Tigers draftees relish atmosphere at East-West game

Bruce Mason
The Detroit News
Detroit Country Day’s Steve Mann runs in from center field after the top of the first inning.

Detroit — It was quite a different feel for Jeff Criswell and Steve Mann as their baseball cleats stepped onto the playing surface Tuesday evening at Comerica Park. The 40,000-seat stadium and auxiliary scoreboard stoked the adrenaline of every player, but for Criswell and Mann, the entrance onto the grass field that hones the Old English D was more significant.

After all, it’s the ballpark of the franchise that drafted them.

Criswell, of Portage Central High, and Mann, of Detroit Country Day, both had their phones ring last week as the Tigers selected them in the late rounds of the Major League Baseball Draft.

And on Tuesday evening in downtown Detroit, Criswell and Mann competed in the 36th annual East vs. West All-Star Game by the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association.

“It’s really what every kid dreams of, walking out to the big-league stage,” said Criswell, a 6-foot-3, 210-pound right-handed pitcher who was selected in the 35th round last week — and was now standing on the same grass of his favorite player, Tigers ace Justin Verlander.

“I’ve never played on the field, but I’ve been to several games growing up. On the field, this is the first time. It’s a really cool feeling, and it’s obviously a really great atmosphere here.”

Mann, who was selected in the 38th round, said he had nerves as he took the surface.

But he has been here before — and had success. During Mann’s sophomore year, he crushed a home run to the left-field seats during a Country Day high-school game.

“Right over the MotorCity Casino sign in the bullpen area,” said Mann, a 5-foot-11, 205-pound outfielder whose favorite player is Seattle’s Nelson Cruz, a notorious Tiger killer in past postseasons.

“I remember the day. It was hailing. Rain coming right down. I remember thinking, ‘If it wasn’t raining or anything, that ball would have flew a little bit farther.’”

Portage Central High’s Jeff Criswell pitches for the West team in the second inning of Tuesday night’s All-Star Game at Comerica Park.

As expected, both Criswell and Mann will forgo the Tigers’ minor-league system and head to play college baseball instead. According to MLB rules, a drafted player who does not sign with the franchise can become eligible again after he completes his junior year at a four-year university or is at least 21.

Both hope to be drafted again in 2020 when they are eligible.

Criswell, who is signed to play at Michigan next season, will bring a 94-mph fastball to the Wolverines, who made an appearance in the NCAA Tournament two of the past three years.

Criswell also features a splitter and curveball, but said he doesn’t have any idea whether he’ll be a starter or reliever.

“I’m not slotted anywhere. Nothing is given at this point,” said Criswell, a Christian who says he draws a cross on the mound before every game to keep himself humble and focused. “The playing time that I get will be earned. It’s up to me.

“Our goal is to win a national championship. That’s my goal: To help be a part of that, and do whatever I can do to help the team win.”

Mann, who is headed to Duke, hit .541 with a 1.154 slugging percentage his senior season at Country Day, and was named the 2016-17 Michigan Gatorade Baseball Player of the Year. His goal is to make it to the College World Series in Omaha.

Before then, Mann will be honored by the Tigers during the weekend of June 30 with the ‘Passing of the Bat’ award, which honors contributions by African-American ballplayers.

“It kind of fit perfectly being drafted to the hometown team,” Mann said. “Walking on the field for the first time, you look up, you see all the stands and sort of imagine all the fans that are going to be here.

“This is nothing like high school — and where I’ll be going next year in college,” he laughed. “This tops it all.”

Another Tigers’ draft pick out of a Michigan high school, lefty Jesse Heikkinen of Holt, also will go to school, at Michigan State.

Bruce Mason is a freelance writer.