Saturday, January 28, 2012

Inge Again Left Out in Cold After Fielder Signing

He has been, in a way, the Rasputin of the Tigers. Or the poetic feline who possesses nine lives. Take your pick.

They’ve tried running Brandon Inge out of town for about eight years now. It’s all been done to him—free agents and trade acquisitions arriving to play his position (twice), talk radio blazing with anti-Inge venom. The Tigers even designated him for assignment last summer, and traded for a replacement: Wilson Betemit.

Betemit has been signed by the Baltimore Orioles as a free agent. And Inge not only survived his DFA, he made it all the way back to the Tigers’ playoff roster.

Betemit, the man the Tigers traded for to take Brandon Inge’s spot on the roster, is gone. And Inge is still here. Figure that one out.

Nature even tried to nudge Inge out of Detroit, vis a vis the infamous bout of mononucleosis that befell him last year, which was likely a factor in his woeful performance at the plate.

Yet here Inge was, as recently as last week, boldly and gamely speaking of seizing, once again, his cherished spot at third base.

He declared himself healthy, and, frankly, a little ticked off.

“I love Don Kelly,” Inge told the media during the Tigers Winter Caravan last week, speaking of the man he was slated to platoon with at the hot corner. “But I don’t intend on platooning.”

Inge, the player who many Tigers fans either hate to love or love to hate, looked to be working on yet another life wearing the Old English D.

Then came the news that rocked the baseball world.

It started spilling out on Twitter shortly after 3:00 p.m. Tuesday afternoon.

Prince Fielder, the Herculean free agent first baseman, had been signed by the Tigers. For nine years, at a cost of $214 million.

Inge again became collateral damage, because in order to make room for Fielder—no fat jokes, please—the Tigers planned on moving incumbent first sacker Miguel Cabrera to (drum roll please) third base.

Rim shot!

They’re doing it again to Brandon Inge.

The first time this happened was eight years ago, when the Tigers, coming off a 43-119 debacle, managed to snare free agent catcher Pudge Rodriguez.

Inge was the Tigers’ catcher back then.

Despite Pudge’s Hall of Fame credentials, Inge, with a sour puss, whined about the acquisition. Inge thought himself fit to be the team’s starting catcher, despite a batting average hovering around .200 in 2003.

Inge pointed to his defense, which he felt was akin to Rodriguez’s at the time.

I thought Inge to be a petulant young player back then, with the way he reacted to the (at the time) gargantuan news of Pudge’s signing.

Then in spring training 2008, Inge, the Tigers’ starting third baseman at the time, was displaced by the winter time acquisition of Miguel Cabrera. On Opening Day, Inge found himself in center field, of all places. Soon he was back behind the plate, playing a position he thought he’d left for good after he fell in love with third base.

Meanwhile, the Tigers kept playing musical chairs with their glove men.

Cabrera moved from third base to first base after 14 games. Carlos Guillen switched from first to third. Inge kept catching, and would replace Guillen in the late innings at third base.

Guillen didn’t play after August 25 that year, so Inge reclaimed third base.

In 2009, Inge was an All-Star third baseman, and played the second half of the season on two ravaged knees.

2011 was a disaster for Inge. He didn’t have his health or his strength, and soon he didn’t even have a spot on the Tigers roster. He was roasted daily on sports talk radio. Even after being designated for assignment in July, Inge refused to leave the Tigers, accepting the assignment rather than becoming a free agent. He ended up in Toledo, which wasn’t far enough away for the haters’ liking.

It looked like the end of Inge’s Tigers career. If you were interested in sports betting---click here to see what I mean---you'd have thought Inge was done in Detroit, because the team traded for Betemit. Inge was a minor leaguer, his teammates mostly 10 years younger than he, or more.

Yet I wondered aloud on “The Knee Jerks” podcast in mid-August whether the Tigers might call Inge back to the big club when rosters expanded on September 1. Wouldn’t it be something, I opined, if Inge returned to the Tigers and became productive?

The Tigers indeed recalled Inge—on August 20, making him eligible for the playoff roster. Leading off the second inning, taking his first hacks as a Tiger in a month, Inge clobbered a home run. The man fans hate to love and love to hate, got a curtain call.

That game on August 20 was the first of four multi-hit games Inge would register as he got stronger and more productive. Rasputin was still alive.

As the Tigers winter caravan rolled on last week, Inge spoke eagerly about the upcoming season, being healthy and all.

Then came the Fielder signing, and Inge was knocked for a loop yet again.

As manager Jim Leyland put it the other day, Inge is “not the happiest camper” in the wake of the news of Fielder’s blockbuster, totally unforeseen signing.

Leyland told the media at the Fielder press conference on Thursday that he wishes he could have broken the news to Inge personally, instead of the latter finding out the way the rest of us found out.

Normally it wouldn’t matter what a guy who hit .197 last season thinks about player personnel moves. It wouldn’t matter if that player found out by TV, radio, Pony Express or by messenger pigeon.

But there’s something about this crazy, mixed up relationship between Brandon Inge and the Detroit Tigers. And, by extension, the fan base.

It’s a relationship that keeps all parties off balance. Just when Inge thinks he has it made, the rug gets pulled out from under him. And just when the Inge haters who follow the Tigers think they’re rid of him, he re-emerges.

Frankly, I’ve never seen anything quite like it in my 41 years of following and covering Detroit sports.

Brandon Inge has, yet again, been nudged out of the picture, and this time there isn’t center field or catcher waiting as a consolation prize.

Even though Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski said Inge “is still an important part of this team,” it’s hard to see how, with Cabrera moving to third base and Alex Avila entrenched at catcher.

Lots of Tigers fans couldn’t care less if Inge is “not the happiest camper” right now. They’re too giddy about Prince Fielder. Duly noted, and understood.

With Brandon Inge, it always seems like there’s someone else. Then it always seems like it’s him again. This has been going on for eight years now.

To quote the Grateful Dead, what a long, strange trip it’s been.


Blogger Michael David said...

I think either Cabrera or Fielder will mostly DH this season, and Inge should be ok at third. They will probably be working Cabby into the hot corner here and there, but I don't think this will be much of an issue until V-Mart makes his return next season. I like Inge, I really do, and just think he's 'a Tiger', but seems to be like pro wrestling. Love it, or absolutely hate it. I think he'll stick it out for a couple more years before being named manager of the West Michigan Whitecaps (maybe I'm dreaming....).

1:30 AM  

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