Friday, October 22, 2010

Trying to Cling to the term "Career Tiger"

I have read the book Al Kaline and the Detroit Tigers by Hal Butler about three times now. My father owned a copy, and I think I was bored one day and he suggested I read it. (This was before I asked him what number I should wear for softball - I told him I was playing right field and without a beat he said "six.") The book is great, and it really helped me realize how great Kaline was for the Detroit Tigers. His leadership over those seasons, from an eighteen-year-old rookie to the wizened veteran hoising the World Series trophy, was crucial for that team of amazing talents. Not to mention that he was a stellar outfielder and slugger.

I think the thing that impressed me the most about Kaline was his committment to the Detroit Tigers themselves. They weren't giving multi-million dollar contracts at the time, but each year the Tigers offered a contract, Kaline accepted it. And now, for many of my father's generation, he is their favorite Tiger of all time. He never gave his heart to another pro franchise, and he remains a part of the organization to this very day.

This man was a career Tiger.

Think about Steve Yzerman. It's a different sport, yes, but I think it still applies. He came to the Red Wings as a fresh-faced rookie on a pretty terrible team people liked to call the "Dead Things." The Wings knew they had something special and made him captain at age 21. He helped create the ultimate team of the 90s (in my humble opinion) which won back-to-back titles after a 42-year drought.

The man was committed to the team and the fans embraced him back. I loved watching him on those teams - he was never the highest scorer on the team, nor was he the hardest hitter, but you could feel his presence holding the team together for one common goal.

This man was a career Red Wing.

It is very rare for there to be a player who is with the same team for his whole professional career. It may be due to the team deciding he's not worth it. It could be for injuries. It may be just for more money. But the offseasons of pro franchises are filled with "This guy's going here" and "We just got this guy!" It makes me excited when we can get a player like Tracy McGrady (the injury-free one) or Mike Modano or Miguel Cabrera and they really embrace their Detroit-ness. But it's always great to have a guy that's been in the system since his first day turning pro.

Now I'm not trying to compare Steve Yzerman or Al Kaline to Brandon Inge here, but the announcement yesterday that he had been re-signed for two more years did make me excited. In all the articles it talks about how he was drafted by Detroit in 1998, played for one of the worst teams in baseball history in 2003, and went to the World Series with that very team in 2006.

In my years as a Tiger fan (which has grown since that 2006 season - before that I was more of a spectator to a losing team), I remembered Inge, whether he was the catcher or at third. I remember for one Spring Training the only thing people could talk about was Inge's complaints about getting paid. But I remember a few seasons after that voting for him as many times as humanly possible so he'd be the last player voted in to the All-Star game!

Ever since he's been given the third base position outright, he has turned into a fine fielder. He led all third basemen this season with a .997 fielding percentage and only nine errors. I want to be able to trust the player in the Hot Corner with every ball hit to him, and Inge has proven himself this season. He won't be the big bat you hope for, but that can be arranged in other areas of the lineup.

I also know that he lives in Michigan. While all the other Tiger players retreat to their warm winter homes (some to their home countries, to be fair), Inge has set up permanent residence in Michigan in a time where everyone is seemingly leaving the state. That gives me a huge sense of respect to this player.

I hope that this is the last contract he signs, whether he plays two or three seasons with the Tigers. I want him to retire as a Tiger - and not one of those day-contract things, either. I'm still clinging to the belief that there are players that are work-hard career players who are committed to their team.

It's more than likely that Inge will never be inducted into the Hall of Fame or anything. But when Brandon Inge does come back to Comerica Park for something, whether it's for a special event or as part of a front office, I know that I'd give him as much of an ovation as he deserves. He stuck with us through thin and thick, and I will always respect him if he sticks with us to the end.

So how about it Brandon? You wanna be a career Tiger?

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