Henning: Inge a hero to Tigers fans, more than he knows

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Brandon Inge signs autographs for Tigers fans before throwing out the first pitch at Comerica Park on Saturday night.

Detroit – Brandon Inge couldn’t figure it out.

But we could.

“I’m nobody when it comes to big names,” he said Saturday night, sitting in an interview room near Comerica Park’s press box, a deep farm-boy suntan (sunburn?) fairly illuminating the group quizzing him.

“I mean, you’ve got Miguel (Cabrera) and guys. It’s flattering.”

He had been talking an hour earlier with fans who had packed a question-and-answer session as part of the Tigers’ celebration of their 2006 World Series team. Inge, who began with the Tigers as a catcher, had by 2006 migrated to a surprise position, third base, which he played with spectacular skill.

Fans didn’t appreciate his strikeouts (1,189 in 12 seasons with Detroit). But they loved his power (140 home runs), his defense and hammer-arm, and, maybe most of all, the fact he showed up for interviews and events and seemed always to be a person they felt they knew, personally.

“It was surreal,” he said of Saturday’s turnout. “It made me miss being here.”

Inge has been gone from Detroit pretty much since he left the Tigers in 2012. He played for a while with the A’s and Pirates, and ended his big-league life in 2013. He had lived in the Dexter area with his wife Shani and sons Tyler and Chase, but those days obviously were history. Some of us had been trying for some time to track him down, minus success. We didn’t know where he was.

Until the update came Saturday night, in detail.

The Inges now live in Lynchburg, Va., Brandon’s home turf, on 400 acres heavy with alfalfa and land he’s leasing to other agrarians or that he’s working himself. A new home is being built, and the square footage probably is closer to square mileage, although Inge, with half a grin, wasn’t offering any details Saturday.

Life otherwise is simple. The boys, 11 and 8, play sports year-round. Shani is doing great and has her hands full. Brandon is living a happy, simple life, hoping perhaps to coach baseball at nearby Liberty University. He’s been steadily helping instruct his old hometown Brookville High team.

Chase Inge, left, and Tyler Inge look up at their dad, former Tiger Brandon Inge, during batting practice Saturday.

But what came across Saturday was Inge’s bewilderment at being celebrated, at having had so many people seem to care deeply about a baseball player who has been gone four years.

It was an example of how we all can lack perspective on time and experiences others better see.

Inge embodied baseball’s blight and rebirth in Detroit. He was a starter on a team that lost 119 games in 2003. Three years later he was in a World Series. He had slammed 27 home runs that magical 2006 season, a year some of us view on a par with 1984 or 1968 in its grip on Detroit and the Tigers constellation and how it thrilled followers who witnessed the restoration of a game sacred to this city.

“I know what it did for our town,” Inge acknowledged Saturday. “Everyone tells me, ‘2006 was one of the best years of my life.’”

He spoke about the deft way a new manager, Jim Leyland, had helped bring a talented team together. The Tigers were ready to win in 2006. They simply hadn’t learned how to win after 12 years of losing. But they had arms and home-run hitters, and that became the recipe for a playoff ticket. And for a stunning, electrically-charged weekend at Comerica Park that saw the Tigers topple the Yankees, later brush away the A’s, and head for a World Series where the party was crashed by a savvy cast of Cardinals.

“He was just one of those guys who shot you straight,” Inge said of Leyland, who Tuesday night will be honored in Troy at the Fr. Vincent Welch Memorial Dinner, along with retired Tigers coach Jeff Jones, and 60-year staffer Audrey Zielinski. “He treated us all like men. ‘Nine hard innings.’”

He talked about how Leyland revved them following their two-game split in New York, which saw a rain-delay drag and drag and some monkey business with notifications begin to stir the Tigers’ into feeling maligned, whether it was real or not.

“These guys don’t want to play you – they want to save their pitchers,” Inge remembered Leyland saying that night when a game was finally called. “They think they’ve got us.”

The Tigers won the next day in New York, coming from behind, then destroyed New York in Friday night’s and Saturday night’s delirium at Comerica.

Inge, though, didn’t talk baseball, exclusively, Saturday night. He and Shani and the boys had gotten tight with the Dexter-Saline community and, by extension, with the University of Michigan. He had been back for ChadTough Foundation events celebrating the life of Chad Carr, grandson of former Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr, who died last November of brain cancer, and whose mother, Tammi, had become close with Shani.

The moments had been tender. Particularly when Inge’s sons had been part of efforts to console and heal a family devastated by a 5-year-old’s ordeal.

“I’ve got two kids who care about other people,” dad said Saturday.

What he seemed to have understood from a day reconnecting with fans and with media who covered an amazing team and era is that a community also cares. It never forgets its baseball stars. They become part of a lineage, like honored ancestors. They leave memories and imprints.

The Inges are headed back to Lynchburg and to a rather glorious and blessed life. The farm boy should know after Saturday that he’s not only welcome to return. It’s rather necessary for all parties.


Twitter @Lynn_Henning

Brandon Inge takes the stage for a Q&A session before Saturday night's game.