Lakeland, Fla. — Early updates on Andy Dirks include a pair of unrelated physical events.
Dirks’ wheat-colored hair is noticeably longer. It isn’t yet threatening the modern Tigers record for long locks held by Magglio Ordonez, but it was at least in contention Tuesday as the Tigers began their first full day of spring drills at Tigertown.
“I’ll keep it around for a while,” Dirks said, appreciating that a Baby Boomer scribe familiar with 1960s and 1970s hairstyles thought Dirks’ follicles were well within bounds. “I’ll cut it whenever it gets hot.”
As for heating up, the Tigers would appreciate Dirks’ bat returning to its higher-temperature ways after a chilly 2013 when he batted only .256. That’s possible, all because another body region, his right knee, is no longer reminding him of the fence he crashed into during a Grapefruit League game last March.
The whacked knee never quite cooperated and is a good place to start when analyzing why Dirks dived to .256 after batting .322 in 2012.
“I think it was hard to get my legs involved in my swing,” said Dirks, who last month turned 28, and who is being groomed as one-half of a Tigers platoon in left field, alongside newcomer Rajai Davis.
This leads to a natural question: Why in the name of liniment did not Dirks tell his trainers that he was hurting? Or, tell his manager, Jim Leyland, who might have wondered why a guy who always had hit in the minors and in the big leagues was 70 points down on his 2012 numbers?
Why not drop a disclosure to his boss, Dave Dombrowski, the team’s general manager, who was beginning to wonder at midseason if Dirks should trade places at Triple A Toledo with Nick Castellanos?
Dirks shook his Kansas wheat-field coiffure, dismissively.
“Miggy was playing with an injury,” he said, speaking of Miguel Cabrera, who staggered through the 2013 season’s final months with a torn groin. “Mine wasn’t as bad as his.”
That’s one way to look at it. Old School toughies would say that if Dirks wasn’t in a wheelchair or on crutches, he could afford to suck it up. But once the season ended and he dropped by a St. Louis doctor’s office for an evaluation, a lousy season at least made sense.
“There was a lot of inflammation,” said Dirks, who played at Wichita State ahead of the Tigers grabbing him in the eighth round of the 2008 draft. “They gave me like an ultra-sound treatment, with anti-inflammatory cream. For a month.
“Now, it feels good.”
Dirks wants something understood about that sour 2013 season. He doesn’t merit a Purple Heart. He served, he was in pain, but he appreciates that big leaguers, lots of them, deal with season-long misery that beat his bruised knee.
“If it had affected me to a point where I couldn’t play, I wouldn’t have played,” he said, speaking in front of his locker an hour before Tuesday’s workouts began. “Mostly, it was just aggravating, physically. And that can be mentally aggravating when you know something’s bothering you.
“When you don’t feel good, you don’t feel good.”
The plan for 2014, at least tentatively, is for the left-handed-batting Dirks to work against right-handed starters, with Davis, who rips lefties and doesn’t hit right-handers particularly well, taking shifts against left-handers.
“I can’t say if it’s the route we’ll take or not,” said Brad Ausmus, the Tigers’ new manager who is being careful about final lineup proclamations. “But at least it provides an option.”
If left field becomes the straight platoon everyone anticipates Ausmus using, it’s fine with Dirks.
“The ball’s coming back to you,” he said, speaking of the advantage any batter has against an opposite-side pitcher. “On a breaking ball, you don’t get fooled as much. And if you do get fooled, you can still make contact with two strikes.”
That’s especially true if you have two knees cooperating. Too often in 2013, he had one firing. The only thing Dirks likes better in 2014 than his new mane is being free from some old pain.