Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Hot Dog Fuentes Bought The Tigers Time Until Sweet Lou Was Ready

(another in a series of posts featuring memorable Tigers -- in one way, shape or form -- who played in Detroit since the last All-Star game here, in 1971. This series celebrates the return of the midsummer classic to the Motor City in 2005, and a new feature will appear each weekend until the game is played in July)

Tito Fuentes, his headband on the outside of his cap this time

Oakland A's pitcher Paul Lindblad once said of his teammate Reggie Jackson, "There isn't enough mustard in the world to cover that hot dog." If there wasn't enough mustard to cover Jackson, maybe there was enough to cover former Tigers second baseman Tito Fuentes. Fuentes wasn't as popular as Reggie Jax, but he was one of the game's best hot dogs.

Fuentes is an interesting story, for a few reasons. He named one of his sons Clinch because he was born on the day his Giants clinched the NL West in 1971. He once said, after being hit by a pitch, "They shouldn't hit me; I'm the father of five or six children." And he was the Tigers' first real free agent signing. The team signed Fuentes for the 1977 season from the Padres, needing a bridge so a guy named Lou Whitaker could have one more year in the minors to get ready for his major league career. And after one pretty good season in Detroit, Fuentes disappeared, from both the Tigers and the big leagues.

But it was Fuentes' flash and flair that attracted me to him as a 14 year-old Little Leaguer back in '77. I knew of Tito's reputation as a hot dog, but had never really seen him in action until he came to the Tigers. He wore a headband that was visible beneath his cap. So, naturally, I wore a headband when I played. When he came to the batter's box, he would hold the bat by its barrel, tap it on the plate, flip it, and catch it by the handle in midair. I even did that a few times, too. He wore jewelry that hung out of his jersey. I didn't do that one. But Fuentes was a free spirit, and he clearly had fun playing baseball.

The Tigers got a magnificent return on their investment in Tito Fuentes. Signed for about $100,000, Fuentes, a career .268 hitter, rode in at .309 by the end of the 1977 season. It was the only time he hit .300 in his entire career. It was also the last. With Whitaker ready in '78, the Tigers didn't renew Fuentes' contract, and he ended up signing with the A's. But 43 at-bats later, Tito's career was done, just one year after his best season, batting average-wise. Kind of a strange and abrupt ending to a pretty good, 13-year career.

Fuentes, a switch-hitter, batted right only until 1969, when he tried switch hitting and never went back.He was a hot dog from both sides of the plate.

A delicious piece of Tigers' history: Mr. Tito Fuentes.

Next Week: Doyle Alexander

1 comment:

Cliff said...

More of Tito's headbands right here: