Sunday, March 27, 2011

Tigers' GM/Manager Duo Will Return Beyond 2011

They are the Frick and Frack of baseball in Detroit. Some would call them Laurel and Hardy. On a good day, they’re Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

It gets so that, when you see either Dave Dombrowski or Jim Leyland, you’re half-surprised not to see them joined at the hip.

They’re two peas in a pod. Twin sons of different mothers.

Dombrowski, the Tigers President, CEO, General Manager—and what the heck—let’s call him the Grand Poobah while we’re at it—and Leyland, the manager, have been joining forces for going on 30 years now, in various venues.

When Leyland was a rookie coach with the Chicago White Sox in 1984, Dombrowski was with the team, too, at the right hand of GM Roland Hemond.

After Dombrowski had cut his own teeth as a GM, he found himself in Miami, running the Florida Marlins franchise, which was brand new. Before long, there was Leyland again, as Dombrowski’s manager. In 1997, the pair won a World Series together.

In November 2001, the Tigers tabbed Dombrowski as their new President. Four years later, Leyland and Dombrowski held a joint press conference, announcing Leyland as the Tigers’ new manager.

Today, they’re into their sixth season together in Detroit, believe it or not. And this is where the Frick and Frack thing comes into play.

Dombrowski and Leyland—we’ll call them D&L from now on because it’s easier for my lazy, fat fingers to type—are lockstep, one behind the other, walking a tightrope. Two men working without a net.

Neither has the security of a contract that runs beyond the 2011 season.

No pairing of GM and manager in Detroit baseball has been so closely linked as D&L. Not even Jim Campbell and Sparky Anderson, who worked together in the early-1980s before Campbell eased into semi-retirement, were fused together like D&L. And Sparky adored Jim Campbell.

Yet D&L are accepted as a package deal. If one goes, so should the other. Same thing if one stays.

It says here that all this talk about contracts and “lame ducks” and “Will they stay, will they go?” will end sometime before the All-Star break, when each is signed to a contract extension—but not as a tandem, contrary to what some would believe.

It would take a tortoise-like start by the Tigers out of the gate—the season starts next week—for owner Mike Ilitch to even contemplate a change in leadership. Ilitch doesn’t have a history of sporting a hair trigger when it comes to rendering the ziggy.

The owner’s pizza dough hasn’t always been spent wisely. Starting in 2007, the teams have had a fetish for going into the tank sometime in late-July. The Tigers, under nine years of Dombrowski having the key to the executive washroom, have made the playoffs once. Lesser teams than theirs have beaten them out in the Central Division, more than once.

But Ilitch won’t fire either man, because the fact of the matter is, before D&L came along, baseball in Detroit was bereft of hope, devoid of excitement.

When Ilitch brought Dombrowski in, it was like hiring Bob Vila to remodel Ma and Pa Kettle’s shack.

It wasn’t Dombrowski’s first tear down and rebuild.

He built the Montreal Expos’ farm system into one of the best in baseball. Then, in Florida, Dombrowski took an expansion team and had them winning a World Series in their fifth year of existence.

Read that last sentence again.

Throughout baseball history, expansion teams have been outfitted with a butter knife, a squirt gun and a plastic sword and sent out to battle. Expansion teams spent their first five years buried in baseball’s basement, unable to sniff the scent of the post-season until at least six years, or more, into their existence.

It took the New York Mets, born in 1962, eight years to make the playoffs. The Houston Astros, who also debuted in ’62, needed 19.

In 1969, baseball added the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Pilots in the American League and the Expos and the San Diego Padres in the NL. The Royals needed eight seasons to make the playoffs; the Pilots lasted one season in Seattle and moved to Milwaukee, where they didn’t show up in the post-season until 1981.

The Expos didn’t make the playoffs until 1981; the Padres, 1984.

In 1977, the Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners joined the AL. Both languished. The Blue Jays made the playoffs in 1985, but the Mariners needed another ten years before finally qualifying in 1995.

Expansion teams in every sport are stocked with the game’s dregs—players that nobody else wants. The results on the field, ice, court and diamond are thus unsurprisingly bad.

Yet Dave Dombrowski, from scratch, built the Florida Marlins into a World Series winner in Year Five.

It hasn’t been so easy in Detroit.

The Tigers were almost an expansion team when Dombrowski took them over. They hadn’t made the playoffs since 1987. The 1990s were mostly filled with bad baseball. The Tigers’ ballpark was old and decrepit before moving into Comerica Park in 2000. The players who performed in it weren’t old, but they were decrepit, too.

It didn’t take Dombrowski long to start cleaning house. He fired the GM (Randy Smith) and the manager (Phil Garner) on the same day, about a week into the 2002 season, assuming the role of GM himself.

The Tigers were awful in 2002, historically awful in 2003, and not much more than mediocre in 2004-05. That’s when Dombrowski fired manager Alan Trammell, who was used as a stopgap—someone the fans could reminisce with so as to distract them from the product on the field.

Dombrowski hired Leyland in October 2005.

Hello, again.

Leyland then made a boneheaded mistake—he brought his Tigers to the World Series in his first year as manager. Expectations haven’t been the same since.

The Tigers have been stumbling in games played after the All-Star break ever since Leyland took over—including in 2006. I have been one to say that enough is enough—the second half collapses must come to an end, or else the manager must go.

Yet this is inarguable: baseball in Detroit, prior to the arrival of Dave Dombrowski, for over a decade was as enjoyable and as well-anticipated every year as a root canal.

The Tigers on the field, prior to the Jim Leyland Era, were a joke.

Dombrowski inherited an expansion team, essentially. In his fifth year at the helm, with Leyland as his manager, the Tigers made the World Series.

On Thursday—in March!—the Tigers open the 2011 season in New York, the sixth season of D&L. Neither man is signed past the last pitch in October.

No matter. Both will return, barring a season more horrifying than our worst nightmares.

And let’s not go there, shall we not?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Griffey Jr.'s Career Brilliant, But Still Leaves an Empty Feeling

For the first time since Richard Nixon was president, no big league team will break spring training camp with a Ken Griffey on its roster—Senior or Junior.

Every April from 1974 through 2010, there was a Ken Griffey in the majors. First it was the original Griffey—Senior—who broke into the bigs with the Cincinnati Reds and who kept playing until his baby boy grew up and was old enough to be his teammate with the Seattle Mariners in 1990.

Then there was Junior, making his big league debut in 1989 with peach fuzz as a 19-year-old with the Mariners.

Junior gutted it out until age 40, when his body creaked for the last time, and he retired last June, once again a member of the Mariners after a couple of stops in between.

Now there are no more Ken Griffeys, for the first time since 1973.

Combined, Senior and Junior banged out 4,924 hits, slugged 782 home runs and drove in 2,695 runs. They were the John and John Quincy Adams of baseball.

More accurately, the Griffeys were a family business the same way the Mafia was in concrete and restaurant linens.

But no longer.

Junior called it quits last year, and it wasn’t the clean break that someone of his stature should have enjoyed.

Junior was 40, he was hitting less than .200, his power was gone and bottom-feeding bloggers like yours truly were calling for him to hang up his spikes and save himself further embarrassment.

There was an unseemly story of Junior falling asleep in the Mariners clubhouse—during a game. Worse, the leak came from Griffey’s own teammates, who went to the media before going to Junior himself.

Griffey was back where it all began—Seattle—but the homecoming was awkward, and if there was anything storybook about it, then it was penned by the Brothers Grimm.

It was a far cry from 1989, when the teenaged Griffey bounded into the majors with a smile that matched his range in center field—as broad as a barn.

The Junior smile sported enough wattage to light up every ballpark from Seattle to Boston.

They used to say that, as good as he was, there was no telling how much better Mickey Mantle could have been had he been afforded the chance to play on two good legs instead of one. Same for Al Kaline, to a degree.

Mantle played baseball in terrific pain for most of his career, yet he sailed into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. The Tigers’ Kaline played many years on a deformed foot that, in Al’s own words, was like “having a toothache in my foot” every day.

Kaline, too, was elected into the Hall of Fame as soon as he was eligible.

So too will Junior, but that doesn’t begin to tell the story of a career that was part triumph, part tragedy.

It’s easy to be conflicted when discussing Ken Griffey Jr., because you can both be enamored with his remarkable talent and marvel at his numbers, or you might simply shake your head, wondering what might have been.

It wasn’t because of brevity that you’d shake your head; Junior played 22 years in the big leagues, after all. But several of those 22 years were lost to injury.

It reminds you of the players during wartime—the Hank Greenbergs of the world who lost time to serving their country and whose baseball numbers were sheared because of it.

Griffey Jr. lost time to conflict, too, but it was within his own body.

Usually the problems occurred below the belt.

His legs betrayed him most often, specifically his hamstrings. In a period from 2001-2006, Junior missed over 400 games due to various ailments. That’s about two-and-a-half seasons, and at the rate he was going at that time in his career, one number stands out above all others: 630.

That’s how many home runs Junior lofted over the seats, using that trademark, smooth-as-silk uppercut swing that was the Mona Lisa of its kind.

You give Junior back that time missed, and we’re not talking about Barry Bonds as the one surpassing Hank Aaron for first place on the all-time home run list.

Junior would have amassed about 3,300 base hits, slugged 750-plus home runs and driven in over 2,000 runs, had his legs not betrayed him.

"What’s the difference?" you might ask. "He’s going into the Hall of Fame anyway, isn’t he?"


But Griffey Jr. wouldn’t have just been a Hall of Famer; he would have been the epitome of greatness.

For at least a decade, Junior was considered by many to be the best player in baseball and not just of his own time, if you know what I mean.

Then the injuries struck, and all those games he could have played in went down the drain, never to be recovered. The calendar stops for no man.

The folks in Seattle never really understood or got over the trade that shipped Griffey to the Cincinnati Reds following the 1999 season—a year in which Junior slugged 48 home runs, had 134 RBI and scored 123 runs.

It was like trading Willie Mays in his prime.

Griffey’s injury woes hit him in Cincinnati, almost as if some mad doctor in Seattle started poking a voodoo doll made in his likeness.

Griffey played for the Reds from 2000-2008 before being sent to the Chicago White Sox for their pennant push. The Mariners brought him back as a free agent in February 2009, some 20 years after his big league debut.

That’s where the Brothers Grimm took over the tale-writing duties.

Griffey hit .214 in 2009 and everyone was too polite to say it out loud, but again the comparison to Mays was apt, in that Junior was looking like the Say Hey Kid, circa 1973, when Mays stumbled around for the Mets as a 42-year-old.

But Griffey came back for more in 2010, against the judgment of people who thought they knew better. Perhaps they were right.

Junior was dreadful, his skills gone. When the story broke of the alleged sleeping incident, it was sad but in a way, it went along nicely with the whole, “He should have retired” talk.

So he did, finally.

The other day, Junior addressed the circumstances surrounding his abrupt retirement last June.

"I just felt that it was more important for me to retire and instead of being a distraction, it no longer became the Seattle Mariners, it became, 'When is Ken doing this? When is Ken doing that?' and that's something I didn't want to have my teammates, who I truly cared about, having to answer these types of questions day in and day out," Griffey said.

Today, Griffey is still with the Mariners, as a special consultant. He plans to work with the kids and do some time in the broadcast booth.

And it’s left to us to wonder what might have been, had Junior’s legs not caused him so much grief.

Friday, March 18, 2011

MLB Network Shows No Love for Tigers in "Prime 9" Series

For those cursed with having access to the MLB Network on your televisions, did you catch two monumental disses of the Tigers in recent weeks?

The network runs a series called "Prime 9," in which it presents Top 9 lists in various categories. It's sort of like the NFL Network's "Top Ten" series, but in 30-minutes instead of 60, and done in a far less entertaining nature.

Two lists caught my eye as I thumbed through the on-screen guide: Top 9 Double Play Combinations of All-Time, and Top 9 Plays at the Plate in baseball history.

They caught my eye because of what I perceived would be heavy Tigers influence on each list.

Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, I knew, would adorn the Top 9 double play combos. I wanted to see how high they ranked, according to the wonks charged with compiling the list for MLB Network.

And as far as plays at the plate go, how much more important can you get than the one that occurred in Game 5 of the 1968 World Series, when Willie Horton nailed Lou Brock at the plate at Tiger Stadium, turning the tide of not only that game but of the entire series?

So I tuned in.

Tram and Sweet Lou couldn't even break the Top 5 in MLB Network's Top 9 combos, if you can imagine such a thing.

The two men who combined to turn the most double plays as a duo in history, the two who played alongside each other for 18 years, aren't even in the top five?

They were placed behind the likes of Cleveland's Robbie Alomar/Omar Vizquel and the network's choice for #1 combo, Mark Belanger and Bobby Grich of the Baltimore Orioles.


As if "Prime 9" didn't hurt its credibility enough with that sad display, it hit rock bottom in its episode about top plays at the plate.

The Horton/Brock/Bill Freehan play didn't even make the cut!

Oh, but they included the post-season play where Giants manager Dusty Baker's kid had to be pulled from harm's way by J.T. Snow.


The Horton/Brock/Freehan play took place in a pivotal game of a World Series in which the trailing team rallied to capture the championship. It's legendary, and its photographic images are iconic.

Who can't see, with their eyes closed, Brock's foot an inch away from the plate as Freehan applies the tag?

Yet it didn't even make MLB Network's list. Some of the ones that did, aside from the Baker incident, were suspect at best.

The 1968 World Series play at the plate should have been a no-brainer.

And putting Trammell and Whitaker in the top 3, or higher, was similarly a task that should have required little to no brain power.

Then again, maybe the disrespect is no surprise, given the pair's obscenely poor showing in Hall of Fame balloting.

"Prime 9" is falsely named.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Manager Gibson Could Very Well Have Been (Football) Coach Gibson

If things had gone according to plan, Kirk Gibson might be preparing a college football team somewhere right now, getting ready for spring practices. He might have just finished talking up his school in the living rooms of America's heartland, looking enraptured parents in the eyes and giving them the lowdown of what it would be like for their kid to play football under Coach Kirk.

He might have a resume of 10, 12 years in the NFL behind him as one of the game's best wide receivers, or even tight ends.

He might have been considered a hotshot candidate to make the jump from the campus to the pros. He might have been more appealing than Jimmy Harbaugh.

It could have been all that, instead of where he is today, trying to cobble together a respectable team in Arizona as first-year manager of the Diamondbacks.

Veteran broadcaster and author Bob Page, a friend, recently told me of the time when the tide likely turned for Gibson---when Kirk went from certain pro football prospect to basher of big league pitching and eventual National League MVP.

"I got a leak from someone in the Tigers organization that they were going to hold a private workout for Gibby at Tiger Stadium," Page told me. "I called Bill Lajoie, who wasn't the GM at the time but who was in the front office and who was supposedly organizing the workout. Lajoie denied it."

Unimpressed with Lajoie's denial, Page secured a videographer from channel 7 and they traipsed to the ballpark early the next morning, when the workout was to have occurred.

And there, as the leak had suggested, was Gibson, in the batter's box at Tiger Stadium.

He was finishing up his college education at Michigan State. This was circa 1978.

Everyone who'd seen Kirk Gibson play football at MSU figured him to be a solid NFL prospect. He was a big receiver, he could fly, and he had soft hands. That, and he had a football player's mentality: tough and a kicker of asses.

Sure, Gibby had played some baseball but baseball was seen as not being big or physical enough for him.

Yet there he was, taking his hacks at Tiger Stadium as Page watched and his cameraman rolled tape.

"He swung and missed a lot," Page said. "But when he connected, he hit the ball a mile."

Before long, Gibson was eschewing pro football and was focusing his attention on the smaller game of baseball.

A year later, Gibson was making his debut for the Tigers.

As a young big leaguer, he wasn't all that different from the private workout days. Gibson swung and missed a lot. But he also hit the ball a mile, when he made contact.

This pattern would pretty much repeat itself throughout his 16-year MLB career, which peaked with the 1988 NL MVP while playing for the Dodgers.

He hit the ball a mile in Game 5 of the 1984 World Series, famously sealing the deal for the Tigers.

There's no doubt in my mind that had Gibson pursued the NFL, even with his injury-prone body, that he'd have made a helluva pro player and he would have followed the same career path as he is now in baseball---that of coach.

Gibson is 53 now, a perfect age to be honing his skills as a football coach, college or pro.

He would have been good at that, too.

Maybe better than he will be as a baseball manager, though we'll never know.

You can imagine Kirk Gibson prowling a sideline, can't you?

You can thank a hush-hush baseball workout at Tiger Stadium over 30 years ago in making the football talk a big game of "What if."

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Sophomore Jackson Is Straw That Stirs Tigers' Drink

The baseball was launched into the furthest, most terrifying reaches of Comerica Park, where the only ball caught is on a bounce or scooped up to stop it from rolling.

As it climbed into the June night’s air, you could hear an entire crowd of 17,000-plus gasp, as if they all had been simultaneously slugged in the gut.

If it was possible to read the minds of such a throng, you could do so in two words, only one fit for print here. The first was “Oh.”

The Indians’ Mark Grudzielanek smacked the pitch from the Tigers’ Armando Galarraga so far into the depths of center field that you not only didn’t expect Austin Jackson to catch it, you were half expecting him to arrive in a taxi.

The baseball was hit so high and so far, it went back in time, because suddenly it was 1954 in the Polo Grounds in New York.

It was 1954 and Austin Jackson was Willie Mays of the New York Giants, tearing after a drive off the bat of Cleveland’s Vic Wertz in the World Series.

But, it was 2010, and this wasn’t the World Series—it was something more, though it was again an Indian hitter who was about to be victimized.

Such is the greatness of baseball that a seemingly run-of-the-mill game played on June 2nd can turn into a heart-stopping, thrilling spectacle whose attendance will grow from 17,000 to 170,000 as more people purport to have been in the stands that evening.

For at stake when Jackson was on the run was Galarraga’s pitching masterpiece—his almost-perfect game that was, at the time of Grudzielanek’s blast, still perfect.

It was the ninth inning, nobody out. Galarraga had set down the first 24 Cleveland Indians in order. But when Grudzielanek took Galarraga to the deepest part of the ballpark, the perfection looked to be gone.

But wait!

Suddenly, here was Jackson, arriving in time to reach out with his left-gloved hand and stab at the air where he hoped the baseball might also be.

It was, and it was being snared by the pocket of Jackson’s glove below waist level as he raced, full bore, toward the center field fence, clearly putting his physical well-being aside for the moment.

The crowd erupted after its few seconds of gasps followed by disappointed silence.

Tigers TV announcer Mario Impemba screamed, “He CAUGHT it!,” as if he’d just seen Humpty Dumpty fall and not break.

Jackson's play was the greatest catch I’d ever seen in a regular season game.

It wasn’t just the catch itself; it was when it occurred and what was at stake at the time. If Galarraga’s gem hadn’t been spoiled two batters later by an umpire’s inopportune time to be human, Jackson’s catch would be talked about as long as the perfect game. You couldn’t talk of one without speaking of the other.

Yet, umpire Jim Joyce’s blown call doesn’t take away from the magnitude of what Jackson did that night, for at that moment, we knew that the rookie center fielder—sometimes known as, "The Man Who Replaced Curtis Granderson"—was capable of special feats of greatness.

Playing center field is unlike any other charge in pro sports.

Center field isn’t a position, it’s three area codes. Depending on the size of the stadium, the center fielder has to take care of an area that, if it was a public park rather than a ballpark, would be assigned to a staff instead of a person.

Jackson played the position marvelously last season; his first in the big leagues. He also batted lead off and acquitted himself well, batting over .300 for most of the year.

Jackson did a lot of great things in 2010, which is nice because he just happens to be the most important player on the Tigers.

Don’t look at me like that.

No, I haven’t forgotten that guys named Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez and Victor Martinez are under contract by the Tigers too.

Jackson is the most important because if he gets a case of the sophomore jinxies, and the Tigers don’t have a reliable leadoff hitter, then the house of cards that is the team’s offense gets blown down.

Jackson strikes out a lot, which is understandable for a young player—but also more tolerable when that young player is hitting .300. It’s not so great if the batting average is .250 or .260.

Jackson has to get on base for the Tigers to be successful—he just has to. He struck out 170 times last year, but he also scored 103 runs. Lord knows how many times he scored off the bat of Cabrera.

But if Jackson doesn’t hit so well, if he isn’t getting things going by getting on base, innings will change noticeably. The big boys will be doing a lot more hitting with two outs and no runners in scoring position than you’d like.

The dreaded sophomore jinx is more likely to manifest itself with the bat, rather than the glove. But if Jackson falters there too, then you have just another average center fielder hitting .260.

The Tigers offense doesn’t look like such hot stuff under that scenario, no matter who his hitting third, fourth and fifth.

Big league ball teams don’t put bums in center field and bat them lead off. You do one or the other, you’re a valuable guy. You do BOTH? You’re off the charts valuable.

For all the brute strength of Cabrera, for all the sweet swings of Ordonez and Martinez, the Tigers need Austin Jackson to be the burning fuse at the top of the order. If the kid fizzles out, well, the Tigers will save a lot of money by not having to print playoff tickets.

Fiddlesticks on the pressure. We already know that Jackson can do some great things when the stakes are high. Just ask Armando Galarraga.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Tigers Must Dilute Coke, Now That He's a Starter

The more we learn about Phil Coke, the more Detroiters are going to love this guy.

But, the more we learn about Phil Coke, the more Detroiters are going to worry about him.

If Coke, the lefty lifetime reliever who will be in the Tigers rotation this season, was a product, he'd be juice concentrate. And he needs to be diluted with realism.

Tigers fans ought to love that Coke is a perfectionist. They ought to revel in his bulldog approach to pitching. He's got a little Jack Morris in him. And the neurotic nature of Woody Allen.

Coke snarls on the mound and nothing is ever good enough for him. The other day he pitched three innings, surrendered one hit and struck out four, and he was crabby about himself.

That's all good---to a degree, like if it was Game 7 of the World Series, not a meaningless game in Florida in early March.

Manager Jim Leyland has spoken of it more than once---the need to keep Coke on an even keel, because if you don't, the poor guy is going to be curled into a fetal position before Memorial Day.

Coke is a lifetime reliever, which means he's used to doing his pitching in bite-sized morsels, and he's used to taking those bites several times a week. If some bites tasted nasty, Coke knew he could dig back into the bag in short order.

Not so now, as a starter.

Coke has to wait four days before getting another crack at the hitters, and even he has expressed concern over whether he can handle such a layover.

But at least the Tigers, and Leyland in particular, saw this coming. They've hardly been waylaid by Coke's ever-burning fire.

Coke wants perfection. He wants every pitch just so. If he walks a guy or gives up a hit on a bad pitch, it rips him apart inside.

Can't do that.

What we hope Phil Coke will learn in 2011 in his first season as a starter, is that he can't live and die with every start, with every pitch. We hope he learns to pace himself, for Coke is in danger of approaching baseball's marathon season with a sprinter's mentality.

It's up to Leyland and pitching coach Rick Knapp to bottle the energy that is Phil Coke and distribute it evenly into 30-35 smaller bottles this season.

Coke? Bottle?

Sorry, I couldn't resist.