Henning: Tigers fans adopt underrated Maybin

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Cameron Maybin is hitting .352, which is nearly 100 points higher than the .257 he was batting after 10 big-league seasons preceding his return to the Tigers.

Toronto – Quite the batch of pepper-pot stew is this Cameron Maybin, a man with spice in his game and a certain sauciness to his personal style.

It’s no wonder Tigers fans have adopted him. In two short months, Maybin, who was drafted by the Tigers in 2005 then traded in a parcel that brought Miguel Cabrera to Detroit, has rejoined his old team and made nothing but friends, thanks to a .352 batting average and, just as much, because of his speed and zest for running the bases.

“It’s amazing the way they’ve embraced me since I got here,” Maybin said Thursday, digging through his locker in the visitor’s clubhouse at Rogers Centre, where the Tigers were about to begin a four-game series against the Blue Jays.  “It keeps me going. Fans acknowledge my effort and it makes you feel some days as if you’re doing something right.”

Uh, yes, a few things have been done right, indeed. Begin with that batting average, which is nearly 100 points higher than the .257 he was batting after 10 big-league seasons preceding his return to the Tigers, which came via a trade last autumn with the Braves.

He also plays center field. And didn’t that come in handy when Anthony Gose couldn’t find a batting groove and ended up at Triple A Toledo. But it’s his flat-out hustle, particularly on a team where fleet feet aren’t in abundance and trots to first base can be on display, that has helped him bond, Velcro-like, with the Tigers audience.

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This verve for baseball happens to have been hewn straight from Maybin’s personal DNA. He’s naturally ebullient. Personable, cordial – plug in any warm and fuzzy here – he’s a 29-year-old man from North Carolina who lives with his wife, Courtney, and their sons, Trenton and Maxwell, in that community favored by so many Tigers during their baseball stays in Detroit, Birmingham.

They love it, says Cameron. The peace, the pleasures, the convenience. And they wouldn’t mind returning next season, which leads to an interesting business item.

Maybin has a team option for 2017. The Tigers can choose to retain him next season, and pay him $9 million, or send him to free agency with a nice parting gift courtesy of a $1-million buyout clause.

Two short months ago it appeared Maybin would be one-and-done with the Tigers. They weren’t likely to pay $9 million for a part-time player, especially when he had missed spring training and most of April with a fractured wrist and banged-up shoulder.

But then Maybin returned. He began stinging the ball. He zoomed to first and around the bases. He got big hits and held his own in center field.

If front-office decisions were to be made today, Maybin would be all but a cinch to cash that $9 million for 2017. But, of course, nearly three months of baseball remain. It is also possible the Tigers next year will ponder making hot prospect JaCoby Jones part of their potential plans for center field.

It matters not an iota to Maybin, who grew up in Asheville, N.C., and who was taken 10th overall by the Tigers in the first round of the 2005 draft.

“No,” Maybin answered, immediately and emphatically Thursday, when asked if a big payday might be further fueling his hot 2016 season. “Jim Leyland (former Tigers manager whom Maybin came to know early in his career) always said, ‘Guys, don’t play for money – play for the love of the game.’

“And this game is something I live for. I’ve been blessed to play it since I was 3 years old, and I play it because I love it. I really do. And anybody who knows me knows that. I got that from Jim Leyland at a young age and I’ve never forgotten it.”

Maybin’s mantra is concise: Every day is a gift, every moment he can play baseball for a living is a privilege.

“What do we have to complain about?” he asked Thursday, taking a break following a long, half-hour conversation during which he and Tigers defensive coordinator Matt Martin traded soulful thoughts. “This is a special opportunity.

“And everything I’ve experienced in my career has been a lesson in having to earn it, to earn everything I’ve got. It’s just part of a maturation process, growing and searching for ways to get better.”

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus was asked Thursday if Maybin not only had surprised everyone with his 2016 burst, but perhaps had been underestimated.

“A little bit,” said Ausmus, who was a front-office assistant with the Padres when Maybin was a young outfielder there. “I knew him in San Diego, but not so much in the dugout.

“I didn’t know he was so into the game. That he brought such an interest in it. I underestimated not his skills, but maybe his baseball knowledge.

“We’ll be talking about situations coming up, and he’ll know without me explaining where I’m going.”

In another example of Maybin’s sass, he says, firmly, everyone should have expected, if not a .352 batting average, a player in 2016 who would help the Tigers on multiple fronts.

That he’s been just that kind of performer might surprise some, Maybin said Thursday, but it isn’t anything exceptional in his view. He says there’s more to come. And if it’s in Detroit, regardless of what his contract provisions might imply either way, that’s fine with a man who’s quite happy with his game and with his life.