Friday, February 25, 2011

Like Inge, Rodriguez Was Mostly Field, Less Hit

He played as a contemporary of Brooks Robinson, which meant that the Gold Glove would be as off limits to him as a cookie to a child before dinner.

I can see him in action now, without even closing my eyes: the graceful snag of a smash targeted for left field, followed by the snap throw to first base that was lasered into the mitt of Norm Cash, Jason Thompson, or whoever the Tigers had planted there.

He was Aurelio Rodriguez, the smiling third sacker who ought to come to mind to Tigers fans old enough to remember him, as they assess the team's current custodian of the Hot Corner.

The comparison between Rodriguez and Brandon Inge is apt, because both had gloves of gold but bats of tin.

Like Inge, who is decried today for his low batting average and propensity for strikeouts, Rodriguez swung a puny bat for the Tigers when he played for them from 1971-79.

Aurelio's high water mark as a Tiger was .265, in limited duty in 1978. Mostly, there were a lot of .220s, .230s, and .240s on his record.

And like Inge, Rodriguez had some occasional pop; he could slam a home run if you threw a bad pitch.

But oh, that glove.

Rodriguez led the American League in fielding percentage for third sackers with a robust .978 in 1976, committing just nine errors in 128 games.

His arm was phenomenal, the laser throws often preceded by a patient double cocking that signaled, "I'm about to throw you out now by half a step."

Aurelio Rodriguez: 1947-2000

Rodriguez was a frequent occupant of eighth or ninth in the Tigers' batting order, typically swapping those spots with shortstop Eddie Brinkman, the quintessential good field, no hit infielder.

Rodriguez, Brinkman, and pitchers Joe Coleman and Jim Hannan came to the Tigers from Washington after the 1970 season in the celebrated trade which shipped pitchers Denny McLain and Norm McRae, 3B Don Wert and OF Elliot Maddox to the Senators.

It was one of the biggest steals in Tigers history.

There's no real point here today, other than when I think of Brandon Inge, I can't help but also think of Aurelio Rodriguez, himself a fan favorite back in the day.

Sadly, Rodriguez died tragically, being hit by a runaway car in southwest Detroit on September 23, 2000.

The Happy Mexican was but 52 years old.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Unlike the Legendary Layne, Cabrera's Story is Dark and Sinister

Let's get one thing out of the way, right now.

Miguel Cabrera is no Bobby Layne.

Layne, the liquor-guzzling quarterback for the Lions in the 1950s, was a drunk, but a happy, functioning drunk.

Layne's drinking binges were legendary, and almost romanticized.

Rookie DT Alex Karras was assigned to Layne---literally---during Alex's first training camp in 1958. It was Karras's duty to drive Layne around town, usually to the watering holes in Pontiac, and not only act as Bobby's chauffeur, but to be Layne's drinking buddy, too.

Karras couldn't keep up with Layne in the liquor consumption department. No one could.

Layne, Karras said, would drink the night away, pay the house band to keep playing even when they were tired, and would hang halfway out of the car on the ride home, screaming the words to the song "Ida Red."

After a night of partying---this went on several days a week---the two would return to the dormitories at Cranbrook, with time for maybe an hour or two of sleep.

Then it was back onto the practice field for workouts in the hot summer's sun.

"Bobby didn't need sleep," Karras once recalled. "He'd be in the shower, singing, fresh as a daisy, and I'd be trying not to throw up."

Karras still can't believe he made the Lions squad in his rookie year because Layne abused him more than the practices did.

"I was awful," Karras said of his performance during camp and the exhibition season.

Layne could hold his booze. There are tales, confirmed, of him taking a few nips at halftime and leading the Lions to victory in the fourth quarter.

And, in Bobby's words, "I always came in through the front door. I never sneaked in the back."

In other words, Bobby couldn't care less who knew that he'd been drinking.

One teammate said of Layne's leadership in those salad days of Lions football of the 1950s, "When Bobby said 'block', you blocked. And when he said 'drink,' you drank."

Cabrera, the Tigers' troubled young superstar first baseman, can't hold his booze, isn't a happy drunk, and his binges are far from romantic. Maybe legendary, but in an Ichabod Crane sort of way.

I draw the comparison in a preemptive strike manner, in case you hear of any goofball trying to put Layne and Cabrera in the same boat.

If anyone says, "Miggy is just like Bobby Layne. Nobody cared if Bobby drank," you have my permission to smack them across the puss.

Layne didn't run afoul of the law. He didn't drink and drive. He didn't beat his wife. He didn't get himself so soused that he couldn't help his team during a key game.

Layne never got belligerent with the cops. He didn't scream, "Do you know who I am?!" to the police. He didn't yell frightening things like, "I'm going to kill him!"

Cabrera needs help, clearly. Again, you have my permission to punch any bozo who tries to brush Cabrera's incidents of October 2009 and Wednesday night in Fort Pierce, Florida off as "isolated."

Yeah, maybe isolated in terms of public displays of drunkenness, but do you really think that the only times Cabrera drinks to excess have been these two high profile instances?


Lord knows how much Cabrera has gotten shnockered since becoming a big league ballplayer. Now, what he does in the privacy of his own home is his business. But it doesn't mean that he doesn't have a serious problem with the bottle.

Ryne Duren, the flamboyant relief pitcher of the '50s and '60s, who was an avowed alcoholic, once said he could look at a team photo of his Yankees teammates and circle "at least" eight or ten fellow drunks.

Drinking in baseball goes back, really, to the days when Alexander Cartwright designed the first diamond in the mid-1800s.

But this thing with Cabrera goes beyond the "boys will be boys" mentality, when folks winked at the players who boozed it up. The writers of the day sometimes drank with them, in the drinking cars of the trains that carried the teams from Boston to St. Louis or wherever.

This thing with Cabrera is sinister. It's dark and it's scary and it holds the life of a young man in its mitts, not merely a career.

Tigers fans, if they have a decent bone in their bodies, ought to not give a damn whether Miguel Cabrera suits up for the Tigers ever again. They shouldn't care whether he hits another home run. They ought not fret what that does to the team's chances of making the playoffs.

Baseball is just a game. The issue isn't whether Miguel Cabrera plays baseball again, or when.

It's whether he can re-claim his life.

Shame on anyone who's worried about the Tigers' chances in 2011 without Cabrera.

This is a young man's life we're talking about.

Friday, February 11, 2011

After 10 Years, Inge No Better at the Plate Than When He Started

Brandon Inge has been in the big leagues for 10 years, so isn't it time that someone teach him how to hit?

I'm not being facetious, not going for laughs here.

Inge, the Tigers third baseman, enters his 11th MLB season with a lifetime batting average of .237, and with a strikeout frequency of about one in every four at-bats.

I find it odd that no batting coach in a decade has been able to break Inge's swing down and find something about it that needs correcting.

If it can't be done, then why have batting coaches at all?

I'm just a bottom-feeding blogger, but even I can tell you that Inge's swing gets too long at times, and he gets too tempted by the home run. They both add up to mighty swings at the air.

The trouble with Inge is that he has just enough pop in his bat, and has homered just enough, to make everyone think that he's a legitimate longball threat. Even Inge himself believes that, which is also part of his problem.

It didn't help matters when Inge was propped up as a contestant in the All-Star break's Home Run Derby in 2009. He was shutout, and that was fitting.

The Tigers need better than .237 from Inge if they truly want to boast of a lineup that can sting you, 1-thru-9.

Inge has really only had two seasons where home runs were central to his arsenal: 2006, when he slugged 27, and 2009, when he also hit 27.

Other than that, it's been a lot of totals in the lower-to-mid teens.

Inge batted at a .287 clip in 2004, and hasn't come close to that rate since.

How many times have we seen him spin himself halfway into the ground like a corkscrew, flailing at strike three?

What about those hitting principles that other guys have managed to integrate into their game, like shortening the swing and going to the opposite field and up the middle?

The simple fact is that Brandon Inge, from the moment he made his big league debut on April 3, 2001, has not improved one iota with the bat. In fact, he may have regressed slightly.

He broke into the majors hitting for a low average and striking out a lot, and 10 years later, he's hitting for a low average and striking out a lot.

Were it not for a glove that can be as good as any third sacker's in the sport, Inge may not even be in the big leagues, and certainly not as a starter.

This isn't to dump on the guy. In fact, it was me who trumpeted Inge for a statue in Comerica Park bearing his likeness. This was when I thought he might be synonymous with the franchise, and when I thought the Tigers would have won something by now.

This is more of a tough love piece. I'm an Inge guy. I marvel at what he can do with the glove. I respect his dedication to the metro Detroit area. I love his willingness to play through pain. I believe he's a wonderful teammate. He is, in many ways, the face of the franchise because of the aforementioned things.

I just am dumbfounded that no one within the Tigers organization has been able to do a thing with Inge's swing, and added 20-30 points to his BA.

I'd take an Inge with a .270 BA and 15 homers over a version with a .230 BA and 25 homers, but that's just me.

Brandon Inge has been, for many years now, one of the most polarizing athletes I've ever seen in Detroit, especially for someone who's not even really considered a big star.

The vitriol directed his way by fans has been at times disturbing. But then there are those who simply adore him. Many of the female fans want to hug and squeeze him.

It's funny, in a way, because Inge has never been shoved out there by the Tigers organization as one of the team's big stars. The Tigers have never purported him to be anything other than what he is, which is a good field, mostly no hit third baseman.

Yet Inge gets it from the fans as if he's been asked to carry the team on his back and has failed miserably.

All I ask for is to see, in year 11, some degree of hitting improvement. It would sure help the Tigers' cause, because too many times in recent years rallies have gone to Inge's bat to die.

Can't somebody work with him and get his batting average north of .250, and with fewer strikeouts?

Inge would make a terrific case study, if someone were inclined to take him on.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Another Spring Camp Means More Carlos Guillen Questions

He is the Tigers' mystery man. His uniform ought to be covered with question marks, like The Riddler.

Another spring training is on the horizon. The thought of it alone should warm those cockles in your heart.

But it's becoming a ritual every February around Tigertown.

Every year around this time, we ask: Will Carlos Guillen be healthy? How much can he play? WHERE will he play?

There have been few men who've worn the Tigers' Old English D, in my time observing the team---and that spans 41 years---with more class and dignity than Guillen.

Guillen is among the finest of gentlemen, and it's no wonder he's such a hit with manager Jim Leyland, who adores him.

But Guillen has been held together with rubber bands and bailing wire for the past several seasons. You wonder if his doctor's last name is MacGyver.

The players are about to pull on the creamy home whites and again we are hit with the questions about Guillen.

It was last August, turning a game-ending double play in New York, when Guillen hurt his knee. As with most Guillen injuries, it didn't look terribly serious at first, but then they do those MRIs and poke around some more and you find out he's lost for weeks, not days.

This time, it's months.

He had to endure microfracture surgery, the new trendy thing to have done if you're a professional athlete. Look no further than the Pistons' own Tracy McGrady, who had the surgery two years ago, to see how long full recovery can take.

It's been two years and only now is McGrady beginning to feel like himself.

The Tigers hope beyond hope that Guillen, 35, can get his knee in shape fast enough and well enough to be the team's starting second baseman forthwith.

I wouldn't put too many eggs in that basket.

But all is not lost.

If I had a vote, I'd cast it for Will Rhymes to be the Tigers' second sacker.

Rhymes, a lefty bat, is a prototypical second baseman. He's hard-nosed and the front of his jersey is always dirty. He hit .304 in 191 AB last season, and only made four errors in 53 games.

He's a late bloomer, turning 28 on April 1, but that's still seven years younger than Guillen.

Scotty Sizemore is in the mix, too, but he has health issues as well. The Tigers unwisely force-fed Sizemore onto the Opening Day roster as a rookie last year despite his not recovering fully from his broken ankle suffered in post-October baseball.

The anointing of Sizemore as Placido Polanco's replacement didn't go so well; Sizemore was sent to Toledo by mid-season.

Rhymes is a better hitter than Sizemore, hands down. And I'm not sure there's a drop-off in the field, either.

The landscape of the Tigers' team has changed dramatically since I espoused making Guillen the team's full-time designated hitter a couple years ago.

The DH role is almost Victor Martinez's on a full-time basis. The free agent signee figures to DH about 60-70% of the time, if not more.

The shortstop position is now filled, with Jhonny Peralta.

Third base is Brandon Inge's.

And left field is taken by Ryan Raburn, who absolutely needs to take this opportunity in 2011 and seize it.

Guillen also plays first base, but last I heard, the Tigers have someone who plays there who's not bad.

So it's second base or bust for Guillen, and I shouldn't even use his name and "bust" in the same sentence. Or his name and "tear" or "pull" or "strain" or "dislocate."

Carlos Guillen is a walking question mark. When he's able to walk, that is.

He's been a wonderful Tiger and when he's not battling his body, he's still a pretty damn good hitter.

But injuries requiring microfracture surgery aren't to be taken lightly.

Again, ask that dude who wears No. 1 for the Pistons.