'Kind of like a dream:' Tigers rookie Akil Baddoo reveling in big-league debut
Detroit – Akil Baddoo walked down the steps that lead from the Tigers’ clubhouse to the dugout before the team's workout at Comerica Park on Wednesday and for the first time looked out onto the massive expanse of manicured green lawn.
For a rookie outfielder who has never played a game above High-A, it was quite literally breathtaking.
“It is pretty big,” he said, his eyes wide. “But I really think I was just living it. Enjoying every second of it. Just taking a deep breath in, like, ‘You are here now, now let’s play. You have a job at hand. Let’s take care of business.’”
To see Baddoo’s genuine and unfettered joy and wonderment at being in the major leagues would warm the heart of the iciest cynic.
“It’s all so surreal,” he said. “I’m just thankful for the opportunity. I am glad I am finally here in Detroit. The city is so beautiful. I just can’t fathom it. All praise to the man upstairs. Him and my mom, my family, everyone stuck with me and was part of this process.
“This is all kind of like a dream. I am ready to go, just seeing all the hard work pay off.”
A few days ago manager AJ Hinch called Baddoo, whom the Tigers selected from the Twins in the Rule 5 draft, into his office to tell him he’d made the 26-man Opening Day roster.
“I was like, ‘Oh wow,’” he said. “I was trying to hold in my smile through my mask. I couldn’t help it. I was just so happy and filled with joy. He was just saying, ‘We’re going to play you so be ready. It’s just another opportunity so don’t take your foot off the gas. Keep going.’
“I said yes sir. I am going to continue to do that.”
He couldn’t wait to call his mother back in Georgia.
“She was screaming for joy and she prayed over me, as well,” Baddoo said. “It was such a beautiful moment. I will cherish it for the rest of my life.”
His mother, father and two younger brothers are flying up for the opening series against the Indians and Hinch has made it clear, he didn’t put Baddoo on the roster to sit and watch.
“We have to get a lot of firsts out of the way for him,” he said. “His first start, his first series and let him take off. He’s riding a lot of momentum and a ton of great performances in the spring. I want to continue that and give him a chance to capitalize on that good feeling and get those nerves out of the way.”
Baddoo, who hit .325 with five home runs and an OPS of 1.2 this spring, won’t start Thursday, but Hinch said he plans to start him in one of the three games.
“Any time you are around something like this, it takes you back to your own situation,” Hinch said. “We were all rookies at some point. We all had that nervous energy coming into a big-league clubhouse for the first time.
“Akil has been so fun to be around and his performance has been exceptional, so delivering the news to him was special. I’ll tell you what, he will not feel the temperature tomorrow at game time. He will be revved up.”
Who knows how this will end? Victor Reyes was not as physically advanced as Baddoo is when he spent the 2018 season with the Tigers, and now he’s an integral part of the Tigers’ outfield. And yet, Baddoo has yet to face big-league pitchers who have game-planned against him. He has yet to navigate the difficulties of being a role player and getting sporadic at-bats.
The Tigers will be facing another roster decision when starting pitcher Spencer Turnbull returns off the non-baseball (COVID-19) injured list in a coupe of weeks. Who knows how things will shake out then.
“It’s like I said (during the camp competition), just control what I can control,” Baddoo said. “Just keep doing what I’ve been doing. Don’t get too happy. Don’t get too big. Stay within yourself and keep going. And stay mentally strong.
“There’s a lot of ups and downs in baseball. There’s going to be times when you fail. Don’t get too low. Stay even-keel. Stay relaxed. Baseball is a game so just have fun and enjoy it and trust your abilities.”
Are we sure this guy is 22 years old?
Rock and a hard place
The talk of Baddoo got Hinch reminiscing about his big-league debut -- which was 23 years ago with the Oakland Athletics, Opening Day, April 1, 1998.
"I remember going into that game nervous on both ends," he said.
The A's were facing Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, making his first start with the Red Sox. And Hinch had the pleasure of catching Tom Candiotti that day -- a knuckleballer.
"I knew catching him was going to be easier than hitting," he said. "But I just knew I was going to get my first big-league hit against Pedro. I couldn't wait to write his name on the ball. I wanted to make sure when I got to first or second base to tell them to throw the ball in.
"Pedro wanted none of that. He dominated me."
Hinch went 0-for-3 with two punch-outs and the A's lost 2-0.
"It was first feeling of really accomplishing something in baseball," he said. "My name on the back of the jersey, the home whites in Oakland facing a growing legend and getting to hit right in front of Rickey Henderson. Pretty incredible."
The early forecast calls for 32-degree temperatures and clouds for the opener Thursday. Not what you'd call ideal baseball conditions.
"It's our reality," Hinch said. "And if we expect anything different going up to Detroit then we're fooling ourselves. It can be a rough April at times...I've never met someone who loves playing in cold weather. But it's our reality.
"If I don't make a big deal out of it, I don't expect the players will either."
Left fielder Robbie Grossman didn't hit above .143 in the month of April in his first three seasons.
"Some teams play in California, some stay in Texas, but there is a different aspect when you play in the cold up north," he said. "At first I didn't deal with it well. Then I started to learn a few little tricks of the trade that you have to learn.
"I'm well-prepared now."
Around the horn
...The Tigers are calling the opener Thursday a sellout. Most of the 8,200 tickets were sold. There could be a few extra seats available in the morning. Check on Tigers.com.