A certain year in Tigers history is jabbing at a guy’s mind a couple of weeks before spring camp blooms in Florida.
It is 1976.
It was early in the Tigers’ rebuild, eight years before 1984’s fireworks, and not much was expected from manager Ralph Houk’s gang in America’s bicentennial year.
But by May a quirky guy had emerged:
We knew all about him, at least personally. About how he talked to baseballs. About his nickname, The Bird.
But we never saw coming the pitches, the mastery, the phenomenon that all of baseball and any world alongside it was about to discover during a baseball summer that yet ranks as one of the game’s all-time marvels.
The Fidrych zaniness made 1976 special. But he wasn’t the only surprise during a year when the Tigers were no better than 74-87.
Jason Thompson, a left-handed-slugging first baseman who could drive a ball over Tiger Stadium’s roof, arrived from the bushes, as well. Suddenly, a team that had looked as if it was still part of the previous year’s miserable 102-tumble cratering in ’75 was back drawing crowds and making baseball sizzle gain in Detroit.
This is not to suggest anything mystical is heading Comerica Park’s way in 2019.
What seems certain, for those who trust history as well as baseball’s fates, is that something unanticipated probably is bubbling on this Tigers roster.
Three people who could create chatter and make an otherwise indifferent Tigers follower buy a 2019 game ticket come to mind:
►Christin Stewart, left field: He will be starting on Opening Day should all go well in Lakeland, Fla. There is a feeling taking root that Stewart will have a better year than typically can be expected from a rookie hitter.
He has enough power to hit 25 or more homers. He has a gift for knowing the strike zone. His batting average probably will turn off too many picky critics, but there is much to like about that left-handed bat.
He could, in the fashion of most rookies, run into a frigid month or six weeks and need a short stint at Triple A. But something says Stewart is going to be more entertaining than the crowd probably has any right to think in January.
►Jeimer Candelario, third base: He had his stock-market dips during a first full season in the big leagues. He hit .224.
He also cracked 19 home runs.
Expect a bunch more in 2019, with a rising batting average. Candelario is 25 and a switch-hitter. He is beginning to feel it at the plate. More pluses than minuses are in line as he settles into the mid-order and maybe joins with Stewart in helping reload an offense.
►Nick Castellanos, right field: The Tigers are trying to deal him. He is a free agent next autumn and his bat can help a contender more than it figures to be essential to the Tigers’ plans — short- and long-term.
If they don’t trade him, it might be the best deal the Tigers don’t make ahead of Opening Day.
Castellanos could be headed for a season that more resembles a dynamite stick. He has that capacity. He turns 27 in March, the early chapters of his prime.
He hits the ball too hard, too regularly, to not see those batting numbers zoom. And if that happens, the Tigers have a bat they can more favorably spin at midseason than they can now, when so many front offices are too caught up with past numbers.
It’s essential with Castellanos that you consider the bat-bashing he’ll yet do on behalf of a team. If you want to focus on his defense, do so — and then consult your optometrist for an acute case of myopia.
These are the three gents who loom, today, as guys who could make you hang on a little later into the game broadcast, who might lure you into deciding, hey, not a bad day for a ballgame, especially when Stewart, Candelario, Castellanos, or whomever has been torching it at the plate.
It could be that none of the above does anything particularly thrilling in 2019. This, remember, is baseball. And it’s cruel.
Or, there is just as much chance, perhaps, that a kid from Toledo is told to find I-75 and lend a hand to the guys at Comerica Park. And maybe he (Beau Burrows, Willi Castro, Isaac Paredes, Daz Cameron — think expansively) becomes this year’s minor version of Fidrych.
But a surprise is ahead, almost assuredly. Someone who today earns little more than a shoulder-shrug likely will burn it up in Detroit.
That’s why spring camp this season will be more than the first stage of saying goodbye to a Michigan winter. It will be a dress-rehearsal for someone’s bust-out season and surprise.