Look beyond the uniform to see the real Tigers
Everyone knows the Tigers. In a general fashion, anyway.
But as with all individuals, stories and facets and lives that are personal and unique sometimes benefit from greater light.
It might be something in one’s life archives. It could be as simple as a moment’s observation that allows a more knowing look into what makes a particular player distinctive.
A look, then, into some of the higher-profile Tigers and into aspects of them as baseball players and men whose exploits are followed so closely in Detroit and beyond.
When he was in school in Venezuela, a particular subject grabbed Miguel Cabrera.
He was good with numbers. They appealed to him, their intricacy and precision. Solutions were finite and achievable. At least for someone with his mental gifts.
A boy who found comfort in the classroom was going to be an engineer. That is, if baseball didn’t prove to be irresistible and inevitable for a man of Cabrera’s talents.
But of course pro baseball was going to win — and did — when the Marlins signed him as a 16-year-old to what was then the biggest bonus offered an international teen: $1.8 million.
Not that his aptitude for math and science would be wasted.
It would have its relevance to baseball.
Cabrera is as much professor as athlete when he is at the plate. He analyzes schemes and percentages. He sets up a pitcher the way a chess player sets up moves, methodically, cerebrally.
He is known internally by the Tigers to own the team’s most brilliant situational baseball mind. He always is aware. He always is ahead in his thoughts and strategies. He calculates in the manner a math wizard processes and formulates.
He realizes an outcome. That outcome for Cabrera can be astonishingly favorable in a game where numbers are mercilessly rigid and say empirically that a player is destined, more times than not, to fail.
But that’s the fascination known as Miguel Cabrera. A man who perhaps is the game’s best hitter and one of its most skilled batting artists, melds mind and body in ways that continue to awe.
Ask a Tigers follower about Justin Verlander.
You will hear about no-hitters, and Cy Young Awards, and playoff brilliance, and pitching prowess that has defined the past decade of Tigers history.
What you won’t hear often enough is a reflection on Verlander, the man.
That’s because he keeps so much of himself off-limits to the public. He likes his privacy.
But what that on-the-field Verlander persona can conceal is how he has grown in depth these past 10 years.
He has become, as men so often discover in their 30s, that he’s a more intact person, more self-actualized, more rounded, more dimensional.
It’s a nice moment of self-discovery.
Part of his growth has been in his relationship with Kate Upton. She’s glamorous, and so, because of his sports celebrity, is he. And so it can be easy to miss the fact two people are growing together in their relationship and in how their union affects more than themselves.
It brings us to their joint effort unveiled the final week of Tigers spring camp. Upton and Verlander sponsored an event at Marchant Stadium promoting dog adoption and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
This is a cause that’s personal to two celebrities. In bringing attention to the mission to help animals, in ways that are mutually beneficial to pet owners, two people with a public presence are using their profile, and their relationship, in a way that can provide dividends neither could well have imagined.
This is who Verlander is becoming, every bit as much as he evolves into a seasoned elite pitcher. He is a man with a purpose outside of baseball. He is a man in a deep relationship. He has realized in his 30s a chapter of life unattainable only a few years ago.
Remember that one report card you got, whether it was kindergarten, or a six-week grading period in high school.
It was really good. Maybe all A’s. Maybe A’s and B’s. But it was special.
James McCann knew nothing but special — make that extraordinary and nearly unbelievable — during every phase of his years in school, kindergarten through three years at Arkansas.
He got all A’s. Every year. Every class. Virtual perfection.
It was at Arkansas. He was a pre-med major and he had the usual semesters loaded with science and math and anatomy and you name it.
A chemistry class loomed as yet another A in his academic archives.
McCann took his final exam. He got 88. He needed 91 for an A.
It was his only non-A during 16 years of formal education.
Baseball has his attention these days. But the medical field could yet beckon. When you ace courses at the clip McCann puts them away, the classroom has a way of returning to your life, and happily so.
Some players are gregarious. They’re always bubbling, always greeting, always ready for conversation.
Victor Martinez is not one of those players.
And that’s fine.
It’s because he’s substantive.
You can approach him and wonder if a man with a generally taciturn appearance is perhaps in no mood to talk.
Then you ask him a question, and you begin to understand why he is regarded as a clubhouse elder, a counselor, a paternal figure.
He answers thoughtfully. And not in one sentence. He tends to link together a series of insights and responses that are deep and straightforward. He leaves you understanding better a subject or facet of baseball, or of life, than you had ahead of the discussion.
And then you leave without the least semblance of a flowery closing remark or dismissal. You asked a question. He answered. Over and out.
That’s the man they call V-Mart.
What you notice about Sanchez is that he seems always as if he’s in a hurry. As if his day is a series of urgencies.
He walks briskly into, and out of, the clubhouse. He moves quickly through his locker. He dresses rapidly. He is gone in a flash, to the trainer’s room, to the weight room, wherever.
He is almost phantom-like.
And then you realize his style on the pitching mound is a mirror reflection of his ways apart from the playing field. He gets the ball, he fires away, he moves onto his next pitch or hitter.
Sanchez is not big on small talk. He is unfailingly polite and civil. But don’t expect to involve him in any lengthy discussions. About anything.
There is something he must do. Throw a pitch. Get a batter out. Join his wife and child.
His style probably can be tied to a simple matter of time efficiency. Sanchez clearly doesn’t appreciate idle moments.
Which is why it pains him so deeply to be an occasional guest on the disabled list. Those stretches are unproductive. And that is anathema to a 32-year-old right-hander whose life is built upon being gainful.
The Tigers third baseman is a bit like Victor Martinez — in terms of personal style.
He keeps things concise.
Don’t expect any glad-handing. He’s quite private. He can joke with teammates with whom he has a steady relationship. But outside the immediate circle he is not into chitchat or engagement.
This makes him like a lot of baseball guys: They’re most comfortable and conversational with cohorts.
Castellanos can warm up, but the subject needs to be upbeat. And don’t expect a lot of introspection.
Much of this, it seems, has to do with criticisms of his defense, which he — fairly — believes to be somewhat unfair.
After all, the Tigers drafted a high school shortstop, moved him to third base, then, after he had begun settling in at third, they shipped him to the outfield for 11/2 seasons.
Then they abruptly moved him back to third and said: You’re our starter. Have fun at one of the most difficult positions anywhere on a baseball field.
What you will see, almost certainly, is a looser, more reflective Castellanos as he becomes the good hitter and accepted defensive player he stands to be once fans have given him a chance to grow into his job.
For now, deal with the more protective, more defensive Castellanos. It’s no big deal. It’s all part of his timeline.
If you’re looking for warm and fuzzy, Kinsler’s probably not your guy. He’s about business.
If you care to talk about the game’s intricacies, you can begin here. Kinsler’s cerebral. He knows baseball’s machinations. Intimately.
But you first must get past the sliding glass door that permits such conversation. It’s not always easy. Not for everyone in their dealings with Kinsler.
He plays with a kind of ire that suits him and his team perfectly. It brings an edge to a performer who does so many things so very well in a game as difficult as the professional sports world ever has crafted.
Is there a reason for this, beyond his personality and natural gifts?
Probably not. Unless you care to consider a pivotal point in his amateur career. Kinsler was playing shortstop at Arizona State only to be replaced by a kid named Dustin Pedroia. Kinsler, feeling jilted, transferred to Missouri. He wasn’t drafted until the 17th round — a bit of an insult to a man who knew he was better.
He won’t make much of events then as he talks about his career now. But it’s something to ponder.
And even appreciate.
The man is a Baseball Player, capital letters intentionally used. It’s high praise. For a highly praiseworthy player.
He hunts. He fishes. He would live in the outdoors, amid the pines and oaks and rivers and lakes, if he could also play baseball there.
That he was a city kid, raised in Los Angeles, makes the urban/outdoors contrast intriguing.
But it was always in his soul. He knew it when his dad took him hunting or fishing. The outdoors was in his blood.
Most comical sight during spring training: It’s a half-hour after the Tigers and Blue Jays played at Marchant Stadium, and the Tigers are blessed the next day to have their only off-day.
Gose will celebrate it by getting up in the dark of pre-dawn and heading, in his camouflage clothing, to a wooded, weedy tract somewhere in central Florida. He will hunt turkeys.
It explains why, as he leaves the clubhouse that day, he is holding a suitcase-sized cardboard box that obviously was delivered to him at Marchant Stadium. The top of the box is open. And looking into it, as he leaves the clubhouse, you can see the “carcass” of an artificial turkey — a decoy he will be planting somewhere in the wild the next morning as he hopes to attract a bearded gobbler.
This is your Tigers center fielder — a man with some surprising facets.
Flip through some past pages of the Jose Iglesias story. The one that began for him when he joined the Tigers in July 2013.
He arrived and quickly dazzled. Those fast hands. The acrobatic fielding gems. He right away hit a home run and looked as if he had more crackle in his bat than had been advertised for a hitter who already had put together a .330 batting average in 63 games for the Red Sox.
Then, two springs ago, he was diagnosed with fractured shins that cost him an entire season. The town was heart-smashed. Iglesias had become a favorite.
A year ago, exhilaration. Iglesias was back. He hit .300 and made the All-Star team.
And somehow, Tigers fans have grown indifferent to him, even antagonized.
They sense he’s a show-off. They didn’t like, particularly, that catcher James McCann called him out during a game last summer after Iglesias allegedly didn’t move with sufficient energy to grab a ground ball. Which shows you the peril of players publicly calling out teammates.
Fans glom onto it with both hands.
Iglesias fans the flames with a self-assured style that can come across as cocky.
But it seems so destructive — fan dispositions toward him. This is an extraordinarily skilled baseball player. And what has he done, really, to alienate the customers?
This is a guy whose life growing up in Cuba was for almost all Americans beyond imagination. He came here and instantly — instantly — learned English by committing himself with astonishing devotion to a goal.
Thought for the fans: Let up on him. Appreciate what you’ve got, at the most important position on the field. He gives better than he’s been getting.
April 2014. A guy has been tearing it up at Triple-A Toledo.
His name is J.D. Martinez. He is crushing the ball. Repeatedly. Toledo manager Larry Parrish, who is constitutionally incapable of offering anything other than a straight appraisal, says he’s impressed. The three home runs Martinez hit in the previous day’s game came on three different pitches.
The Tigers call up Martinez after he plays 17 games, hits .308 with 10 homers, with an OPS of 1.211.
He arrives at Comerica Park and a writer says to Tigers vice president of communications Ron Colangelo: “The Tigers might have just gotten David Ortiz.”
It is said only half-seriously. This stuff doesn’t happen often, a player being let go by another team before that player turns incendiary.
But one thing was different about Martinez, enough to have at least entertained the remote possibility Detroit might have made the steal of a new millennium.
Martinez had recrafted his swing. And that swing, documented by serious swing appraisers, was substantially different and appeared, to them, to be repeatable.
He has since been a wrecking machine in two amazing, improbable seasons with the Tigers.
Martinez has been the most lopsided acquisition by the Tigers since 1960 when they sent one Steve Demeter to the Indians for Norm Cash, a left-handed hitter who a year later would win the American League batting title (.361) and slam 41 home runs en route to one of the most helpful and colorful careers in Tigers history.
Demeter, by the way, played four games for the Indians and was never heard from again, at least in the big leagues.
As for Ortiz, he’s still around.
So is J.D. Martinez.
Consider for a moment some numbers:
The first number is the round in which Brad Ausmus was drafted in 1987.
The middle number is the series of years he played in the big leagues.
The last number represents how many games he played in the majors.
This doesn’t often happen, a guy drafted as a virtual throw-in having a career so long and gainful.
But with Ausmus it was all due to various traits that probably followed him into the managerial world.
He had athleticism and enough distinguished skill (bat speed, primarily) to remain a plus in a game that doesn’t accommodate deficiencies.
Know, also: Once Ausmus arrived in the big leagues, he never returned to the bushes.
That’s illustrative, perhaps, of something probably applicable to Ausmus, the manager.
He is likely to have a longer stint as a skipper than his critics might initially have forecasted. The reason it’s more than possible is because he is well-regarded by baseball people, including plenty who have studied him as closely as his armchair evaluators.
They think he’s quite good. It doesn’t mean they are withholding critique sheets from his first two seasons. They have their check marks. But every manager has had a similar report card through two years as a professional baseball manager.
The reality is this: When he leaves Detroit, which will happen at some point — sooner, later, who knows? — he will work elsewhere. As a big-league manager.
And there’s a good chance, should the roster be half-cooperative, he’ll be regarded as a fine big-league commander-in-chief.
Not bad for a 48th-round pick who wasn’t a perfect package when he arrived but who achieved remarkable results because of sufficient talent and considerable intellect that more than likely has followed him into his second career.