Henning: Horton mentors Tigers rookie Moya

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Willie Horton

Detroit – During one of those shoot-the-breeze clubhouse conversations that are daily events in big-league baseball, Willie Horton excused himself for a moment.

This was late Tuesday afternoon as the Tigers gathered for an evening game against the Phillies at Comerica Park, which the Tigers won, 3-1. Horton strode toward a locker where an extra-tall player with a bushel of black hair sat, facing inward, head down, scanning his iPhone.

Horton and Steven Moya chatted for a few moments. Warmly. Seriously.

Horton is a Detroiter and Tigers slugger of such celebrity he has a statue in his name erected over the brickwork in left field at Comerica Park. He returned a few minutes later from his locker visit and explained the cut-away.

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“That’s what coaching is,” he said, displaying with a shoulder pat what his visit had been all about.

Horton had asked Moya, a rookie only weeks into his big-league life, how his parents were doing. From there, they could move from what truly matters in life to what truly matters in a baseball player’s job. They talked hitting. Nothing complex or mechanical. But things simple and standard: balance, extension.

It wasn’t counsel that interfered with the work manager Brad Ausmus’ staff is doing with Moya, a 6-foot-7 outfielder with magnificent power potential.

It was simply meant to enhance. To bolster. It was offered from a point of empathy and experience by a man who works these days as a special assistant to general manager Al Avila.

Young Tigers slugger

Horton remembers 50 years ago when he was breaking in as a young Tigers slugger. Hitting adjustments were cruel: All that down-and-away breaking stuff to a super-strong right-handed hitter who otherwise destroyed fastballs and hanging curves.

He dealt with another transition, no less uncomfortable, when he first arrived with the Tigers.

He had to learn to play the outfield. Most fans, even those with a terrific sense of Tigers history and the 1968 world championship team, forget that Horton was raised as a catcher. He was a catcher when the Yankees tried to sign him during his teen years in Detroit. Part of their courtship including having Horton talk with and take pointers from a catcher known as Yogi Berra.

The Tigers also wanted Horton. The tiebreaker became Horton’s father, Clinton. Willie one day in 1961 ended up in a car alongside his father and a man who acted as a second father, U.S. judge Damon Keith. They were bounding down Trumbull Ave. headed for the Tigers offices. Dad and the man who later would become Judge Keith decided Willie was signing, all right: with the Tigers.

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He cracked the big leagues for good in the mid-‘60s and got help from coaches and a guy playing right field named Al Kaline. By 1965, a young center fielder and star defender named Mickey Stanley, had arrived. They played side-by-side in that Tiger Stadium outfield. And it was Stanley who had the most influence on helping Horton with defensive tricks and techniques, positioning edges — little things that became big things during the course of a season.

Horton had noticed something, too, about the Tigers marvel playing right field, Kaline. He played every hop against the fence as if he had the ball on remote control.

It was, of course, a matter of experience, as well as skill, for a future Hall of Famer who already had been a wizard in right for a decade. Horton decided he could get better. He collared the Tigers bat boy, marched him to left field, and had him throw ball after ball against Tiger Stadium’s left-field fence. Horton became handy at anticipating bounces and angles.

Dynamite stick

By the time 1968 rolled around, and Horton was a mid-order dynamite stick for a tremendous Tigers team, Horton and his teammates had developed a certain science about baseball. They knew tendencies. They gorged on scouting reports. It was a kind of precursor to today’s analytics experts.

The Tigers got ready that autumn to play St. Louis in the World Series. The guy on offense they most feared: Lou Brock, speedy, a base-stealer, a leadoff batter who by himself could destroy a team.

Horton and the Tigers knew something else about Brock: He was so fast, so automatic on the bases, he could be lulled into assuming an extra base.

Game 5, Tiger Stadium, the Cardinals are leading a World Series 3-1, looking as if they were about to win.

Brock was on second, the Cardinals leading 3-2 in the fifth, Julian Javier lined a single to left. Horton played it on a hop, cranked up, and with a throwing motion Stanley had taught him (“pretend you’re pulling the overhead cord on a bus”) he launched a throw to Bill Freehan, the Tigers catcher who knew along with Horton that Brock might take for granted that he was scoring.

Horton had one thought as he got ready for a throw that would become one of the more significant nuggets of World Series defensive history.

“My job was to hit Coyote (third baseman Don Wert, the cutoff man) in the nose with that throw,” Horton remembered Tuesday.

Brock didn’t slide. The throw was there. Freehan tagged Brock. The Tigers rallied, won the game, and the final two games to ice an indescribable year of baseball in Detroit.

These are moments and years that get handed down, in the fashion of family trees and traditions. It might be baseball, but truly it is more than baseball. There is something indisputably at one with life when a man, and Tigers star for the ages, saunters to a locker to let a young man named Moya know family and baseball aren’t indivisible.

After all, Horton knows the person sitting there. It’s the person he was a half-century ago.