Monday, March 31, 2008

Opening Day: It's like the first day of school -- or deer season

        Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland is a stickler for details every day. But especially on Opening Day.
        It’s like the first day of school _ or as Leyland put it, “the first day of deer-hunting season.
        “You worry about the ground rules, you make sure you’ve got everything straight,” said Leyland, who has now been through 28 Opening Days as a manager in the major and minor leagues.
        And he has been nervous before every one.
        “You double-check your lineup card, then you triple-check it,” Leyland 
said. “You don’t want to screw that up. You don’t want to be embarrassed on Opening Day.
        “Opening Day is a big happening, more than a game,” Leyland continued. “It reminds me a lot of the first day of deer hunting season in Pennsylvania. All of the festivities are time-consuming, but I’m glad to be a part of it. I’m thrilled.
        “But, frankly, I’m glad when Opening Day, with all the hoopla, is over.
People come to the ballpark to have fun and tailgate. But for us this is work.”
        On Monday, however, you can rest assured there was not a man in the Tigers’ clubhouse, including Leyland, who would rather have been anywhere else.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Remembering my first Opening Day

        Bob M. from Farmington Hills wants to know if I remember my first Opening Day, so many, many Aprils ago. Of course, I do.
        It was April 6, 1970 in Washington D.C. against the Senators _ my debut as a big league baseball writer.
        Me and Dick Nixon, imagine that.
        Actually, the president, an avid baseball fan, didn’t arrive until the fifth inning that afternoon so his son-in-law, David Eisenhower, threw out the first pitch.
        Here was the Tigers’ starting lineup that historic day:
        Dick McAuliffe, 2B
        Cesar Gutierrez, SS
        Al Kaline, RF
        Norm Cash, 1B
        Willie Horton, LF
        Jim Northrup, CF
        Dalton Jones, 3B
        Bill Freehan, C
        Mickey Lolich, P
        it was typical Lolich.  He yielded seven hits, walked five, threw 175 pitches and still tossed a complete game shutout as the Tiger won, 5-0.
        They don’t make pitchers _ or Opening Days _ like that any more.
        By the way, Denny McLain missed that opener. He remained at his Lakeland, Fla., home, suspended for half-a-season for consorting with bookmakers.
        Denny wore No. 17. This year, based on seniority, I have been assigned Baseball Writers Association of America credential No. 17.
        I guess I’ve come full circle.
        April 6, 1970 was, indeed, a long time ago.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Spring training 100 years ago: Baseball, boozing and brawling

        Jim Leyland is the first to admit it: You can’t place a lot of stock in what happens, good or bad, during the spring training games. “Spring training can be very deceiving,” the Tigers’ manager says.
        So why have it?
        Well, for one thing, it gets me out of Michigan for the worst part of winter. That’s reason enough for me, right there.
        Spring training was originally created, back in the late 1800s, to give ballplayers, many of whom were not exactly model citizens in those early days, if you know what I mean, a chance to dry out after a winter of over-indulgence. That’s why teams went south, often to Hot Springs, Ark., New Orleans, Georgia or Florida _ where the players could soak in the spas and sweat.
        The Washington Senators, with a catcher named Connie Mack, were the first  team to get into shape in Florida when they traveled by train south to Jacksonville in 1888.
        Years later, Mack recalled that only four of the 14  Senators reported to camp reasonably sober.
        In 1907, the Tigers trained in Augusta, Ga., already a popular resort destination for the rich that 27 years later would be renown world-wide as the home of The Masters.
        It was in Augusta, in 1905, that the Tigers first discovered a feisty young fellow named Ty Cobb.
        In the spring of ‘07, Cobb attacked a black groundskeeper who had the audacity to talk back to him when Ty complained about the condition of the field.
        Cobb chased the man into his cabin and choked the man’s wife when she tried to intervene. When Tigers’ catcher Boss Schmidt told Cobb to leave the man alone, Ty attacked his teammate.
        The attitude in the Deep South being what it was in those days, most of the townspeople sided with Cobb.
        After the Tigers broke camp and began barnstorming their way north, Cobb engaged Schmidt in battle again. Schmidt, who weighed 200 pounds, had boxed professionally and sometimes entertained teammates by driving nails into the clubhouse floor with his fist,  beat the younger, smaller Cobb to a pulp, breaking his nose and pounding both eyes shut.
        Schmidt might have killed Cobb if Tigers’ pitcher Wild Bill Donovan, also a former prize fighter, hadn’t pulled the two men apart.
        By the time the Tigers’ train reached Detroit, Ty’s wounds had healed. And on the first open date on the Tigers’ schedule, Cobb and Schmidt went fishing together on Lake St. Clair.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Ex-Tiger Hiller recalls 'good old days'

        Baseball has become a game of bullpens. Without a good one, chances are you won’t win. No team appreciates that fact more right now than the Tigers, who are minus both Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney.
        Today, relief pitchers are as precious as starters _ the best of them, sometimes even more so.
        But that wasn’t always the case. Not so long ago, relievers were pitchers who couldn’t cut it as starters. The bullpen was their last refuge before exiting the big leagues.
        Former Tigers pitcher John Hiller, who suffered a heart attack in January, 1971 and was forced to leave the game, saw his career resurrected midway through the 1972 season when the Tigers suddenly became desperate for pitching.
        Even he was surprised at how quickly he found himself back on the mound.
        “I signed a contract in the afternoon and (Billy) Martin put me in the game that same night,” recalled Hiller, the Tigers' all-time save leader with 125 until Mike Henneman and Todd Jones came along.
        “I hadn’t pitched, I hadn’t faced a batter, in a year and half _ but that first night back I pitched three innings.
        “Today, I hear pitchers say they haven’t pitched in five days,” Hiller continued.  “In 1973, I pitched eight days in a row.
        “On the eighth day, Martin said ‘I’m not going to use you tonight.’ I was dozing in the bullpen when Billy called down and said, ‘Do you think you can get one batter out?’
        “I said, ‘Whatever you want me to do.’ He brought me into the game _ and I pitched six innings,” Hiller said.
        Hiller saved 38 games in 1973 and finished fourth in balloting for both the American League MVP and the Cy Young Awards.
        “I pitched 13 games in 15 days,” said Hiller, now 64, and enjoying life in Northern Michigan. “It was different back then.”

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Managing the Tigers isn't so hard. I did it. And I won.

        You will find no mention of it in the official Detroit Tigers record book _ or in any other record book, official or unofficial, for that matter. Cooperstown doesn’t care.
        But trust me: I once managed the Tigers _ even if it was only a 1975 late-morning spring training intra-squad game at empty Marchant Stadium.
        I picked my team, I made out the batting order, and, most important of all, I won, 1-0.
        Please, hold your applause.
        If memory serves me right, I was the genius who stationed piano-legged catcher Gene Lamont at third base in place of  rifle-armed Aurelio Rodriguez and batted Lamont seventh in the order, which put him in perfect position to triple _ yes, triple _ home Leon Roberts with the winning run.
        Actually, I had no little choice in the matter because Ralph Houk, the real manager who was looking over my shoulder,  told me I couldn’t use Rodriguez, who was sidelined with a badly bruised instep. Lamont was the only able-bodied extra player I had.
        But why let the facts stand in the way of a good saga?
        In my mind, my daring move ranks right up there with Mayo Smith’s decision to start centerfielder Mickey Stanley at shortstop in place of Ray Oyler in the 1968 World Series. That one worked out pretty well, too, as I recall.
        During the game, I did everything I had watched my predecessors, Smith and Houk and Billy Martin, do.
        In other words, I folded my arms. I unfolded my arms. I crossed my legs. I uncrossed my legs. I leaned forward in my seat on the bench. I leaned back.
        And, of course, I spit up a storm _ although I resisted Houk’s invitation to put in a chew.
        In other words, I made all the right managerial moves.
        When my two best hitters, Bill Freehan and Nate Colbert, struck out with Ben Oglivie on second base and one out, Houk leaned over and cackled in my ear, “Now you know what I go through.”
        I made a mental note to remember that. I felt like I was in the fraternity.
        I even got six scoreless innings out of my starting pitcher, Lerrin  LaGrow _ which, I am not too modest to point out, was more than Houk, with all of his New York Yankee moxie, was able to do all spring.
        Unfortunately, the  ‘75 Tigers never recovered from my brief stint at the helm. They lost 102 games that summer.
        But I knew enough to get out while the getting was good. I retired, undefeated, untied and unscored upon.
        And, of course, after the game, I refused to speak to the press.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Conditioning coach key to Tigers' chances

        Last year, crippling injuries _ to Kenny Rogers, to Joel Zumaya, and to Gary Sheffield _ cost the Tigers their chance to repeat as American League champs.
        While that series of freak injuries _ Rogers’ blood clot, Zumaya’s ruptured finger, and Sheffield’s displaced shoulder _ were nobody’s fault, the Tigers are determined to do everything possible to prevent a repeat.
        That is where strength and conditioning coach Javair Gillett comes in.
        He is one of the least known members of the Tigers’ support staff _ but, in Jim Leyland’s estimation, one of the most important.
        “He’s huge for this organization,” the Tigers’ manager declares.
        “I’ve never really paid much attention to those guys (strength and fitness coaches) in the past,” Leyland admits.
        But he does now.
        It is Gillett who sets up the players’ off-season exercise programs and prescribes the drills they perform at the start of practice each day.
        Running, stretching, and weight-lifting all fall within Gillett’s domain.
        “It’s hard for those guys to get all of the players’ respect _ But he has it,” Leyland says.
        The Tigers hope it will pay dividends.


Thursday, March 6, 2008

My, how things have changed (for the better) in Tigertown

        Each day they arrive in numbers we’ve never seen before. Reporters from Sports Illustrated and ESPN and CBS. From the Boston Globe and the Washington Post and the New York Times. From Chicago and St. Louis and South Florida.
        It is a tribute to the talent and the expectations of this Tiger team.
        By 9 a.m., on any given morning, half of the people lining the fence that leads to the Tigers’ Marchant Stadium clubhouse will be from Michigan. And they’re not  fair-weather fans, either. I recognize many of them from my days in the sports memorabilia business in the 1980s.
        Wherever the Tigers have played this spring, we have seen hundreds of Tiger fans, playing tribute to their favorite team with their T-shirts and caps.
         Maybe it’s because I’m getting better-looking by the day, but I have been recognized by more people, and signed more autographs,  this spring, than ever before
        “Oakland Press!” they shout and point.
        One guy even wanted two signatures from me. Now there’s a guy with too much ink in his pen.
        Three years ago, as the Tigers continued to flounder and the losses piled up at an embarrassing rate, Dave Dombrowski was under fire along with everyone else in the organization from Mike Ilitch on down.
        There were calls for the Tiger chief executive’s firing and rumors that he might be looking for another job.
        Then Dombrowski hired Jim Leyland, the farm system Dombrowski had rebuilt began to pay dividends, and things quickly fell into place.
        As a result, I recently witnessed a scene that would have been unimaginable three years ago.
        The afternoon’s exhibition game had been over for about an hour, most of the fans and nearly all of the Tiger players had left the ballpark  when Dombrowski walked out to his car in the nearly-empty parking lot.
        Suddenly, a woman who had been patiently waiting outside the clubhouse in hopes of landing one more autograph, dashed toward Dombrowski’s vehicle.
        “Can I please shake your hand?” she shrieked.
        Things have, indeed, changed.  

Monday, March 3, 2008

What is going on with Inge?

        What’s up with Brandon Inge?
        Inge, who revamped his swing on his own over the winter in an effort to cut down on his strikeouts _ before he lost his job to the Miguel Cabrera trade _ has been “swinging as well as I’ve ever seen him,” according to Jim Leyland.
        OK, that should enhance the Tigers’ chances of trading Inge to team where he will get a chance to play everyday _ something both Inge and Leyland say they want, right?
        And Inge says he would be willing to catch again, if that means playing everyday.
        Then, in the next breath, Inge says he can’t concentrate on hitting and catching at the same time.
        That certainly isn’t what a team that might be interested in Inge as a catcher wants to hear.
        Meanwhile, with Vance Wilson still recovering from elbow surgery and uncertain, at best,  for Opening Day, leaving Inge as the only viable alternative to Pudge Rodriguez behind the plate, Leyland continues to favor trading Brandon _ even though he admits, “it’s not the best thing for us.”