The center fielder of the Tigers’ present and future was indirectly taking tips from one of the best, who played the position so well some 50 years prior.
It was the summer of 2007, and Curtis Granderson, into just his second full season as the roamer of the vast expanse at Comerica Park, was having an impromptu lesson imparted to him.
Granderson and I, an interloper at his locker, were chatting before a game against the Cleveland Indians, when coach Andy Van Slyke walked by and tossed Granderson a mitt.
The outfielder’s glove had been recently re-laced, and that afforded Van Slyke an opportunity to pull it back from Granderson and jam it into his own hand, discussing the glove’s new laces and their length.
Van Slyke flapped the glove open and closed, open and closed, while pantomiming the act of scooping up a baseball and throwing it back to the infield.
“These laces are kind of long,” Van Slyke said. “Once, my laces were so long, I tripped over them during a game.”
Granderson laughed, but Van Slyke was serious—or so he said.
Granderson didn’t know it, but he was being schooled, indirectly, by Bill Virdon.
Virdon patrolled center field for the Pittsburgh Pirates with aplomb in the 1950s. And when Van Slyke was a young big leaguer playing in Pittsburgh, like Granderson in Detroit in 2007, it was Virdon who did the tutoring in Pirates camp.
And now Virdon’s teachings were being passed on to the wide-eyed Granderson by Van Slyke as I looked on.
Granderson was 26 years old at the time—with a kewpie doll face and a smile that lit up Woodward Avenue. He beat out a speedster named Nook Logan just a year prior to claim the Tigers’ center fielder job.
It was a job that Granderson was growing into very nicely, indeed.
When we last left Curtis Granderson—and by “we,” I mean those who have an Old English D plastered across their heart—he was a bourgeoning star, slapping triples all around Comerica Park out of that nervous batting stance and robbing them with his glove.
Granderson was going to play center field for the Tigers like Chet Lemon did before him, and like Mickey Stanley did before Lemon. And Granderson was going to stay with the Tigers forever.
That last part is what the fans must have thought, anyway.
Granderson was 28, seemingly just hitting his stride as an upper echelon center fielder, when the Tigers did the apparently unthinkable.
On the heels of a terribly disappointing loss in Game 163 to the Minnesota Twins to close out the 2009 season, the Tigers made a blockbuster trade—a deal so big it took three teams to consummate it.
Granderson was at the center of the trade, which landed the Tigers Phil Coke and Austin Jackson from the Yankees, and Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth from the Diamondbacks. The Tigers also gave up starting pitcher Edwin Jackson.
Detroit baseball fans were aghast.
Trading Curtis Granderson was considered blasphemy. He was a nice guy. A fine center fielder. A slapper of triples, a stroker of doubles, with a developing power swing. He smiled a lot. He was out there in the community year-round, helping out and becoming a Detroiter by proxy.
He was going to play center field for the Tigers forever!
It wasn’t just that Granderson was traded—it was that he was traded to the hated Yankees. He was too pure for New York. It was feared by yours truly that Granderson’s good deeds would be swallowed up and not really noticed in the Big Apple.
Pinstripes never really looked good on him, in retrospect.
They didn’t help his hitting. Oh, he hit his home runs in the new, cracker jack Yankee Stadium, where a pop fly to the second baseman could, with a gentle breeze, land ten rows up in the right field stands. But playing in New York ruined his swing.
Granderson was soiled by Yankee Stadium. The tiny ballpark turned him into a free-swinging slugger. He used to be a gap-to-gap guy, spraying baseballs like a machine gun into the outfield, from left to right. As a Yankee, he became Adam Dunn.
In his first season in New York, Granderson hit 24 home runs and his numbers were pretty much in line with what he did as a Tiger in 2009.
But then Yankee Stadium’s poison infiltrated his system.
In 2011 and 2012 combined, Granderson slugged—and that was the word for it—84 home runs, drove in 225 runs, and struck out 364 times. His batting averages for those two years were .262 and then .232, respectively.
But he no longer hit doubles and triples all that much—44 and 14, respectively in 2011-12 combined, where with the Tigers Granderson averaged 29 doubles and 14 triples per season.
And the lefty-batting Granderson never did learn how to hit left-handers after the trade to New York, against whom he has a career BA of .226.
Seduced by the right field porch that he could seemingly reach out and touch from the batter’s box, Granderson turned from sprayer to hacker at the plate as a Yankee. He became, for the most part, a home run or strike out guy.
This year, Granderson takes that poisoned swing from the Bronx to Queens, as a new member of the New York Mets. He signed with the Mets as a free agent after an injury-riddled 2013 season saw Granderson suit up for just 61 games with the Yanks.
Granderson is soon to be 33 years old. To us in Detroit, that doesn’t seem possible. He still has the kewpie doll face but there’s some maturity to it now. He doesn’t look 33 yet he does, at the same time.
He is moving into grizzled vet status. This year will be Granderson’s 10th in the big leagues.
The man who would be the Tigers’ center fielder until he retired is now trying to revive his career in the National League, asked to be a mentor of sorts to teammates and fellow outfielders Eric Young, Jr. and youngster Juan Lagares.
Granderson was a wide-eyed youngster once, getting impromptu outfield lessons from Bill Virdon by way of Andy Van Slyke via pantomime in the Tigers’ clubhouse.
Time will tell if Granderson can smile the calendar into submission in his new pinstripes in Queens.
And also, if he can regain a hitting stroke that, despite his nifty home run numbers, lost its way with the Yankees.
Sometimes I wonder if Florida and Arizona were placed on this Earth just so we in the North can see real life baseball players jogging and playing catch in the sunshine and in 80 degree temps every February.
Now all those reading this who live in those states, hold your horses. I’m not “dissing” your burg. I’m sure your state has more to offer than warning tracks, base lines and pitcher’s mounds. I’m pretty sure, anyway.
But this is a special week for those of us who are winter weary.
We get to see white balls being thrown—that have stitches in them. The fat men this week won’t have carrots for noses and charcoal for their eyes and mouths—they’ll be hitting fungos into the outfield.
We get to see brooms cleaning off home plate, instead of brushes sweeping snow off cars.
It’s spring training time.
This has been an especially rough winter in Michigan, so the four best words in the English language, “Pitchers and catchers report,” bring extra joy.
We’ll smile extra broadly when we click on those initial images beamed up from Lakeland, showing the Tigers in their creamy white uniforms, running in the outfield and throwing the first pitches of the year.
Female fans will be smiling, too, when they see new manager Brad Ausmus, all of 44 years old, tanned and handsome and wearing the Old English D.
It may not be scientifically possible for photos and videos from baseball’s spring training to actually lower the outside air temperature, but don’t tell that to Michiganders who have been slugged by one of the most relentless winters in decades.
Florida baseball and Arizona baseball, in February and March, seems to make all things possible.
You start reading stories of the young phenoms and the free agent signees joining their new teams and the teams with new managers and the magazines with the predictions start to come out and it makes the winter a little easier to stomach, for you can see a flicker of light at the end of this frozen tunnel.
The Tigers’ recent Winter Caravan was just a tease. It was seeing baseball players in person, but they were in winter coats and leather jackets and ski caps. It was Comerica Park, but under a thick blanket of snow.
This week, pitchers and catchers start doing their thing, revving up for another baseball season. They’re the warm-up act for when the rest of the gang joins the fray a few days later.
Before long, you’ll see the intense face of Justin Verlander, staring down the plate, instead of Tweeted photos of him smiling with swimsuit models.
Nothing against swimsuit models, mind you.
You’ll see Ausmus, taking in his first spring training as a big league manager, gazing out onto the field and you won’t be able to help but wonder what those gears in his head are spitting out.
Who will bat lead-off? Who’s my Opening Day starter? (It’s not a slam dunk, is it?) How much do I catch Alex Avila? Do I have a strict platoon in left field? Will Ricky Porcello continue to develop into a solid big league starter? How will lefty Drew Smyly complement the four righties in the rotation?
Just for starters.
There will be the delightful sight of Miguel Cabrera, smiling and cherubic, punishing baseballs all over the outfield—and beyond.
There’ll be Torii Hunter, his youthful exuberance defying his 39 years, laughing with teammates and telling the press, yet again, that all he wants to do is play in one freaking World Series before he retires.
There’ll be the new Tigers—Ian Kinsler, Joe Nathan and Rajai Davis especially, stretching in their new duds and talking about how fun life should be as a Tiger.
And don’t forget The Kid—Nick Castellanos—who on Opening Day will officially no longer be a prospect but a big league third baseman. Think there might be a few eyeballs on him?
The Tigers team that gathers in Lakeland starting this week won’t be like any Tigers team you’ve seen in the Jim Leyland Era.
They won’t be as plodding. There won’t be as much waiting for the three-run homer. There’s a vacuum cleaner at shortstop. They’ll actually go from first to third on a single now and again—and even better, from first to home on a double.
Spring training is time to start asking questions and making prognostications. It’s time for even Cubs fans to think the unthinkable—at least until they throw the first pitch.
Spring training is the time of year when the words “if” and “then” are used more than in the other 10 months combined.
Spring training means seeing former players back in uniform once again, instructing the newbies. In Detroit, it recalls Bill Freehan, always looking like he could still play every February, tutoring Lance Parrish. And Al Kaline, who at 79 will again pull on the Old English D, like he has for the past 62 years, and teach the outfielders how to catch the ball and throw it in one motion—because no one did that better than Al.
Spring training is when big league players actually hop on buses to travel, just like their days in the bushes. And it’s when players like Castellanos dream of traveling by air all year.
It’s a time for baseball to warm our frigid winter hearts—to pump the blood through our chilly veins with more urgency.
Are you feeling warmer and cozier already?
It was something out of a cartoon. Warner Brothers would have been proud.
The right fielder chases the well-hit baseball all the way to the wall, where he then tumbles over said wall and disappears, like the Coyote vanishing in yet another attempt to chase down the Road Runner.
Only, this scene was hardly funny to Tigers fans.
It was Game 2 of the ALCS last October, in Boston’s Fenway Park. The Tigers swiped Game 1 behind a combined one-hit effort from five pitchers. And they led Game 2, 5-1, in the eighth inning. A 2-0 series lead and a surprisingly easy path to the World Series beckoned.
Then disaster struck, like a horror movie. The Red Sox weren’t dead, after all. The Tigers looked at the Bosox, lying prone on the ground, turned around to hug the girl, and when they turned around, the Red Sox were gone.
So was the baseball hit by David Ortiz, off Joaquin Benoit, the Tigers de facto closer by process of elimination.
The bases were loaded with Red Sox when Benoit served up a beach ball to Ortiz, whose nickname is Big Papi, and it’s not one of those “opposite” nicknames, like a bald guy they call “Curly.”
Ortiz slammed a laser to right field, and Torii Hunter, bless his heart, gave it his all, but Hunter ran out of grass and ran smack into the wall, spilling over it and disappearing into the Boston night.
With one dagger of a swing, Ortiz tied the game and as Benoit sagged on the mound, visibly shaken, the Tigers took on the persona of their makeshift closer, eventually losing the game in the ninth inning.
You could say the series was 1-1, in favor of Boston.
The Tigers, of course, lost the ALCS, 4-2, and the fourth loss was punctuated by another grand slam in the late innings, the second one off the bat of Shane Victorino, who teed off on reliever Jose Veras.
Two grand slams into the Boston night, in two different games, both off late-inning relievers. Two swings that effectively canceled out the brilliant starting pitching the Tigers received the entire series.
The bullpen was the Tigers’ fickle lover all year long in 2013. Every time the team felt its advances, it would turn its back on them. And the Tigers got rebuffed one final time, at the worst possible moment.
As the Joker said in “The Dark Knight,” let’s wind the clocks back a year.
A year ago at this time, the Tigers thought they had their new closer to replace the deposed Jose Valverde. He was big, young rookie Bruce Rondon, the roly-poly kid with the big arm and the big smile.
It was a risk and a half. Plunging a rookie into a closer role is like tossing a grenade into a fox hole to test whether it will detonate. You turn your back, stick your fingers in your ears and hope for the best.
Rondon went boom.
It was clear from the get go, after the season started, that Rondon was too green to close anything other than a door.
In May, the Tigers actually brought back Valverde. Papa Grande went boom, for the second time in eight months.
That left Benoit, the Accidental Closer.
It was makeshift, but it sort of worked. Benoit navigated the Tigers out of troubled waters, with the occasional banging into an unlit pier along the way.
The rest of the bullpen was shaky—just unreliable enough to make it a source of worry for Tigers fans heading in to the playoffs.
When FDR said that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself, he obviously hadn’t seen the Tigers bullpen.
The starters were terrific, and the bullpen tried to hold it all together, but then the playoffs arrived and there was a blown game in the ALDS in Oakland, then the debacles in the Red Sox series.
But opposing hitters beware. There’s a new sheriff in town.
“Yeah, there’s pressure. But I will take that pressure with a chance to go out and win, a chance to get to the World Series.”
Nathan is a real closer. There’s nothing accidental about him. After a few years in the San Francisco Giants bullpen, setting up games in the late innings, Nathan was traded to the Minnesota Twins before the 2004 season and became the Twins’ lock down man in the ninth inning.
He’s been at this closer thing for 10 years now.
Nathan has 341 career saves. The man he’s replacing in Detroit, Benoit, had 13 career saves prior to last season.
Don’t let anyone tell you that moving from set-up man to closer, as Benoit did last year for the Tigers, is like switching lanes on the freeway.
Well, it could be that way, if you’re talking about moving from the shoulder of the road to the fast lane from a dead stop.
There’s a different mentality that the ninth inning man has—that’s why so many of them are nuts.
The closer is the Red Adair of baseball—fighting fires with a ferocity and stubbornness that just isn’t in every man. When the game is the tightest, when the stakes are the highest, that’s when the closer licks his chops.
Nathan signed with the Tigers last November, despite having a very similar offer from his old team, the Texas Rangers. And Nathan is a Texas kid, born in Houston.
The decision to come to Detroit was about winning, and about being the ninth inning man for a team whose bullpen and makeshift closer fizzled out in the playoffs, when someone like Nathan likely would have led the Tigers past the Red Sox and to the World Series for the second straight year.
“All around, I was attracted to … how much this team can do,” Nathan told the Free Press. “Especially with the speed they brought in, (with) the improvement of their defense, which I think is going to be their biggest difference.”
He is too modest.
The Tigers gambled last year with the back end of their bullpen, anointing an unproven rookie and then bringing back a guy who crashed and burned in 2012. They ended up with a set-up man as their closer and the risk caught up to them at the worst possible time.
No risks this year. No messing around. The Tigers, three-time defending division champs, are once again a World Series contender. They were burned once, so now they hired a fireman by trade.
If the Tigers falter in the ninth inning this year, it’ll be because the other guys beat one of the game’s all-time great closers.
Nathan has made the All-Star team six times, all as a closer. In 2013, for Texas, Nathan saved 43 games and had an ERA that you needed a microscope to see (1.39).
He’s 39 years old, but so what? Nathan had Tommy John surgery a few years ago. He’s 39, but his new arm is four.
Nathan’s style of closing is quick and to the point. He doesn’t do the rollercoaster thing with the fans’ emotions. He gets in and he gets out. He works fast. He closes games like he has a plane to catch.
It’s a breath of fresh air from recent years, when Tigers closers often turned ninth innings into a soap opera.
Former big league umpire Dave Pallone once set me straight on the credibility of the men in blue in the baseball diamond.
“Remember, we umpires may not always be right, but we’re never wrong.”
He’s right. The arbiters of the game might miss a call here and there, but their word is final. You’d have better luck protesting at a show trial.
But what is this? Baseball is about to pop open a bottle and let a genie out that has been corked inside for over 125 years.
Get ready for challenge flags and even more TV timeouts. Prepare yourself for confusion. Is this reviewable? Is that?
Video replay is about to be unleashed on the game, and unlike before, where it trickled out for a few select plays, this time Bud Selig isn’t messing around. He’s dumping the genie out fully with a big plop.
Someone once said of baseball’s lazy allure, “In baseball, you can’t run out the clock, like in other sports. You have to get 27 outs.”
Baseball and time have always had a relationship built on trust; they agree not to interfere with each other.
Umpiring the game has been no small part of this timelessness.
Even when technology grew legs and could walk around and visit every game known to man, sprinkling its advances like Johnny Appleseed, baseball always managed to stay unexplored. It was the unconquered game in that respect.
The means to allow umpires to have a peek at video replay to aid in decision making has been present since the 1960s. But half a century went by before baseball seriously considered using it.
The game that has survived the Black Sox, the reserve clause, spit balls, sign stealing, collusion, the designated hitter and George Steibrenner will soon have another cross to bear.
Selig, the outgoing commissioner, apparently wants to be known for more than a tied All-Star game and the wild card.
So he’s about to shove video replay—serious, some-holds-barely-barred replay—down our throats.
This is more than just the occasional home run, fair or foul calls that are now subject to review. Selig is opening up a whole array of plays that will now send the umpiring crew off the field and under a hood.
The list of plays of which managers can begin to challenge umpires’ judgment starting this upcoming season isn’t pretty, if you’re a baseball purist.
The Chicken Little people will tell you that baseball is taking a giant leap toward making every ball and strike an issue. The “let’s get the call right” people will tell you that any delays caused will be worth it.
The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between.
But there is one indisputable repercussion.
Once the videotape machines start whirring, there’s no going back. It’s not too maudlin to say that the game will be changed forever.
Baseball doesn’t change itself forever very often. I guess it figures that it got 90 feet for base paths right on the first try back in the 1850s, so it can be filled with hubris if it wants.
Once Bud Selig’s expanded replay system starts spitting out videos, we won’t have another Don Denkinger or Jim Joyce to kick around anymore, that’s for sure.
Denkinger famously blew a safe/out call at first base in the 1985 World Series that cost the St. Louis Cardinals a game—and maybe the series itself.
Tigers fans and Joyce need no introduction after the latter picked a horrible time to be human in 2010, robbing Armando Galarraga—remember him?—of a perfect game with two outs in the ninth inning, also with a missed call at first base.
We aren’t likely to have any more poster children for blown calls, once managers start using NFL-like challenges and more and more final words are taken from the umpires on the field.
Sounds good, right? The “get it right” people are doing a happy dance.
Since the 19th century, I’d say baseball got along just fine without halting play and making sure that every call was beyond reproach.
Despite the voluminous list of calls subject to review starting in 2014, not every play is covered. So there will still be plays that affect games which could go against a team unabashed.
The trouble with creating subjective lists of plays that are reviewable, is that inevitably plays are left out that will enrage TV viewers in their incorrectness, yet nothing can be done about them.
So baseball will have created a whole new set of problems.
It’s like changes to playoff systems. The more fair you try to be, and the more teams you include, the more changes and tweaks you have to make to validate those already installed.
You think more people have been placated by MLB’s playoff tweaks than were offended before the addition of the wild card in the first place?
Hard to say. But the fact that the answer isn’t clear, says something.
Baseball’s expanded use of replay in 2014 will include everything from safe/out calls to hit by pitch to trapped catches to tag and forced plays, and more. Managers will be allotted two challenges each up to the seventh inning, after which time Big Brother takes over and determines what is going to be reviewed or not.
You can say that if the technology is there, why not use it. You can say that there’s nothing wrong with getting a play right.
You can also say this. Once the videotape machines take over, baseball’s sense of timeliness goes away forever. We’ll be subject to on-screen clocks that are tracking how long reviews are taking to be completed. More fans will be looking at their watches.
Suddenly, a game that has been played at its own pace in time frames ranging from 90 minutes to four hours per match, for over 150 years, will be overshadowed at times by Father Time.
Managers will freely use their challenges—you can count on that, especially in the new system’s initial years. Callers to sports talk radio, as if they need anything else to bitch about, now have another bone with which to pick with their team’s manager.
The talk around the water cooler the morning after a game won’t be about Miguel Cabrera’s home runs or Max Scherzer’s strikeouts. It’ll be about “that challenge” in the fourth inning.
Will more calls be right than were before? Well, that’s the punch line. I have a feeling that video replay will support the original call on the field far more often than not. So play will be halted for several minutes, only for everyone to be told that the original call made by human eyes was not so bad, after all.
And the cry of “Play ball!” will need to be repeated over and over, between challenges and reviews.
How long before we look back longingly at baseball’s “pre-booth review” days?
Ernie Banks. Pete Rose. Rod Carew. Robin Yount. Paul Molitor.
The common thread may seem obvious---they're all Hall of Fame worthy players. But there's something else that ties them together, and it's something that may end up being very relevant to your Detroit Tigers.
Each of them, from Banks to Molitor, started as a middle infielder. And each of them would abandon that position and move to other places on the diamond and further their Hall-worthy careers.
What does this have to do with the Tigers? Let's just say that you might not want to get too comfortable with the idea of a double play combination of shortstop Jose Iglesias and second baseman Ian Kinsler, acquired last week from the Texas Rangers for Prince Fielder.
Kinsler is 31 years old. Already there are signs that age could be rearing its head with Kinsler, at least in the form of stolen base output.
Age and middle infielders are usually not a good mix, Omar Vizquel notwithstanding.
The Tigers may have---emphasis on "may have"---traded for Kinsler with the idea that he could move elsewhere, such as the outfield, or first base.
Some history, first.
Banks broke into the big leagues with the Chicago Cubs in 1953 as a shortstop. By 1962, his tenth season, the Cubs had moved the 31-year-old Banks to first base, where he pretty much played the rest of his career, past his 40th birthday. Banks played 1,259 games at 1B, and 1,125 at SS.
Rose was a rookie in 1963, age 22. He debuted as a second baseman for the Cincinnati Reds. By 1967, at age 26, the Reds shifted Rose to the outfield. He would spend the next 10-12 years moving all around the diamond, eventually settling at first base. Rose played 24 years, but only 628 games at 2B, his so-called "natural" position.
Carew broke in with the Minnesota Twins as a 21-year-old second baseman in 1967. In 1976, at age 30, Carew was playing first base, and he never looked back.
Yount was an 18-year-old rookie with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1974, arriving on the scene as a shortstop. But by 1985, before his 30th birthday, the Brewers moved Yount to the outfield.
Molitor was 21 years old when he broke into the bigs with the Brewers as a second baseman in 1978, functioning as Yount's double play partner. A mere three years later, the Brewers moved Molitor---first to the outfield, then in 1982 to third base, which would be his position until 1990, when Molitor became mostly a designated hitter for the last nine years of his illustrious career.
It would be a big shock, to me, if the Tigers see Kinsler as their everyday second baseman much beyond 2016. By that time, Kinsler would be 34 years old.
Ah, but what about the greatest DP combo in history, you might ask---our own Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker?
It's more than fair to bring them up.
Tram and Lou never budged from their original positions, though the former did spend a handful of games in the outfield, at second base and at third base. Trammell played until age 38. Whitaker never played anything other than second base in a career that spanned from 1977 to 1995 (also age 38).
But let's face it: Trammell and Whitaker are anything but the norm---in so many different ways.
The good news is that, as we have seen, switching positions for the aforementioned Hall of Famers took nothing away from their offense. And their move from the middle infield came relatively early in their respective careers---all within the first 10 years.
Kinsler is entering his ninth season, and he's played all but two innings in his defensive career at second base (the other two innings were at third base, in 2012)---over 1,000 games as a second baseman.
He's ripe for a position change.
It could be that Dave Dombrowski traded for Kinsler with an eye toward having Kinsler wear another type of glove. It could be that second base may be the territory of Hernan Perez before long. Kinsler may find himself at first base, and Miguel Cabrera could be a full-time DH.
Or Kinsler could move to the outfield, a la Yount.
Yes, this was a short term move, acquiring Kinsler, in that the Tigers are in "win now" mode. But while Kinsler may be an old-ish second baseman, the Tigers could flip him into a young-ish outfielder or first baseman.
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