Tigers On Top


Massive Love for the Gambler (and a Small Digression into Astros-Land)
June 29, 2007, 1:34 pm
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I love Kenny Rogers. He defies explanation. How do you pick up pretty much exactly where you left off in the World Series after surgery and rehab? Tell us your secrets, O Wise Gambler!

After a needed day off thanks to the rain, the Boys got back to the business of winning today behind the Gambler, who turned in six efficient innings of one-run ball against those pesky Rangers. I think my favorite moment had to be when the radar gun picked up the speed of an outgoing line drive (which was caught to end the inning) at 96 mph. Kenny cracked up the whole dugout by taking credit, saying it was his pitch that went 96, even going so far as to stick out his tongue at actual flameballer Justin Verlander. Rod and Mario were in amused disbelief that a starting pitcher, in the middle of a game, would actually drop the game face and make his teammates laugh. That’s Kenny for you–he brings more to this team than his great pitching, and considering how he pitches, that says a lot.

At least some of the offense decided to show up today, especially in the form of Carlos Guillen who came through with a clutch bases-loaded hit, and a scorcher of a homer by Gary Sheffield. And it’s possible neither of them will go to the All-Star game … I agree with our broadcasters. I would put the Tigers A-lineup, with Kenny or Justin on the mound, against the National League All-Stars any day. And that would be one hell of a game. The Tigers could all be All-Stars!!! Just think about where we were four years ago, and think about now. Amazing, isn’t it?

My boy Jonesy pitched a happily uneventful ninth for his 19th save of the year, and is inching ever closer to that milestone of 300. I’m hoping (and this isn’t that selfish, because it would be very good for the Tigers) that the Tygs go on a tear throughout July, and that Jonesy gets his 300th save against the A’s in Oakland when I can be there. Well, either that or wait till late August when I’ve got tickets to my lone home Tigers game of the season against the Yankees … I would soooooo love to see him do that. I’m pretty resigned to him never making the Hall of Fame, but 300 saves would silence, at least momentarily, some of his more annoyingly vocal critics, the ones who call for his head with every blown save.

Speaking of milestones, I know this is a Tigers blog but I can’t help noting Craig Biggio’s 3000th hit (as well as the two that came after, on his FIVE-HIT night!). Thanks to the miracle of Extra Innings, I got to watch the epic Astros game and see the hit and the touching celebration that followed. As a San Francisco native watching the relationship between Bonds and the fans grow progressively more dysfunctional, it warmed my heart to see the unabashed love that Biggio has for Houston and vice versa. There are no rumors surrounding him, just a whole lot of love and respect for the way he plays the game and the way he conducts himself as a person. 

It was one of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever seen. His two sons came running out of the dugout, where they were allowed to serve as batboys while their dad was chasing 3,000; his wife and daughter rushed out of the stands onto the field to hug and kiss him; and all his teammates gathered around to embrace him and applaud him. Ex-Tiger Brad Ausmus, one of Biggio’s best friends, was one of the first to get to him.

But possibly the sweetest moment came a little later. Biggio went down into the dugout, maybe into the clubhouse, and when he emerged he had his dear teammate Jeff Bagwell by the hand. Baggy, of course, wanted the moment to be Biggio’s alone, and was being rather resistant, but Biggio pulled him all the way out to the middle of the diamond, where he raised their clasped hands as the noise of the crowd reached a new level. He said later that he wanted the fans to be able to say a proper goodbye to Baggy, like they never were able to. It was the perfect gesture–those two have shared practically everything in their careers–and shows you just the kind of man Craig Biggio is.

Just to cap the night perfectly, Biggio ended up with FIVE HITS, including the infield hit (again with the busting of the ass) that started the game-winning rally in the bottom of the eleventh. One of my absolute favorite ex-Tigers, Brian Moehler, had pitched the top of the inning and given up a home run to put Colorado ahead, 5-4. With two out, Biggio hit a sharp grounder to short, beating out the throw by running as hard as he could right out of the box. Hunter Pence (my pick for NL Rookie of the Year) followed up with one of the softest doubles imaginable, and then Berkman loaded the bases by getting plunked. Carlos Lee sent a grand slam soaring into the Crawford boxes to end the game in a victory for the Astros, who probably found new places to hold joy that they’d never thought of before. What an amazing night for them. I couldn’t be happier for Biggio.

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Rainout = Story Time
June 28, 2007, 1:39 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

The Tigers game got rained out today, hopefully giving the guys time to reflect on why they seem to play better on the road than at home. I shall use this opportunity to do what broadcasters often do during rain delays: Share a couple stories.

STEVE SPARKS

For those of you who may not know, Steve Sparks is a now retired, almost 42 year old knuckleball pitcher who played for the Tigers from 2000 through most of 2003. He was, is, and always will be my very favorite player. There are many Sparky stories to choose from in my stash, but I guess I gotta pick just one …

In 2003, I went on a “college” tour, which was actually a very thinly veiled tour of the baseball shrines I most wanted to visit. I always knew that I wanted to go to University of Michigan, so for the sheer convenience of it I also applied to schools in Boston and Chicago in order to see Fenway and Wrigley on this aforementioned tour. Ever so conveniently, the Tigers were at Fenway for a two-game series for the two games that Dad and I were in Boston. Funny how things work out … I wonder if we planned it that way.

By that time, I’d known Sparky for a while–nonetheless, he was surprised to see us, and gleefully listened to the tales of our tour so far. “See you in Detroit!” he said as we parted ways.

In Detroit, as you might imagine, it’s a bit more difficult to attract the attention of a Tiger, being surrounded by other Tigers fans. It was Negro League Tribute Day in Detroit, we’d had a great visit to the University of Michigan, but no Sparky. We hung around the dugout, just waiting, explaining to the security guard that yes, we really did know Sparky, when he wanted to kick us out. He gave us a look like, Surrrrre, of course you know him, but let us stay anyhow.

I began to despair when almost all the players had gone in. Then the Fox Sports Net guys began setting up chairs for an interview. “Who’re you guys interviewing?” I called to them, hoping against hope. “Steve Sparks,” they answered, sending me into a tizzy.

Within minutes, Sparky emerged from the dugout, clad in a beautifully baggy throwback Stars uniform, high socks and all. “Hey Colt!” he said, spotting me. Surrounded by hordes of small children thrusting their giveaway Stars caps at him, Sparky patiently signed away and asked for updates on the rest of our trip. I told him about seeing Wrigley Field in Chicago, going up to Ann Arbor for the tour of Michigan; we talked about his upcoming high school reunion in Tulsa, and the rumors that he might get traded to Houston (reuniting him with his old batterymate, Brad Ausmus).

Afterwards, as I walked up the stairs grinning ear to ear, the security guard stopped us.

“Man, you really did know him!” he said. “Is he your neighbor or something?”

 TODD JONES

If you’ve ever wondered about my strangely fierce loyalty to Todd “Roller Coaster” Jones, prepare to be enlightened.

Since he got traded from the Tigers, I’d kind of followed Jonesy around, making sure I got to at least one of his games every year (usually in San Francisco) just to say hi and see how things were going. When he came back to the Tigers last year, I was elated.

The second game of the Oakland series, I was standing behind the visitors dugout when Jonesy came running in from right field, where he’d been stretching and playing catch. He was waving madly at someone, pointing at the on-field boxes. I watched curiously until it hit me–he was waving at me!

Dad and I scurried down to the boxes, where Jonesy persuaded Trey, the security guard, to let us down. There was an exchange of pleasantries, and then one of the most beautiful sentences I’ve ever heard: “Want to come on the field, meet some of the guys?” Are you kidding?!

No, actually, he was not. Jonesy opened the little gate onto the field as if this was something perfectly normal, told me to grab my camera, and slung an arm around my shoulders as we strolled down towards the Tiger bullpen. Jonesy then proceed to snap photos of me with the catcher’s gear, me and Jason Grilli, me with Marcus Thames and Curtis Granderson (who loved my orange-and-blue Converse high tops), introducing me to almost every member of the bullpen as I tried not to act like a blithering idiot.

Returning to my dad, Jonesy quickly realized he was on the phone with my mom. Grinning, he took the phone and brightly said, “Hi Mom!” Nobody could believe it. All my security guard friends were grinning almost as widely as I was; Trey was afraid I was going to pass out from sheer joy.

How can you ever do anything but love a guy who’s made you that happy? 



Perhaps We Should Go Back On the Road
June 27, 2007, 10:07 am
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Normally when I see two solid weeks of home games on the schedule, it makes me happy.

After the past two days, I’m not so sure anymore.

The Tigers looked nigh unbeatable in the reported hell of the National League. Now back in the comfy environs of familiar Comerica Park, they’re finding ways to lose. Yesterday they lost by having Bondo turn in his first real poor outing of the year and scoring not so many runs. Though Grandy did hit his 14th triple of the year, so that was something.

Then today Little Nate returned, and looked very wonderful in his 5.1 innings. Four hits, one earned run (an inherited runner that Grilli allowed in) and general Detroit dominance. We got two runs right in the first inning, and then Grandy ensured that he’d get baseball’s version of the triple double with a home run in the third. Double figures in all three kinds of extra base hits, how delightful.

Enter our awful-again bullpen.

We are now without Rodney again, to make room for Nate. Not that Rodney was THAT much help, but still. Grilli came in and was not amazing, and then Byrdak gave up a three-run homer to Wilkerson, plus some more runs for good measure. To their credit, the Tigers hitters gamely bounced back in the eighth, touching up Otsuka for 3 runs to tie the game at 6-6.

Then Jonesy came in and hit a down loop in the Roller Coaster. Three runs, and despite a little whimpery threat against Gagne in the ninth, it was over. 9-6 loss, while Cleveland predictably refused to fall to the A’s and scored five runs in the ninth for an 8-5 win. Just makes you want to hurl, doesn’t it? We’re back in a tie for first, and I hate the bullpen more than ever. Except Jonesy of course, who no matter how many runs he gives up I can never dislike. I can cringe excessively when he comes in though, thinking of the imminent damage he’s about to do to the score and his own ERA.

MIKEY WATCH: Last night my boy Mikey Maroth made his debut for the Cardinals. And don’t we all wish he’d pitched like that the whole season with the Tigers! Despite looking incredibly odd in Cardinals red (especially those red spikes), Mikey pitched 7.1 stellar innings, giving up just one run on two hits. He also picked off two runners! Silly National Leaguers, you don’t know to stay close to first when Mikey’s on the mound. He’ll get you every time with that excellent move. The Cards lost eventually in extra innings, but as Mikey did not figure in the decision, having left the game with a 1-1 tie, I’ll chalk it up as a victory. Maroth 1, Everybody Else 0.



Yeah, Nine Games in NL Parks Was Ever So Detrimental
June 26, 2007, 2:46 am
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Anyone remember how Leyland was pissed at the scheduling folks for giving the Tygs a nine-game roadtrip through the NL? Judging by the 8-1 record, I’d have to say the National League rather agreed with the Tigers. Even the ESPN people are taking notice, which hardly ever happens given their massive obsession with the Yankees, regardless of record. The intro on Sunday Night Baseball was so one-sided that even Fox Sports Detroit might have gone, “Hmmm, maybe we should put a little more about the Braves in there.” ESPN failed to mention the Tigers’ semi-worthy opponents until the very end–after piles of delightful Tiger-worship, Jon Miller noted that, oh yes, tonight the Tigers will feast upon the Braves. Mmmm, yummy. 

Andrew Miller did a fine job, pitching six shutout innings against the Braves. The Tigers were shut out as well for the first five innings, but they were just biding their time, waiting for just the right moment. Gotta make sure there’s at least a little suspense. With the Braves, the scoreless streak was just a miserable continuation of their recent past. They only scored one run on the Tygs, isn’t that sad? For them, I mean.

Once the shutout had gone on long enough to be extra interesting, the Tygs efficiently smacked singles and doubles enough for four runs in the sixth–plenty for Miller and his replacement, the erstwhile starter Durbin, though they added one more. Durbin pitched three scoreless innings for the save, and if I do say so myself, his stuff was FILTHY. My dad and I, happily overdosing on baseball after watching the Yankees get their asses kicked in an afternoon game in San Francisco, kept going, “Ooooohhhhh,” as another batter’s knees buckled.

Conveniently, the Indians lost again to the Nationals, so our lead in the division is up to a whopping two games. Well, it seems whopping when you’ve been behind by two or three for the past month, anyway. I take this is as solid proof that we’re better than Cleveland–we swept the Natties, and they lost the series to DC. Ha, I say triumphantly.

I’m definitely interested to see how this new rotation will work out (at least when I’m not feeling incredibly depressed about Mikey). And, just a random thought, I think Miller would be much better looking if he’d just shave and cut his hair. Very slowly I’m starting to trust him … It takes a rather long time for pitchers to gain my trust; however, once they’ve got it, it usually takes a while for me to completely lose faith in them (see Todd Jones and the dearly departed Matt Anderson, who I still pine for occasionally). Durbin got shafted, in my opinion, but he seems to be dealing with it quite well, and if he pitches like that all the time in relief, then our bullpen will be much improved. Here’s crossing my fingers that Kenny and Miller keep up their unhittableness! And while we’re at it: Please come back soon, Zoom Zoom, we miss you terribly. 



Justin Verlander Is Definitely Not Mortal
June 24, 2007, 2:10 pm
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For the first time in what seems like a while, the Tigers didn’t erupt for a boatload of runs. In fact, they managed just two runs off Atlanta’s Kyle Davies, but for Justin Verlander, it was enough. He’s been phenomenal for long enough that seeing a W by his name is no longer a surprise, but ever since the no-hitter he’s been taking it to a whole new level. Is it too early to start stumping for the Cy Young?

Let’s look at today. Basically no margin for error, what with leads of 1-0 and 2-1 (and, very briefly, 2-0, before Chipper Jones ended the Braves’ 31-inning scoreless streak with a homer). How does he respond to the pressure? Seven innings, four hits, the one run, two walks and eleven strikeouts. These are the kinds of games the Tigers need to be winning, these tight, nailbiting contests where pitching is key. We know the offense is there–but pitching is what wins championships. And damn, can Verlander pitch. (Now, if only Fox would have let me watch him!) It’s so hard to remember just how young he is. He is skilled and poised far beyond his years.

The offense took today as a semi-vacation, making just enough of an appearance to secure the win. Guillen spanked a homer, and Casey continued boosting his average with a 2 for 4 day (.281). Maggs was right back in there after getting hit on the hand yesterday, and was 1 for 4 (.381). I hope they all enjoyed their day of relaxation, because it would be really nice if they’d show up bigtime tomorrow night behind Andrew Miller on national TV. (The kind of national TV that even us lowly Californians can watch!)



Ohhhhhh KENNY!
June 23, 2007, 12:37 pm
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One lefty left, and another returned.

Kenny Rogers and Todd Jones kind of remind me of two overly polite ladies visiting each other. Oh Kenny, Jonesy said, don’t feel like you have to pitch six shutout innings. Really, it’s not necessary, dear.

Pish, Kenny replied. Don’t worry, it’s nothing, nothing at alllllll.

Pitted against fellow crafty forty-year-old John Smoltz, Kenny picked up right where he left off. For five innings, the two wily veterans posted dueling goose eggs, baffling young ‘uns and oldsters alike. But in the sixth came that explosion of a crooked number we’ve lately come to expect from the juggernaut Tigers offense.

Kenny himself led off, though he didn’t exactly begin the rally in the sense that Bondo and dearly departed Mikey did. Rather than a squibbing single or a booming double, Kenny quietly struck out and headed back to the bench to watch the fireworks in comfort. And his mates pecked Smoltzie to death.

Granderson: Single. Polanco: Single. Sheff: Second out. Cue the clutchness. As my friends Ben and Jay always say, “Unleash the AWESOME!” Maggs: RBI single. Guillen: Two-run double that handily died just enough under the padding of the outfield wall that the outfielder had to go get it rather than letting it bounce to him. Pudge: RBI double. Casey: Intentional walk. Brandon, thus disrespected, just had to make the Braves pay for such blatant disregard with a timely RBI single. Sure Casey got hung up between second and third for the final out, but not before Pudge crossed the plate. And that was all the Tigers needed.

Kenny pitched his final half inning after the outburst, and it made me remember why I grew to love him last year (after lustily booing him for abusing the camera man and stealing Bondo’s All-Star spot the previous year). Right when he needed to shut the Braves down and extinguish all sparks of hope, he did just that. Grilli, Seay and newbie De La Cruz preserved the shutout, extending the Braves’ scoreless streak to epic proportions. Also of note, Wil Ledezma made his Braves debut and struck out the side. One of those strikeouts was Bobby Seay, making the very first plate appearance of his career. How a guy plays as long as Bobby and avoids batting completely boggles my mind and warms my trivial minutiae-loving heart.

Another thing that (surprisingly) gave me warm fuzzies: The Braves announcers. They were fair almost to a fault, and delightfully amusing. At one point they were discussing where all the cotton candy sticks in Atlanta had gone. One of the announcers said he’d discovered their hoarding place–Cleveland! There were dark mutterings about Cleveland stealing all the cotton candy. This somehow led to a discussion of how you never see baby pigeons. “You know why?” asked one announcer. “Because they’re all produced in a factory … in Cleveland.” Why the fixation on Cleveland? I have no idea. Later on the older broadcaster spent a good five minutes marveling over the younger’s pen, which featured four different colors of ink. So did the camera, as Ledezma was striking out his second batter. “What just happened?” the younger one asked, suddenly remembering the game still in progress. “I have no idea,” said the other–and somehow, it was just adorably baffling, rather than annoying. I almost hope Comcast uses the Braves feed again tomorrow–can’t wait to hear what tangents they go off on!



Warning: Rampant Sentimentality and Ranting Ahead
June 23, 2007, 5:04 am
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Mike Maroth traded. 

Three words in the English language that probably hurt me more than anything else in the recent past.

And for what? We don’t even know yet. For a player to be named later. Nice thanks for the man who endured the ignominy of 2003 without excuse or complaint, who was such a huge part of the Tigers resurgence, who gracefully accepted getting left off the playoff roster when the Tigers finally made it to the postseason. Of all the 2003 Tigers who made it out of the doldrums, he’s probably dealt with the most shit and received the fewest rewards. Not that you’d ever hear him complaining. Mikey always has a smile on his face. He’s always thinking about other people, one of the most active Tigers when it comes to charity work.

And now he gets dumped from a first place team to a fluke. Did he ever dump on the Tigers when they sucked? Did he ever ask to be traded when everything was going so badly there aren’t even words for it? Was he ever anything but utterly loyal and optimistic? And this is how he’s repaid. Thanks, Mike, now get the hell out while we make another run at the playoffs–go hang out with that sorry excuse for a ballclub in St. Louis that keeps losing to the Royals.

I’ve tried to stop jumping the gun on Dombrowski trades. I was utterly heartbroken in 2002, when he traded Jeff Weaver, and look how that trade worked out. I swore after that trade I’d hate Dombrowski forever, because I loved Weaver, and a few short years later I was hailing the man as a genius, thinking, Even if it was straight-up Bondo for Dream, it would’ve been a great deal. But then I had the same knee-jerk reaction when he fired Trammell and hired Leyland, vowing I’d hate Leyland forever. That lasted about a week, and then just like everyone else I fell in love with the crusty old skipper.

Maybe it’s because Mikey is my favorite Tiger, but something about this trade feels different. Maybe I’ll look back on this and laugh, thinking how stupid I was, but for now it just hurts, like someone died. You know how when something really bad happens you’ll have these moments where you’re going along like normal, and then all of a sudden the realization will hit you full force again? That’s how it feels right now.

Mikey’s always been one of my favorites, ever since that game in 2002 where he went against Curt Schilling in Arizona. I thought he had no shot, and lo and behold, he beat the defending champs! For a couple years he played second fiddle in my rankings to Steve Sparks, my #1 favorite player of all time who can never be displaced from that spot. Perhaps I’ll get a chance to share Sparky stories at a later date, but not today. Once Sparky was gone though, Mikey moved up to #1 Tiger; and he (possibly unknowingly) upheld the longstanding tradition of class and kindness that seems to be the one common trait of all my #1 favorite Tigers over the years. Brian Hunter, Tony Clark, Brad Ausmus, Steve Sparks, Mike Maroth … and now the title falls to my beloved Jonesy.  

I’ll end with a couple of my Mikey stories … hopefully it’ll be a cheering up exercise.

2003: The Tigers came to the Bay Area twice, once to play the A’s and once to play the Giants. This was the year I did sketches of a bunch of Tigers and went around trying to get them signed. When the Tygs came in April, I still didn’t have one of Mikey yet; even so, I managed to chat with him over by the bullpen. “Come to the San Francisco series,” Mikey instructed after I explained. “If you’ve got one then, I’ll sign it.” As you would expect, I’d finished his sketch by the time the next series rolled around. I was over by the bullpen talking to Sparky when I spotted Mikey and called to him. He jogged over with that million dollar smile and said, “Told ya I’d come over, didn’t I?” He loved his sketch and hung around paging through the others, just to see who else I’d gotten.

2006: The Tigers came to Oakland, and of course I was there. Mikey was heading in after BP and I hadn’t had a chance to talk to him that day. (The day before I’d watched him in his first side-throwing session since the surgery, during which he couldn’t have stopped smiling to save his life, and asked how his arm was. He probably heard that question so many millions of times he wanted to puke, but even so he smiled at me and said it felt fine, that he’d waited so long to throw and it just felt so good.) He didn’t notice me in the throng above the dugout, so I yelled, “MIKEY!” He immediately popped back out, looking up and repeating incredulously, “Mikey?” I guess most people just leave it at Mike. Still it got me a chat, and in August when I finally got to Detroit, it served me in good stead. All the Tigers were running in, in those little soundproof bubbles where they won’t turn their heads for anyone. But one call of “MIKEY!” and his head whipped around. Catching sight of me, the Oakland kid, along the right field line, he grinned and yelled back, “Hey! What are you doing here?!” And I fairly glowed for the rest of the night.