Opponents beware: These Tigers will hit and hit and hit again
BY MITCH ALBOM • FREE PRESS COLUMNIST • April 1, 2008
The day began in drizzled depression, gray misty skies, a shivering wind, scattered puddles of melted snow and "For Sale" signs everywhere you looked. As you drove into downtown Detroit, the only blinking evidence of life was the traffic signals and the robotic neon of the casinos.
But every year, about this time, out of the gray comes a gleam in the gloom -- the home white uniforms of the Detroit Tigers, which nearly sparkled against Monday's dreary weather. And suddenly, at 1:05 p.m., although the calendar read "March" and the fashion remained hats, coats and hooded sweatshirts, it was summer.
Off and running.
"There's no letup in our lineup," manager Jim Leyland said Monday, and indeed, despite the 5-4, extra-inning loss to Kansas City, the most talked-about offense in baseball got revved up quickly on Opening Day, and most fans left satisfied, if not elated. The Tigers had 10 hits and left 10 men on base, and by the time it was done, the new star, Miguel Cabrera, had a home run; the new shortstop, Edgar Renteria, had knocked in a run; last year's batting champion, Magglio Ordoñez, had a double and a single; and the man batting ninth, Brandon Inge, had perhaps the biggest ovation of the day.
Inge, who gamely agreed to stay with the team despite being replaced at third base by Cabrera, drew huge applause when his name was called in the starting lineup and later when he made a terrific throw to nail a would-be go-ahead run at the plate. Inge was playing centerfield only because Curtis Granderson is injured. Inge will start at catcher when the catcher is out. He will start in the infield when someone there is missing.
"This is my third different starting position on Opening Day," he said. But he is a worker, eager to work, and this is why he captured the cheers, because he reminds Detroit fans of themselves -- taking a shot, dusting off, coming back at it. This is a town where you don't just lie on the mat; you get up and you swing against your circumstances.
And so we do.
And so, we hope, will this baseball team -- especially the swinging part.
Off and running.
It's only one loss
"It was a great game," Leyland said later, over the phone, reflecting on the long afternoon. "We left too many men on base. But we won't do that too often. ...
"This team is gonna swing the bat."
Indeed, that is what this team is all about. Hitting and more hitting. Do not expect finesse, small ball, niblets, the French food version of the National Pastime. No, sir. These Tigers will swing away, go for the gusto, and more times than not, it's going to result in fat numbers.
On Monday at Comerica Park, they weren't fat enough. Ordoñez flied out with the bases loaded to end an inning, and Placido Polanco, an excellent hitter last season, also flied out with the bases jammed, flied out with two men on and grounded out to end the game with the tying run on third.
Any of those at-bats go the right way, the Tigers likely win the game, which may explain why Leyland was pretty optimistic about the afternoon, and why Tigers fans will be back for more come Wednesday.
Now, OK. A word about Cabrera. Seeing him in person is startling. He is bigger than you think, taller than you imagined and has the smooth-skinned face of a pre-teen. His head and his body seem to come from two different stages of his young life. Cabrera said all the right things Monday, said he liked the team, liked the ballpark, loved the ovations he received -- both during introductions and after his home run, both of them the standing kind.
"Different than in Miami," he observed, grinning. "Lots more people."
But the best part of having this guy is that the Tigers added a superstar without adding a superstar ego. Leyland admitted that had Cabrera been older -- say early 30s -- more established as a star, the trade might not have worked, chemistry-wise. Older players are testier. They demand their due.
But Cabrera is just 24 and seated in a locker-room row next to Renteria, 32, on one side and Ordoñez, 34, on the other with Sheffield, 39, and Carlos Guillen, 32, two lockers away -- it isn't likely the young Venezuelan is going to be demanding rose petals.
A summer of excitement
Before the game, Sheffield was standing by his locker, and I asked him about the names in the cubicles that lined the wall. It may not be Murderer's Row, but in today's game, it's close.
"It is impressive," Sheffield said. "In spring training, we didn't all get to bat together until the end. But when we did, we got a good feel of what kind of pitches each guy likes, how they take the pitches. Next thing we know, the pitcher was like almost 50 pitches in one inning."
It's that kind of attention these Tigers will bring to bear on the opposition. Imagine having to face all this firepower the first time through, and you finally reach the ninth batter, and then you have to start it all over again?
The Tigers have question marks, of course. Their bullpen will be watched carefully, and left-handed starter Dontrelle Willis will be under a microscope. But make no mistake. As Leyland says, "We've got a good team. A very good team."
Off and running. The clouds are still around, we'll probably get another snowfall, but our version of the groundhog has emerged and given its nod. No letup in the lineup. Tigers white is back. Out of the gray, summer approaches.