Friday, April 25, 2008

Tigers' Galarraga master at sleight of hand

        Armando Galarraga is a baseball pitcher by trade. But he is also an accomplished magician.
        At least he fooled me.
        “Sit down on the couch,” the least-known but so far most successful member of this year’s Tigers’ starting rotation ordered.
        The show was about to begin.
        Galarraga, a mystery man in more ways than one, riffled through a deck of cards and removed three aces --  the ace of clubs, the ace of diamonds,  and the ace of spades. He tossed the three cards on the clubhouse floor between us and handed me the rest of the deck.
        “Shuffle,” he said.
        I gave the cards a good shuffle and then, one by one, Galarraga slid the three aces randomly back into the deck, which was still in my hand.
        “Now show me the three aces I took out,” the Tigers pitcher said.
        I searched through the deck. I found the ace of clubs. I found the ace of spades. But I could find no ace of diamonds.
        More slowly this time, I went through the deck again. The ace of diamonds still wasn’t there.
        Galarraga took back the deck.
        “Put your hands behind your back like you’re looking for something,” he said.
        I reached back and felt something on the couch behind me.
        I smiled. Without even looking, I knew what I had “found.” 
        It was the ace of diamonds _ the same card I had watched Galarraga, moments earlier, slip into the middle of the deck.
        Galarraga grinned, got up, and walked away.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Cabrera's rookie card catches my eye

        An old friend who once owned and operated the minor league Utica (N.Y.) Blue Sox, recently sent me a card set that his team issued back in 2000.
        The set includes  Miguel Cabrera’s first-ever baseball card.
        I opened the pack and was immediately struck by how young Cabrera looked, his bat cocked in the classic sideline batting pose.
        I was struck by how skinny he looked, too.
        The card lists Cabrera’s weight at 203. He looks lighter than that. The 2008 Tigers media guide lists Cabrera’s weight as 240.
        The card lists Cabrera’s height as 6-foot-1. Today, he stands 6-foot-4.
        There are no statistics on the back of the card. The Utica Blue Sox were Cabrera’s second professional team in his first season after signing with the Florida Marlins for a then-record $1.8 million bonus on July 2, 1999.
        Cabrera only played eight games at Class A Utica at the end of the year after being promoted from the Gulf Coast League Marlins, where he led all shortstops -- that’s right, shortstops -- in fielding while batting .260.
        Cabrera hit just .250 at Utica, the lowest average of his professional career. Three years later, he was in the big leagues with the Marlins.
        The set also includes current Tigers set-up man Denny Bautista’s rookie card, too, as well as that of San Diego Padres star Adrian Gonzalez.
        At the time, in 2000, Bautista, was an up-and-coming young pitcher in the Marlins’ organization, as highly regarded _ if not higher _ than Cabrera. The two became close friends.
        Next summer, the Oakland County Cruisers -- formerly known as the Slippery Rock Sliders -- are scheduled to commence play in Waterford in the independent Frontier League.
        I wonder how many future major league stars we will find in their card sets.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

It's hard to feel sorry for Denny McLain

        Believe it or not, once upon a time, I actually felt sorry for Denny McLain.
        In my eyes -- and I have known the man since 1970 -- he was always more rascal than outlaw, more rogue than crook.
        I laughed when he dumped a bucket of water on my head in 1970 because he was starved for attention.
        He laughed when I lampooned him at a charity roast last fall.
        We have never been buddy-buddy, but we have never been enemies either.
        I dare say a harsh word has never passed between us.
        He wrote to me when he was in prison.
        I paid him to sign autographs at some of my baseball card shows.
        Of course, I have never lost any money in any of his many schemes.
        Others have not been nearly so fortunate.
        One of McLain’s former Tiger teammates, who shall remain nameless, calls him “a sociopath.”
I looked it up. That means: “A person who lacks a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience.”
        Another turns his head at the mere mention of McLain’s name.
        In their eyes he is more parish than prodigal son.
        Now the 64-year-old McLain, the man who once won 31 games, appeared on the “Ed Sullivan Show,” and entertained nightclub audiences in Las Vegas, is in trouble again.
         He reportedly owes creditors more than $60,000, is free on bail following yet another arrest, and has had sports memorabilia and electronics equipment seized from his home.
        He is truly a tragic figure.
        This summer, the Tigers will celebrate the 40th anniversary of their 1968 world championship. McLain, with his 31 wins, was the face of that team.
        Now I wonder if the Tigers, and Denny’s former teammates, will even want him on the stage.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

What makes 43-year-old Kenny Rogers run?

        Around and around and around venerable Fenway Park, venerable Kenny Rogers ran.
        Once, twice, three times he circled the ballyard.
        At first, he had to weave his way through the Boston Red Sox, who were on the field, taking pre-game batting practice.
        I went back to my own work in the press box, high above the field. When I looked down  an hour later, Rogers was still running _ or, more accurately, jogging.
        By then, the Red Sox, some of them young enough to be Rogers’ son, had retreated to their recently-rennovated locker room to rest, and the Tigers _ 0-for-2008 at the time _ had taken the field to hone their own previously-absent hitting skills.
        But Rogers kept running. By his count, he circled the field some 60 times, covering about 12-13 miles. “More than I probably should have,” Rogers confessed with a sheepish grin.
        Rogers’ personal Boston Marathon consumed two hours. To those of us watching, it seemed to last a lot longer than that.
        Kenny’s Tiger teammates smiled. Some shook their heads.
        None joined him.
        “He’s crazy,” Carlos Guillen said.
        But Rogers kept running. Running from the Tigers’ 0-7 start. Running from his personal 0-2 record.
        Ballplayers run laps around the field or up and down the stairs at  empty ballparks all the time.
        But I dare say, in the history of the game, no 43-year-old pitcher has ever run that much.
        Rogers isn’t scheduled to pitch again until Sunday afternoon in Chicago. By then he should have had time to catch his breath.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Thomas is living every kid's dream

        Rookie Clete Thomas is living every young ballplayer’s dream.
        Major league uniform, major league locker room, major league meal money ($89 a day on the road) -- and, most enchanting of all: A .500 big league batting average.
        No wonder the kid is walking around the clubhouse on Cloud Nine.
        Thomas hopes this is just the beginning of what could be a long and productive career.
        Cut during spring training, then recalled after Curtis Granderson busted his finger, the 24-year-old outfielder had never even owned a sport coat in his life until Jim Leyland suggested he buy one, just in case, during the final week of training camp.
        Big leaguers, after all, don’t travel in T-shirts and jeans.
        “I love the kid, I love him a lot, and I’m not afraid to play him,” Leyland said. “He can fly and he’s got one of the best arms in baseball.”
        Thomas understands his days in the majors are probably numbered --  for now. But he has made his presence known -- to Tiger fans, and, more importantly, to Leyland and the Tigers’ organization.
        As soon as Granderson’s hand heals, Thomas will probably be Toledo-bound.
        Even now, with Miguel Cabrera and Gary Sheffield back in the lineup, Thomas finds himself sitting on the bench as Brandon Inge patrols centerfield
        “Somebody said I should put him in left field in place of Jacque Jones. But look at Jacque Jones’ track record,” Leyland pointed out.
        Jones is a career .280 hitter after nine years in the big leagues. Thomas, who played at Double-A Erie last season has four games under his belt.
        But what a heady four games they have been.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Which came first: Increased payroll or winning ways?

        Which came first: The Tigers’ dramatically increased payroll _ or their jump in wins in recent years? The chicken or the egg?  
        Frankly, the one begets the other.
        It is easy to see where at least some of that franchise-record $139 million in salaries this season is coming from.
        Through Thursday, the Tigers have played in front of 30,000 or more fans for 62 consecutive home games, dating back to May 24, 2007.
        And, with advance ticket sales stronger than ever this year, there is no end in sight.
        In the world championship season of 1968, playing in a ballpark that seated more than 50,000, the Tigers only topped 30,000 30 times all year. In 1984, they reached that plateau 56 times.
        Wednesday’s throng of 32,348, on a sunny day so cold that the grounds crew had to scrape ice off the tarp that had covered the infield overnight, was the biggest second-game crowd in Tigers history.
        Success sells.