Monday, April 30, 2012

Monday Morning Manager: Week 4

Last Week: 1-5
This Week: KC (4/30-5/2); CWS (5/4-6)

So, What Happened?

Nothing much that was good.

It's been a long and event-filled April, hasn't it?

MMM can't remember so much drama in April that didn't involve the Red Wings.

Unfortunately, the Tigers made news off the field, and when the season is already underway, that's usually not a good thing.

Brandon Inge was released on Thursday, after the Tigers were swept at home by the Mariners in a series that was eerily similar to Seattle's visit last April---which happened to be the last time the Tigers were swept in a series of three games or more.

So Inge was given the ziggy after 20 at-bats, two hits, and some shaky glove work. He apparently is set to sign with the Oakland A's.

The release of Inge was, as MMM alter ego Greg Eno wrote, more of a mercy killing than a transaction.

Then came Friday's wee hours.

Nothing good can be happening if the GM's phone is ringing at 3:30 a.m.

Yet that's what happened to Dave Dombrowski, as he was awoken to the lovely news that LF Delmon Young was under house arrest after a drunken verbal and physical confrontation that may have included some anti-Semitic remarks.


Oh yeah---the Tigers lost five of six games last week, which seemed to go hand-in-hand with the off-field goings on.

Hero of the Week
MMM's rule of thumb is that it's hard to find heroes in weeks that are either strewn with wins or strewn with losses. The former, because there are usually too many to choose from; and the latter, because there are too few.

So the 1-5 week doesn't provide a lot of pickings, but in this case, MMM doesn't need a lot of time selecting the HotW.

MMM is naming Drew Smyly, who stared Yankee Stadium and the Bronx Bombers down and cut through them like a hot knife through butter on Saturday.

It couldn't have come at a better time.

Smyly two-hit the Yankees in six-plus innings, then probably watched in horror as Jose Valverde almost frittered away a five-run lead in the ninth. But Valverde held on and Smyly got his first win. The kid lefty has a miniscule ERA of about one-and-a-quarter after four starts, in none of which has Smyly given up more than one run.

Smyly bailed the Tigers out one day after Justin Verlander labored through a second consecutive rugged start, only to see the bullpen ruin it.

Honorable mention: Austin Jackson, who's getting it back together after a hot start was followed by a brief nosedive. AJ also authored what MMM likes to call the Greatest Catch ALMOST Made, when he nearly robbed Curtis Granderson of a home run on Sunday.

Goat of the Week

You have to ask?

Delmon Young's future with the Tigers is tenuous on the heels of Friday morning's meltdown on the streets of Manhattan.

But, MMM asks: what if the player in question was one of the superstars? Would the local columnists be calling as profusely for that player's head, as they are for Young's in suggesting that he be released?

Things that make you go "Hmmm."

Dishonorable mention goes to that wild and wacky Brayan Villareal, who coughed up Friday night's game with a display of wildness that would have made Rick Ankiel, the pitcher, blush.

Under the Microscope
Not only is Delmon Young UtM, he ought to be suspended by MLB.

First things first, though. Today Young is set to be evaluated by MLB, to determine what, if any, actions should be taken. MMM feels that a suspension is appropriate, even though some reports indicate Young could be cleared to play as soon as tonight.

Regardless, Young's actions were so disturbing that the long-term effects could be, well, long. And unpleasant. MMM can't wait to see what kind of reaction Young gets from the home crowd the next time he steps to the plate at CoPa.

Stay tuned.

Upcoming: Royals, White Sox

The Tigers return back to intra-divisional play this week.

The Royals come calling to start the week, and they're already a mess, in a season where their kids were supposed to take a step forward. Hasn't happened yet---not even close.

The Royals already have suffered an 11-game losing streak, and they only recently picked up their first home win.

The Tigers broomed them two weeks ago in KC.

Then it's the White Sox in town for the weekend.

Rookie manager Robin Ventura has his team playing OK, and their cause is helped by the fact that Adam Dunn, while not tearing up the league, is having a much better season than 2011's debacle. Of course, it would be almost impossible not to.

Jake Peavy is pitching well and the bullpen has been solid.

To say the Tigers need a big week is MMM telling you something you already know.

The Tigers, after a 5-1 start at home, are 6-7 at CoPa overall. They need to re-establish home field, and there's no time like the present.

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


Sunday, April 29, 2012

Brandon Inge and Ben Wallace: A Tale of Two Detroit Sports Careers

Two Detroit sports underdogs peeled off their uniforms for the last time as members of their respective teams, and they both did it on Thursday.

While that’s not where the similarities end, the endings couldn’t have been more different. The only thing the cessations of their careers have in common is that they happened within hours of each other.

At approximately 4:30 p.m. Thursday afternoon, Brandon Inge was called into the manager’s office, and he certainly must have known what was cooking. When Inge stepped into Jim Leyland’s lair and saw that GM Dave Dombrowski and assistant GM Al Avila were also there, the trio likely didn’t even need to say a word.

Inge was out, given the ziggy by his patient-to-a-fault bosses.

This wasn’t so much a release as it was a mercy killing.

Inge’s baseball career in Detroit had become that rabid dog in To Kill a Mockingbird and the trio of Dombrowski, Avila and Leyland had no choice but to shoot it dead.

Detroit doesn’t have the reputation of Philadelphia or other tough sports burgs when it comes to booing its athletes out of town. The Motor City sports fan has a lot of forgiveness in his blood, sometimes to a fault.

But when it comes to Inge, the much-maligned utility man, there’s no question that the people had spoken. The Tigers organization, like any responsible customer service-based business, had no choice but to listen.

Inge, along with his .100 batting average, was jettisoned after Thursday’s game against Seattle. He was the butt of a wry and mean-spirited joke.

“Who bats after Brandon Inge?”

Answer: the other team.

In the end, there were one too many pop-outs, one too many strikeouts and one too many mistakes in the field. And each was followed by the cascades of booing in Comerica Park usually reserved for the superstar Tiger-killers from other teams.

I believe that last weekend’s unmerciful booing of Inge is what sealed his fate with the Tigers.

As the Tigers dropped three of four to the vaunted Texas Rangers, and as the entire team struggled to match forces with the two-time defending American League champions, Inge was hardly the Lone Ranger—as Leyland would say—when he struggled to to scratch out a hit.

But no Tiger was booed as savagely as Inge was as one at-bat after the other of his ended badly. He was the dead man walking—or in his case, striking out.

There was a stirring and murmuring in the crowd every time Inge strode to the plate against the Rangers, kind of like there is in those courtroom scenes in the movies.

A weekend of this and the organization that shuns drama decided to put an end to it on Thursday.

In the end, watching an Inge at-bat was—as the late, great sportswriter Jim Murray would say—like watching a guy walk into a noose.

About three hours after Inge was cashiered, Ben Wallace slipped on his Pistons jersey and his blue headband, and took the floor for what is likely the last time in his 16-year NBA career.

Nine of those seasons were spent in Detroit.

Boos didn’t rain from the Palace, however; far from it.

Wallace, who started the game at the insistence of coach Lawrence Frank, was greeted with a standing ovation by the sparse but grateful crowd. A video testimony of his brilliance as an undrafted player from Virginia Union played during a timeout. His Pistons teammates all donned blue headbands in honor of the man they call Big Ben.

The Pistons won, blasting the Philadelphia 76ers out of the gym, 108-86.

After the game, the 37-year-old Wallace appeared noncommittal about his future. After vehemently declaring that retirement was imminent earlier in the year (via ESPN), who among us will be surprised when he hangs up his sneakers and headband for good?

Inge and Wallace both arrived in town around the same time—Inge in 2001, Wallace the year prior.
Both were blue-collar players in their respective sports with less talent than most of their brethren, but with work ethics that dwarfed most.

Both were, at times, the face of their franchise.

You have now reached the end of the Similarity Zone.

Inge never left Detroit to play elsewhere, even when his bosses tried to show him the door. Wallace, on the other hand, grew mystified by coach Flip Saunders and took his act to Chicago in 2006 via free agency.

Ben Wallace and Chicago weren’t a good match. Just two years after inking a deal with the Bulls, Wallace was shipped to Cleveland. It didn’t work out very well with the Cavaliers, either.

By 2009 Wallace was back in Detroit, yet another prodigal son welcomed back by the sports faithful here.

Meanwhile, Inge was a loyal Tiger. Even when the team replaced his star with the likes of Ivan Rodriguez, Miguel Cabrera and, by proxy, Prince Fielder, Inge was like a warped Dickens character.

“Please, sir, I want some more.”

Both Inge and Wallace made All-Star teams playing in Detroit, but while that may appear to be a similarity, it really isn’t. Inge’s All-Star year (2009) was an aberration, while Wallace was a multiple-time All-Star who was Defensive Player of the Year four times.

Then there is the end of their respective careers in Detroit.

Inge was driven out of town, done in by poor performance and customer dissatisfaction. Wallace was lauded and cheered, all the way until he disappeared into the tunnel leading to the Pistons locker room.

But there is one more similarity.

Both Brandon Inge and Ben Wallace wore their team logos as if branded onto their heart. Even though Wallace fled via free agency, it wasn’t anything personal against the city or its basketball fans. It was hardly a surprise when Big Ben returned in 2009.

Inge, for his part, could have done a money grab last summer when the Tigers designated him for assignment. Yet he chose to stick it out, serve his time in the minors and hope for a call-up, which he got.

It’s ironic that this final similarity did nothing to diminish the extreme disparity of how Inge’s and Wallace’s commitment to their team and their city influenced their exits.

Detroit vilified Inge, but portrayed Wallace as a hero.

Go figure.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Monday Morning Manager: Week 3

Last Week: 4-3
This Week: SEA (4/24-26); at NYY (4/27-29)

So, What Happened?

The Tigers did what they needed to do in Kansas City and then scuffled at home against the buzzsaw that is the Texas Rangers.

The Royals and Rangers are two teams going in completely opposite directions, and the Tigers' results reflected that: a sweep in KC, and a 1-3 record against the Rangers in Detroit.

The Rangers are a bunch of mashers who put more pressure on you than a pop quiz. They hit, they run, they steal, they milk pitch counts, they pitch and they field. Other than that, they're not much of a team.

In between games of a DH on Saturday, the Tigers optioned maligned and struggling LHP Daniel Schlereth to Toledo and purchased the contract of RHP Thad Weber, who had a 0.75 ERA in 12 innings with the Mud Hens.

Schlereth needed to be put out of his (and the fans') misery, with a 10.29 ERA this season as he pitched batting practice every time out. MMM would agree, as Schlereth was last week's Goat.

On Sunday, Terry Foster of the Detroit News suggested that another player be put out of his misery as well. MMM will give you one guess who that is!

On Monday, a certain ace's pitch count became an issue (more on that in a few sentences).

Hero of the Week
In what is sure to be a constant theme, MMM is going with Justin Verlander, who has already had to play the role of Tigers' stopper---winning over the Rangers on Saturday (Game 2) in a game that felt like the "must win" variety, even though it was just April 21.

Were it not for JV, who also won on Monday in KC, the Tigers would have been swept in four games by the red-hot Rangers.

For whatever reason, Saturday's game two felt like desperation for the Tigers, who were outclassed by Texas by an aggregate score of 20-6 in the series' first two games.

Enter Verlander, who labored through six innings (115 pitches) of annoyingly patient and hard-working Rangers bats, allowing just one unearned run and doing what an ace does: shut down the opposition when it's badly needed.

On Monday, Verlander pitched a complete-game, 131-pitch epic match to notch his first win of the season.

That outing sent Tigers Nation all atwitter, literally and figuratively. The phones lit up the switchboard of talk radio like a Christmas tree with folks debating whether manager Jim Leyland was either reckless or fearless in leaving JV in for all those pitches.

The final pitch, a 100 mph strike at the knees and on the black, froze Alex Gordon with the bases loaded.

MMM, for one, loved the drama and thinks all the hand-wringing is for naught.

Honorable mention: rookie LHP Drew Smyly, who had two strong outings and survived a blistering line drive right between the numbers on the back of his jersey in Kansas City.

Goat of the Week

MMM would love to give this award to Schlereth yet again, but why speak ill of the dead?

Instead, MMM's vitriol is reserved for last week's UtM designee, Brandon Inge.

Inge, as Foster accurately wrote, seems to be letting the fans' treatment get to him. He has one hit this year (albeit a game-winning HR) and his at-bats continue to be laced with pop-ups and strikeouts. Even his supposedly reliable glove was suspect last week, committing errors and making poor decisions.

We could be seeing the first drumming out of town of a Tiger by fan treatment and pressure since Jason Grilli.

It's a perfect storm: Inge's already polarizing presence; his poor hitting; his shaky glove; and the fact that, sans Schlereth, there really isn't another Tiger who the fans are angry with.

Under the Microscope
MMM is tired of putting Inge here, so this week's UtM designee is Rick Porcello.

MMM is putting Ricky UtM because of MMM's curiosity re: how Porcello will respond to his first awful outing of the year: Saturday's one-inning, 8 ER, 10 hit debacle.

Entering Saturday, Porcello had pitched 14.2 innings and allowed just three earned runs.

His ERA jumped from below 2.00 to over 6.00 in one start.

So just when you thought Porcello might be ready to take the next step toward being a reliable starter, he craps the bed against the Rangers. Granted, Texas can mash, but MMM is worried that Saturday was more indicative of who Porcello truly is, rather than what his first two starts showed.

We'll see come Thursday, when Porcello toes the rubber against Seattle.

Upcoming: Mariners, Yankees

Just like last week, this week features a warm up act prior to the main event.

Last week it was the Royals before the Rangers; now it's the Mariners before the Yankees.

Seattle was the victim of a perfect game on Saturday by Chicago's Phil Humber. The Mariners are offensively challenged, the perfect game notwithstanding, as that can happen to anyone.

But the Mariners can pitch a little bit, and last year in an early-season series in Detroit, the Ms swept the Tigers, and they took two of three in Seattle in April, too. So they've played the Tigers tough lately.

But the Mariners' offense is pitiful; the leading hitter among regulars is batting .275 and many of the starters are below .250 with no power. Even 1B Justin Smoak, who has terrorized the Tigers recently, is scuffling at .203 with two homers.

Ahh, but then it's the Yankees, in New York.

Another early season litmus test, MMM thinks.

You can't overstate the importance of games with teams like the Yankees, who the Tigers don't play very often. This will be their only trip to New York---in the regular season.

The Yanks are off to a fine start and that includes aging SS Derek Jeter, who's hitting above .360. Curtis Granderson had a three-homer game last week and has six taters overall.

They famously came back from a 9-0 deficit on Saturday in Boston, scoring 14 runs in the seventh and eighth innings to win, 15-9.

The Yankees also remember all too well that their season ended on their home turf last year at the hands of the Tigers, with Alex Rodriguez swinging and missing in Game 5 of the ALDS.

Should be a blast in the Bronx!

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

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Verlander's 131-Pitch Outing Much Ado About Nothing, But Great Theater

A pitcher's start on April 16, unless it results in a no-hitter, ought not have the kind of buzz, scrutiny, debate, outrage and hand-wringing as Justin Verlander's did, Monday against the Royals.

Yet it did.

That's what throwing 131 pitches will do around these parts.

The trouble with Verlander is that he's a freak---a pitching specimen not seen around Detroit since the ball was dead and there weren't any numbers on the backs of the jerseys.

And because Verlander is a freak, we don't really know what to do with him.

He's strong enough and durable enough to zing 130+ pitches into the catcher's mitt, many north of 95 mph. Yet he's also important enough that if he were to be lost for any significant amount of time, the Tigers might as well forfeit.

So we want to see Verlander finish what he started, because he is, in a way, his own de facto closer. You can make a case that a Justin Verlander, after 100+ pitches, is still your best bet in the ninth inning of a save situation---better than even the man who saved 49-of-49 attempts last season, Jose Valverde.

Manager Jim Leyland gave Verlander a shot at the now elusive complete game last week against Tampa. That didn't go so well, if you recall. But the men who followed JV to the mound didn't do him any favors, either.

But that game against the Rays was another freakazoid outing by Verlander: eight innings of one-hit ball, with not even 90 pitches thrown.

A "no brainer," as Leyland said, when it came to running Verlander out to the mound in the ninth inning.

Monday night in Kansas City wasn't a no-brainer, not at all.

Verlander had eclipsed 100 pitches, yet went out to finish what he started, with a 3-1 lead. The one KC run came way back in the first inning, which in a Verlander start might as well be last week, for the way that he can distance himself from early damage.

Personally, I thought it was great baseball theater, watching Verlander struggle and put men on base and allowing the second Royals run to cross the plate.

Will Leyland take him out, or leave him in?

After the second runner was placed on base, Leyland chugged out of the dugout.

But he didn't remove Verlander. He didn't even look at the bullpen. It was marvelous.

The bases became loaded after a hit batsman---the no. 9 hitter---and leadoff hitter Alex Gordon could have won the game with a simple base hit.

But nothing is simple against Justin Verlander, not even in the ninth inning after over 125 pitches.

Maybe especially in the ninth inning, after 125+ pitches.

Gordon's at-bat was as heart thumping and exhilirating as any you will see in a game played in Kansas City on a Monday night in mid-April. Or in New York in late September.

I loved it. I loved the drama. And I loved the ending: a 100 mph fastball at the knees and on the black, taken for strike three.

With no margin for error, Verlander had thrown the unhittable pitch.

So who cares if it was 131 pitches? Who cares if it might have seemed reckless? Who cares if 29 of the 30 managers wouldn't have done what Jim Leyland did?

It was great theater and Justin Verlander will be just fine and all the scuttlebutt is much ado about nothing.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Monday Morning Manager, Week 2

Last Week: 3-3
This Week: at KC (4/16-18); TEX (4/19-22)

So, What Happened?

The Tigers lost a player, added a lightning rod to the active roster, saw two starting pitchers make their 2012 debuts (one a MLB debut), watched in stunning horror as they lost a game started by Justin Verlander, and are trying to ride out a 0-for-17 slump by one of their superstars.

It was quite a Week-After-Opening Day.

Outfielder Clete Thomas was lost to the Minnesota Twins via waivers, and on Saturday the Tigers activated IF Brandon Inge from the DL.

Drew Smyly lasted four innings in his maiden MLB start but pitched pretty well. Adam Wilk started Saturday and did OK.

But it was Verlander's shocking loss, midweek, that had Tigers fans everywhere buzzing.

Taking a one-hit shutout into the ninth against Tampa, JV got away from what had been working, got over excited, and was tagged with four runs as the Rays beat him, 4-2.

A 5-0 start for the Tigers looked imminent when Verlander strode to the mound to start the ninth, but it didn't take long for the Rays to kick up their heels in a half inning that seemed to last forever (actually, over 35 minutes). When the dust settled, the Rays scored four runs off Verlander, Daniel Schlereth and Jose Valverde.

Count MMM among the stunned.

But the Tigers bounced back with a win the next day to go 5-1 on their season-opening home stand.

Hero of the Week

MMM likes Rick Porcello, who made two terrific starts last week: 14.2 IP, 3 ER. He salvaged a game in the White Sox series, after taming the Rays on Tuesday.

Porcello, if he can pitch like this, will be an enormous lift to the Tigers' cause. MMM doesn't expect results quite this good, but the starts were nonetheless encouraging for a kid trying to find consistency in his performance.

MMM was gleeful, watching Ricky-Por turn the White Sox bats into limp noodles. How many tappers back to the mound did Porcello induce? Seemed like 10.

Honorable mention: backup catcher Gerald Laird, who had three hits (including a home run) filling in for Alex Avila during Sunday's win.

Goat of the Week

As mentioned above, Cabrera is 0-for-17 lately, but MMM just can't name him GotW.

That dishonor goes to southpaw Schlereth, who can't seem to get anyone out this year---not even lefty batters.

Mark's kid poured gas on Verlander's start, and just hasn't been very good. At all.

Frankly, MMM is losing patience with Mr. Schlereth, because if he can't retire lefties, then what good is he?

Under the Microscope

Oh come on; you need MMM to tell you?

Why, Brandon Inge, of course!

MMM isn't crazy about naming Inge, either, because of fatigue over the Man You Hate to Love.

But MMM would be derelict in his responsibilities if he didn't name Inge, coming off the DL and ready to play, for better or worse.

You know the drill. Inge plays, Inge enrages, Inge comforts, Inge smirks, Inge is defiant.

Rinse. Repeat.

He was the DH on Sunday (hold the jokes) but figures to rotate at 2B with Ramon Santiago and Ryan Raburn. A three-headed monster at 2B? As of now, yes.

Upcoming: Royals, Rangers

A three-game set at Kansas City is this week's opening act.

The REAL excitement should be at CoPa, when the two-time defending AL Champion Texas Rangers invade on Thursday for four super-charged games.

What an early season treat!

MMM can't wait to see this ALCS re-match.

Verlander will go on Saturday, in case you were wondering. He opens the Royals series tonight.

As for the Royals, the Tigers ought not overlook them. KC is brimming with young, up-and-coming talent, and MMM feels that finally, the Royals are getting it right.

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


Monday, April 09, 2012

Monday Morning Manager Is Back!! (Week 1)

It's a new baseball season and that means it's time for Monday Morning Manager, that weekly assessment of the Detroit Tigers that no Tigers fan can live without (seriously).

Last Week: 3-0
This Week: TB (4/10-12); at CWS (4/13-15)

So, What Happened?

More fireworks than 4th of July, that's what happened.

Opening Day was marked with a walk-off 3-2 win in the 9th inning, Game 2 was a 10-0 Tigers blowout, and Sunday was a wild Easter affair---13-12 for the good guys in 11 innings, another walk-off.

That's 26 runs, three wins, two walk-offs and a shutout.

Think the Tigers are ready for the season?

My complaint about the much-ballyhooed 2008 season was that the team didn't seem prepared for the pre-season expectations and played like it, stumbling out of the block with a 1-8 record from which they never recovered.

Well, Jim Leyland seems to have the boys ready this year.

Hero of the Week

This is like picking the prettiest flower in a bouquet; the brightest star in the sky; the best noodle in a spaghetti dinner.

OK, you get the idea.

Where to begin with such a menu to choose from?

MMM is going with Miguel Cabrera. Miggy, save for one blemish on Opening Day, played a competent third base, drove in runs with home runs and singles, and was generally a beast. He had two big flies on Saturday and a monster three-run blast in the ninth inning on Sunday that tied the game.

Honorable mention: Justin Verlander, for showing us that 2011 was no aberration with eight efficient, shutout innings on Opening Day. This guy simply is the best pitcher in baseball, hands down.

But you might have different selections, because there were so many guys who were outstanding over the weekend.

Goat of the Week

This one isn't nearly as difficult.

Jose Valverde---Papa Grande---MMM loves you, really. But your blown save on Opening Day can't be ignored, which MMM knows is terribly unfair after converting 52 straight.

But MMM is legally bound to name a GotW every week (really), so Valverde has to be it.

On the bright side, maybe it's good to get that streak out of the way, as Leyland said after the game.

"I'm kind of relieved that it's (the streak) over, to be honest," the skipper told the press. "Now we can kind of put that behind us."

Consider it behind us.

Dishonorable mention: Max Scherzer, who continues to baffle with his on-again, off-again pitching performances.

Under the Microscope

With Doug Fister on the 15-day DL with a strained side (MMM can't spell or pronounce Fister's real injury), whoever replaces him in the rotation gets put UtM.

MMM doesn't see anyone else who should be there, as new star Prince Fielder is off to a good start, quelling any fears that he might be pressing coming off the block.

So UtM is the mysterious Fister replacement. Leyland, at press time, wasn't sure who it might be. But it will most likely be lefty Duane Below.

This is a mild UtM, because Fister should only miss two starts, possibly three.

Upcoming: Rays, White Sox

This is an intriguing early season matchup: the 3-0 Rays (they swept the Yankees) with their superb pitching against the 3-0 Tigers with their offensive juggernaut.

It doesn't get much better than this for a series in the season's second week.

It will also contain our first look at no. 4 starter Rick Porcello, who, like Scherzer, needs to find some consistency in this, his fourth season (yes, can you believe it?).

The weekend finds the Tigers on the road for the first time, in Chicago to face new manager Robin Ventura and the White Sox.

This is way too early to make statements, but if you're Chicago, you want to put on a good show, considering everyone in the free world (MMM heard that even the natives on the Galapagos Islands are picking the Tigers to win the division) has anointed the Tigers as AL Central champs.

Frankly, MMM isn't too impressed with Ventura's squad, but the Chisox do still have Paul Konerko and if Adam Dunn can rebound from a miserable 2011, the White Sox might surprise a few people.

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


Sunday, April 01, 2012

Ordonez Latest to Prove It: Retirement Usually Chooses Players, Not Vice-Versa

The 39-year-old third baseman, less than two months into his 18th big-league season, went 0-for-3 against the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park and decided he’d had enough.

The 0-for-3 added to a brutal slump that made the Hall of Fame-bound slugger 2-for-38 in his past 12 games. That’s when he called a press conference.

His batting average barely over .200, his once lightning-quick swing having abandoned him, Michael Jack Schmidt, through unabated tears, sat before reporters and announced his retirement, effective immediately.

It was late May, 1989. Schmidt started the season strong—two home runs in his first two games. He was hitting a decent if not spectacular .255 when his skills vanished quicker than ice cubes dunked in boiling water.

The 2-for-38 that led to one of the greatest third baseman of all time to hang them up began innocently, as all slumps do. It was an 0-for-4 against the Dodgers at Veterans Stadium on May 12. Two weeks later, to the day, Schmidt played what would be his last game for the Philadelphia Phillies, at The Stick.

Schmidt felt he was hurting the team more than helping it. It went against his grain, he said, to retire at any point other than during the offseason. But the batting average was sinking like a stone. Two hits in 38 at-bats were enough to convince Schmidt that it was time to say goodbye as a player.

Just three years earlier, Mike Schmidt had been named National League Player of the Year by The Sporting News. It was a typical Schmidt season: 37 homers, 119 RBI, a .290 batting average. He turned 37 in the season’s final weeks, but his play defied his birth certificate.

1987 was another strong year for Schmidt: 35 homers, 113 RBI, .293 BA.

But in 1988, things started to turn. It started, as it often does, with the injury bug.

Schmidt only made it into 108 games in 1988, and he took just 390 official at-bats—the fewest for him in a non-strike year since his official rookie season of 1973.

Under the HR column next to Schmidt’s name in 1988 was the paltry number of 12. The batting average was a pedestrian .249.

Schmidt, at his best, could hit 12 home runs in a fortnight. He was as reliable as the Liberty Bell.

But the Schmidt of 1988 was 39 at season’s end, and there were whispers.

The murmurs about whether Schmidt was finished didn’t stop him from showing up at spring training in 1989, ready to go. Then he hit those two dingers in two games, raising the possibility that maybe Schmidt was actually getting better with age.

Fitting, in a way, that Schmidt should retire around Memorial Day.

As gut-wrenching as it was to watch Schmidt sob through his retirement press conference, at least he had one—a press conference, that is.

Oh, how many fine big-league ballplayers are there, who don’t get to call their own shot when it comes to giving up the game?

The body is what usually does them in.

How wonderful was it that Tigers great Al Kaline was able to go riding off into the sunset of his own volition in 1974, his 3,000th career hit safely in his back pocket?

We didn’t have to watch Kaline toward the end with one eye opened and the other closed. He didn’t go up to the plate as a shadow, though he certainly wasn’t the Kaline of 10 years prior.

Kaline was the Tigers’ full-time DH in his final season, which we all knew it was going to be when he arrived at Lakeland in February 1974.

Kaline told us that 1974 would be it for him. He was 39 and other than the chase for 3,000 hits, there really wasn’t anything else for him to play for. The ’74 Tigers were about to embark on a long and grisly rebuilding journey, and Kaline knew it. Some of his teammates from the 1968 World Championship team were still on the roster, but they were all six years older, too.

In August, the Tigers released Norm Cash and traded Jim Northrup, two ’68 heroes. Bill Freehan was still around, bad back and all. Gates Brown still traipsed to the plate as a pinch-hitter, but his magic was gone. Willie Horton was there, but he was injury-prone in those days.

Lefty pitchers John Hiller and Mickey Lolich were Tigers in 1974, but age was working against them as well.

So Kaline politely declined an offer to play beyond 1974, and no one could blame him.

Kaline was one of those players lucky enough to tell the game when enough was enough, rather than the other way around.

Cash was cut and went unclaimed. No press conference for him. Just…fading away.

Schmidt had his presser, and even though it was sad and filled with tears, at least he had it.

Magglio Ordonez won’t have a press conference. Not likely, anyway.

Ordonez took to the social media platform of Twitter to fire off a couple of tweets last week, hinting strongly at retirement.

That’s how they do it these days, I guess.

The offseason has been unkind to a certain contingent of Tigers fans.

Carlos Guillen, the Gentlemanly Tiger, is gone—not re-signed and then off to retirement last month. Victor Martinez, who became the team’s glue in just one season, wrecked a knee in January and will miss the season.

Now Ordonez, author of the second-greatest home run in team history, after finding no takers after the Tigers bid him adieu following last season, has no choice but to retire.

Unlike with Kaline, baseball is telling Ordonez that enough is enough. So often that’s how it goes.

The player whose career is long and extends well into his 30s, and who is able to declare with certainty when he will see or throw his last pitch, is the rare player indeed. And quite fortunate.

For every Kaline or Schmidt, there’s a whole bunch of Guillens and Ordonezes and much lesser-known players whose careers just kind of crumble with little fanfare.

Oh, and the author of the first greatest home run in Tigers history, Kirk Gibson, thumbed his nose at retirement like he did at the fans and the media in his younger days.

Gibby looked to be waived out of the big leagues after 1992, but convinced the Tigers to give him a shot in 1993. He came back and had two-plus productive seasons before retiring in the middle of the 1995 season—on his terms.

It had nothing to do with his body—he just didn’t want to play anymore. He saw a team whose wheels were coming off, and so said, “Sayonara.”

Another lucky one, Gibson was.