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Henning: Maybin mixes charisma with serious approach to baseball

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
“I know (the fans) appreciate effort and they respect when you play hard,” says Tigers center fielder Cameron Maybin.

Detroit — This happened Saturday. During a bit of pregame shopping at Somerset Mall in Troy.

Cameron Maybin was spotted by a couple who decided that tall guy in the black dreadlocks had to be the one and only.

“They just stopped me and told me how much they appreciated my hustle and the way I play,” Maybin said Saturday, half-shrugging as he applied blue tape to a hand and sprained right thumb that shelved him for nearly two weeks.

He hears it when he browses for slacks or a pair of shoes. At banquets and particularly at Comerica Park, either when Bobb Vergiels’ public-address voice announces his name, or maybe earlier, when he stops at the dugout to sign a ball or card, his smile often as wide as the kid’s whose autograph request was a success.

It’s the sound of affection. And in 2016 love has been thrown at a 29-year-old Tigers center fielder whose energy and .323 batting average have been one of the happy stories during a season of mixed baseball events.

“Detroit fans care about the game,” said Maybin, who, after a November trade with the Braves, rejoined a Tigers team that first drafted him in 2005. “I know they appreciate effort and they respect when you play hard. You get it during the game, when people yell at you in the outfield, or maybe you get it from parents before the game if you’ve signed for their kids.

“You can’t get to everybody,” he said of the autograph lineups. “But it makes you happy when you can make someone’s day.”

It also pleases a team when you’ve made a few of its days in 2016. And, at least when he’s been healthy, a right-handed-batting speedster has often been the triggerman for a scoring spurt.

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Maybin is batting anywhere from 70 (batting average) to 100 points (OPS) above his past big league numbers. And, with the demise of former regular center fielder Anthony Gose, who now plays at Double A Erie, Maybin’s work in center field has been particularly helpful.

He came to the Tigers nine months ago from the Braves in a deal, by no means dramatic, that earned Atlanta a pair of young pitchers, Ian Krol and Gabe Speier.

The Tigers were looking for outfield help and Maybin seemed a safe and affordable bet. He was then 28 (29 in April), could play center, or left field, which the Tigers in their pre-Justin Upton days figured would be his more regular venue. He had speed that offset those fairly ordinary past stats: .251 batting average in nine big league seasons, with a .679 OPS and 116 stolen bases.

There was one difference in the mind of Detroit’s front office.

“We think he’s got a little extra left in the tank,” Al Avila, the Tigers general manager, said a few days after bringing Maybin aboard.

But it appeared when spring camp convened Maybin was a pure fourth outfielder. Tigers owner Mike Ilitch had authorized a January push to sign Upton for left field. Gose and his left-handed bat were going to be, at the very least, a more regular tune in center against heavily right-handed starters. J.D. Martinez was locked in at right.

Maybin’s bid to more deeply dent manager Brad Ausmus’ plans ran aground in the Tigers’ first Grapefruit League game. Maybin was hit by a pitch, fractured his hand, and was gone until May.

And then the fun started. For all parties.

Maybin batted .429 in May and .323 in June. He cooled in July but still had a .363 on-base average, which has stayed steady at .375 in August, even as he has missed much of the month.

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He is not a home-run masher (two) and has only 11 extra-base hits on the year. But tell that to fans who see him slashing singles, sprinting to first, beating out infield hits, and streaking along basepaths (43 runs in 64 games) in a fashion particularly noticeable on a team that carries its share of plodders.

Maybin has buoyed fans and earned a happy niche in the Tigers clubhouse not only because he can run and help win baseball games. He simply is well-liked.

The smile, which joins with his playing style in cranking up a man’s charisma, is matched by a seriousness with which he plays the game.

Or, for that matter, approaches any of life’s pursuits: marriage (to wife Courtney), parentage (to sons Trenton and Maxwell), or, say, business, which he’s drawn to with something approaching the passion a one-time Tigers star named Kirk Gibson displayed during his playing days.

“I think it’s something your parents instill in you,” he said, speaking mainly of his zeal for the game, and for people.

Indeed, Maybin is the first to say he was blessed with life’s most indispensable gift: a mom and dad who raised him and his sister, Camille, in a loving, intact home.

Rudy and Renee Maybin are Asheville, N.C., natives who married and worked as they raised their two children amid the mountains and splendor of a particularly God-graced area of North Carolina. Rudy was a bus mechanic for the Asheville school system. Renee worked as a receptionist in a family physician’s office.

Cameron played sports.

Every sport, which was natural when the family bloodlines have produced within Maybin’s clan so many stars: Rashad and Rashanda McCants of the NBA and WNBA, as well as NFL linebacker Aaron Maybin, and Canadian Football League running back John Avery.

But it was baseball that first found a place in Cameron’s soul. And it was baseball that led him to be named Baseball America’s Youth Player of the Year, in 2004, when he was named Most Valuable Player of the Connie Mack World Series, and won the Connie Mack batting title.

Going pro

A year later, already holding a full-ride basketball and baseball scholarship to Southern University, the Tigers made Maybin their first-round pick and the 10th player taken overall. He signed for $2.65 million and two years later was in Detroit for the first of two stints with the Tigers, this one brief and, because of how he departed, historic.

Maybin had made fans and friends galore during a minor league stop at Single A West Michigan. When the following year, 2007, he sailed through Single A Lakeland and Double A Erie, the Tigers decided it was time for the big leagues.

Cameron Maybin batted .429 in May and .323 in June.

He debuted at Yankee Stadium, on Aug. 17, 2007, going 0-for-4. No breaks the next day, either, as the Tigers got ready for Yankees commandant Roger Clemens.

Maybin, though, singled against Clemens for his first big league hit, and later got his first big league home run when he drove a Clemens fastball past the center-field fence.

A rookie’s rudeness, of course, wasn’t going to go unchecked by Clemens. Maybin’s next at-bat ended with him shaking his left hand after he had been popped with another Clemens fastball.

The next morning, coming off an elevator into Yankee Stadium’s basement concourse, Maybin happened to run into a familiar face.

Clemens.

“He put his arm around me, asked me if I was OK, and congratulated me on the knock,” Maybin remembers. “I really appreciated and respected that.”

Four months later, Maybin was back home in Asheville playing the new Xbox Live video game with a friend.

His friend had caught something crawling across the TV screen.

“I think you just got traded,” said his buddy.

The phone rang. Maybin learned he was on his way to a new team, the Marlins, who had just made him and another Tigers hotshot prospect, Andrew Miller, the bluest chips in a deal that was to deliver Miguel Cabrera to Detroit.

Maybin was given a crash-course in big league baseball’s business realities. He was on his way to Florida for 144 games spanning three seasons with the Marlins, after which he was traded to the Padres, with whom he ended up signing a five-year, $25 million deal. Then, there was a trade to the Braves involving Carlos Quentin, Craig Kimbrel, and Melvin Upton, among others.

He was back at Asheville last November when again the phone rang. He was headed back to Detroit.

“My mom hadn’t been that happy in years,” Maybin said. “She could wear her old Tigers (MAYBIN) jersey.”

Fitting in

The Maybins have a home in Birmingham this baseball season, but Courtney and the boys stick for the most part in beautiful Asheville, tied to their roots, as Cameron is to his.

“Asheville will be my home — forever,” he says.

Not that he’s in any rush to leave Detroit. Nor, from all appearances, are the Tigers looking at Maybin in the short term. There is the matter of a $9 million option ($1 million buyout) if the Tigers want him back in 2017. What seemed three or four months ago to be a long-odds return now looks more like a sure thing. Maybin’s skills are too handy, especially on a team that has for so long had issues in center.

Cameron Maybin was drafted by the Tigers in the first round in 2005 and was traded to the Marlins in December 2007 in the Miguel Cabrera deal.

“He’s now a mature man and baseball player,” Avila said Sunday, although there won’t be any decision until at least October on Maybin’s future. “He knows and understands the game and what is needed to win. And he’s a great teammate.”

The contract and cash considerations matter not to him at all, he insists, even if to others $9 million versus $1 million for a year’s salary would rank as more than a big deal.

“Is it?” he asked Saturday, after the blue tape had been wrapped on his hand, a day before he was freed from the disabled list.

“I don’t really think about it. The last three years in San Diego I didn’t think about it. And I didn’t think last year that Atlanta would trade me.”

Commitment is creed

In other words, don’t fixate on, or try to control, matters you can’t affect, except by playing hard.

“I play baseball, but I want to be known as more than a baseball player,” said Maybin, who says his parents instilled in him a sense that other, more enduring qualities and values would surpass anything he did on a baseball field, or in life’s secular world.

But he believes at the same time in playing with verve and with devotion. He says he owes it to himself, to his team, and to those whose lives he might influence by way of his talents and commitment.

He’ll take that tool kit with him, he says, when baseball no longer is part of his life. Already, he is involved in business ventures, including a chain of restaurants he chooses not to identify as part of a commercial real estate world he finds most intriguing.

That would have been his pursuit, absolutely, he says, had it not been for baseball. The business world fascinates him.

But lest anyone think that makes Maybin more motivated, or more driven to do something admirable in his post-baseball life, he makes a sweeping motion across the Tigers clubhouse and reminds a questioner that “a lot of guys in here are more than baseball players, too.”

“I’m just grateful for the chance,” Maybin said, speaking of his latest adventure in Detroit, “to do and be part of something special.”

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

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