Monday, October 23, 2006

The Stripeless Tiger

They’re paraded before us, in print and on the idiot box – images from championship days gone by: 1968 and 1984. There’s Mickey Lolich, talking about pitching on two days’ rest to win the ’68 title. And they tracked down Mr. Nice Guy, 1984 World Series MVP Alan Trammell, brand new hip and all, and got him to say a few words about the team that he helped set up for success in 2006.

The newspapers, especially, are spraying India ink all over their pages about Gates Brown’s pinch hit heroics, or Kirk Gibson’s moonshot off Goose Gossage, or how Mayo Smith moved Mickey Stanley from center field to shortstop, or how a team could actually begin a season 35-5.

Current Tigers manager Jim Leyland is, everyday, called that most ancient of sports words: genius. Other adjectives and nouns find themselves repeated ad nauseum: magical, Cinderella, destiny.

But it’s the former players from those, ahem, magical ’68 and ’84 teams that have been consulted, prodded, recalled, and sought out as the ’06 Tigers venture into a place nobody thought they would find themselves: the World Series.

When Magglio Ordonez, the erstwhile White Sox and now Tigers outfielder, watched the 2005 World Series, and saw his former Chicago teammates celebrating a world’s championship that he was but one year removed from sharing, he turned off the television. And he cried. He said so, don’t you know. It’s been reported.

I wonder, then, how many tears Bobby Higginson has shed?

Higginson has been persona non grata

You remember Bobby, don’t you? The Philadelphia kid who played ball in Detroit from 1995-2005? The rocket-armed rightfielder who was the one Tiger you came to watch play, when just about all of the others weren’t worth a hoot?

He used up all of his time in Detroit, Bobby Higginson did. He had 11 seasons here, and that ended up being enough. In 2004, with Higgy stumbling through another down season, I puffed out my chest and wrote that he should no longer be a member of the Tigers when the team opened play in 2005. It was another moment when an ink-stained wretch played at being the GM. Or the manager.

But I wrote it, because I believed it to be true. And, indeed, when the Tigers broke camp in spring, 2005, Bobby Higginson was clearly finished, done like dinner. He had had another horrible spring, but that was nothing new for him, even during his good years. But this particular spring, in 2005 in Florida, Higginson was a shell, even for him. He had no business being on the team. And there was a kid slamming the ball all over the grapefruit fields of south Florida that March: a fellow by the name of Marcus Thames.

But manager Alan Trammell, perhaps in another display of his still unrefined skills as a dugout boss, kept Bobby Higginson on the squad and sent the powerful outfielder Thames to Toledo.

Dmitri Young, outraged, told the newspaper fellas that Marcus Thames had been “screwed.” The words made their way up north, to chilly Detroit. They were crude and maybe a bit of deliberate theatre, but they were some of the truest things that Young ever uttered as a Tiger.

Yet even though Higginson didn’t deserve to be a member of this season’s Tigers, is he no less of a Tiger, period?

So maybe the reason why nobody has sought out Higginson, why no one has bothered to ask an 11-year Tiger what he thinks of his teammates making it to the World Series, is because the team was not a winner in any of his 11 seasons. And I don’t mean they weren’t playoff winners, or division winners, or even wild card winners. They weren’t winners, period. In none of Higginson’s 11 seasons did the Tigers ever manage to complete 162 games with more wins than losses. Although, they did manage to lose over 100 games a couple of times. They even lost 119 in 2003, another number that will be regurgitated over and over during this World Series.

But the fact that the Tigers were never winners under Higginson’s watch is exactly why he should be talked to. Why not ask a perennial loser how he feels to see his team finally win, albeit without him? Magglio Ordonez said he cried tears of sadness when he watched the White Sox whoop it up in Houston after completing their sweep of the Astros. What did Bobby do when he watched champagne and tears – of joy – flow in the Tigers’ lockerroom following their dismantling of the Oakland A’s in the ALCS?

What, indeed?

I’ve thought of Higginson often during this Tigers playoff run. There always seems to be one, doesn’t there, who labors for a team during the lean years yet never gets to enjoy the fruits of that labor when that club finds success, even if it’s from under a rock? Sometimes it’s a trade that sends that player away just before the harvest. Sometimes it’s unforced retirement. Higginson finished out his contract in 2005, a year in which he came to bat less than 20 times. That he wasn’t offered another one was both unsurprising and just.

Yet even though Higginson didn’t deserve to be a member of this season’s Tigers, is he no less of a Tiger, period? Why should his stripes be taken away simply because he didn’t time his career just right?

Nobody speaks of Bobby Higginson, that I’m aware of. He isn’t written about, he isn’t even yakked about on sports talk radio. He’s the stripeless Tiger, when so many of the others of the past are fawned over, simply because they happened to be at the right place at the right time. Higgy found himself neither.

Alan Trammell, I hear, will be throwing out the ceremonial first pitch of Game 2 on Sunday, along with his manager, Sparky Anderson. It’s another thing you won’t hear or read, but Sparky was Higginson’s first big league manager. It was a long time ago, when losing baseball began to become all the rage in Detroit. Right when Bobby Higginson started his career as a Tiger.

Wrong place, wrong time.

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