 of 22 votes. Miguel Cabrera, Justgruel Cabrander, Alex Avila and Victor Martinez also received votes, but Verlander put in a season that won’t soon be forgotten.

Best Rookie -- Al Alburquerque
When Alburquerque was signed during the last offseason and immediately put on the 40-man roster, a lot of people thought, “I know he’s got a cool name, but aren’t we getting ahead of ourselves?” When he started using his slider-fastball combination to rack up strikeout after strikeout, he quickly became a fan favorite. In fact, he played so well it was hard to remember there were other rookies. (Andy Dirks, Duane Below and Adam Wilk may have been the chief contenders for the award.)

Best Role Player -- Ramon Santiago
Recently, another group of voters named Don Kelly as the Tigers “10th man.” DIBS tackled the same question, but came up with a better answer: Ramon Santiago. It feels like he’s been a Tiger forever, but he has really come into his own during the past three years as a valuable member of the middle infield. Don Kelly, Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit and Alex Avila also received votes.

Best Moment -- Austin Jackson’s double-play throw to defeat the Indians on Aug. 21
This was a season with many great memories, including the team’s first division title since 1987 and another AL Division Series victory over the Yankees. But the wise voters of DIBS remembered that before all that could occur, the Tigers had to dismiss Cleveland from the equation. On Aug. 21, the Tigers did just that when Austin Jackson caught a fly ball and threw out Kosuke Fukudome at home plate to end the game, 8-7, and secure a sweep of the Tribe. Other favorite moments include Victor Jose Martinez’s “Vote for my Dad” All-Star press conference and the ALDS victory over New York.

Team Clown -- Phil Coke
It didn’t take Phil Coke’s Brain to figure out who would win this award. Although Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera also received votes for their off-field shenanigans, Coke’s genuine goofiness won over almost half of DIBS’ voters. However, Verlander’s ode to Bert Blyleven, giving Don Kelly the hot foot, helped him cruise to a second-place finish.

Best Hair -- Alex Avila
Avila could shave before the first inning and sport a full beard by the third. His 5 o’clock shadow begins at midnight. He was the clear winner in a category that featured a plethora of responses. Runners-up included Justin Verlander’s arms, Jim Leyland’s mustache, Daniel Schlereth’s mullet-beard combo and Miguel Cabrera’s mohawk. Will Rhymes, Brennan Boesch and Brayan Villarreal also received votes.

Tiger Organization Name of the Year -- Doug Fister
DIBS voters liked the double-entendre that was Doug Fister. In a close vote, he snuck past Deik Scram and Al Alburquerque. Other well-named Tigers included Montreal Robertson of the Connecticut Tigers, former Tigers Casper Wells and Charlie Furbush, Wilson Betemit and Justin Verlander.

Goofiest Moment -- 3 way tie
Any 162-game season is going to be filled with plenty of heartbreak and plenty of fun. This one was no different. In fact, voters came up with so many suggestions for this award that we had a three-way tie at four votes and a couple more with two votes. The tie featured Alex Avila’s catchers mask throwing off sparks after being hit; Andy Dirks sprinting around the bases for an in-the-park home run despite the ball being caught, and Jim Leyland’s pantomime argument with the ump; and Verlander’s lighting Don Kelly’s shoe on fire. Other receiving multiple votes included Justin Verlander’s awkward balk against Oakland, Don Kelly pitching, Ryan Raburn’s attempt to catch a fly ball resulting in a home run, and Victor Martinez dancing around home plate.

Best Victor Martinez -- Sr.
When the Tigers signed “Victor Martinez,” they actually got two Victor Martinezes for their money. Although young Victor Jose Martinez may win the award for cutest Tiger, he father edged him in voting for the best Victor Martinez, 12-9, with one vote for both. Senior’s major league contributions give him the edge for now, but the smart money is on Victor Jose in the long run.

List of voting 2011 DIBS voting members in no particular order:

Roar of the Tigers -- Samara Pearlstein
Motor City Bengals -- John Parent
Tiger Tales -- Lee Panas
Phil Coke's Brain Matters -- Anonymous
April in The D -- Laura, Megan and Rosie
Fire Gerald Laird -- Greg Papke
Tigers Amateur Analysis -- Erin Saelzler
Where have you gone, Johnny Grubb? -- Greg Eno
Detroit Tigers Scorecard -- Austin Drake
Detroit Tigers Weblog -- Kevin Vela
DesigNate Robertson -- Scott Rogowski
Deetown Tigers -- Skip
Detroit Jock City -- Zac Snyder
Bless You Boys -- David Tokarz, Matt Wallace, Al Beaton, Kurt Mensching and Alli Hagen
Mlive’s Tigers coverage -- Matt Sussman, James Schmehl, Ian Casselberry
Old English D -- Jen Cosey

Note: Casselberry also writes for SB Nation Detroit.