Sunday, June 22, 2008

Marcus Thames: Teddy Roosevelt’s Kind Of Ballplayer

The strongest man to wear a Tigers uniform since they employed someone nicknamed Big Daddy is quiet, unassuming, and the closest thing to Clark Kent you’ll find in a big, black man from Mississippi.

Not like Big Daddy at all. Or the strongest man before him – Willie Horton. Those brutuses once owned Detroit – Willie still does, in his own way – because they combined their magnificent power with personalities that were just as big. Big Daddy was Cecil Fielder – and one season he hit 51 home runs, including one over the left field roof at Tiger Stadium off Oakland’s ace, Dave Stewart. And the next season, he posed for a newspaper photo on that very same roof, bat in hand, a big cigar in his mouth (see below).

That was Big Daddy for you.

Big Daddy’s son, Prince, is all grown up and swatting them out of ballparks for the Milwaukee Brewers. That Big Daddy and Son don’t get along at all is a sad postscript to Cecil’s temporary ownership of Detroit. But from 1990-93, Cecil Fielder was Horton, Hank Greenberg, and maybe even a little of Babe Ruth himself rolled into one. An at-bat of Big Daddy’s was one you didn’t dare miss. He could swing and miss with the best of them, but when he connected, things happened – like balls going over roofs and such.

Today’s Most Powerful Baseball Man in Detroit is a 31-year-old ex-journeyman who has the personality of day-old bagels but who clubs home runs as quickly as they make them at Einstein’s.

Marcus Thames doesn’t have a catchy nickname. He doesn’t say anything interesting, really. He’s been twice rejected by other big league organizations, including Ruth’s Yankees. He’s been traded from the Tigers by the media and the sports talk radio boobs and the smug bloggers for the past two years, yet here he is – leading the team in home runs.

He leads the Tigers because he has just completed one of the most impressive displays of power that ever happened within one week’s time.

Thames homered in five straight games, a streak that continued and ended in San Francisco – the city of Willies Mays and McCovey, and of Barry Bonds. How appropriate.

Big Daddy never did that. Willie Horton never did that.

Thames, since he’s been in Detroit (he joined the Tigers in 2004) has homered at a rate of once in every 13 at-bats or so. For a regular player, that’s like once every three games. There are 162 games in a season. You do the math.

Those are, indeed, Greenberg and Ruth-like numbers – and on par with Big Daddy’s rate at his zenith.

Thames might not be as big in stature as other big fly swatters before him whose numbers he can at least partly match, but one thing’s certain: he would have been adored by Teddy Roosevelt.

Marcus Thames carries that big stick that Teddy talked about, and if he spoke any softer – as Teddy also recommended – he’d make Calvin Coolidge look like Barack Obama.

Yet for all his exploits in a Tigers uniform, manager Jim Leyland is only now getting around to declaring Thames as his everyday left fielder.

There was always someone else keeping that position warm. Working backwards from this season, you had Carlos Guillen; Jacque Jones; Craig Monroe; Rondell White. And that’s just off the top of my head; that’s not including all the young studs from Toledo who’ve driven the 70-mile trip to Detroit after a call-up and started that same night – while Marcus Thames sits quietly on the bench, not one bitching bone in his specimen of a body.

I caught Thames one night after a Tigers victory. He had hit a home run – big surprise – but was lifted late in the game, pinch-hit for by a left-handed bat, against a left-handed pitcher. Not all that conventional. In fact, it seemed downright odd. So I asked him about it.

“What did you think of being lifted like that, against a lefty?,” I wondered, as he (quietly) dressed.

Thames shrugged.

“It was for defense,” he educated me. “Skip (Leyland) wanted defense.”

“So you weren’t upset?”

“Nah, man. It’s all about winning, you know?”

That was when the Tigers were frolicking through the American League, on their way to the World Series. Thames hit 26 home runs that year, in a paltry 348 at-bats. He went 5-for-15 in the divisional playoff against the Yankees, then mysteriously only got six more at-bats in the subsequent LCS and World Series, combined. That kind of inconsistent playing time has marked Thames’ time in Detroit. It’s made many wonder openly about Leyland’s marbles – as in, has he lost them?

That Thames has been able to thwack home runs at such a brisk pace while spending long gaps of time anchored to the bench is remarkable. It’s one thing to go no more than 13 at-bats – on average – between homers when you’re a regular, but to keep up that ratio when you might go a week between starts is downright unreal. Not that you’d know it from talking to him, because Thames won’t regale you with his exploits. You know, that whole Teddy Roosevelt thing.

Ahh, that big stick. Thames has power beyond belief. He doesn’t hit home runs – he launches space missions. And it’s not just when a pitcher makes a mistake and leaves a fastball over the plate, belt-high. When the ball tries to break out of the strike zone, Thames reaches and pokes and stretches and flicks and the ball STILL goes damn near 400 feet. Again, the most raw power I’ve seen from a Tigers slugger since the salad days of Big Daddy.

There are no roofs at Comerica Park for Marcus Thames to park baseballs over. And there won’t be any publicity photos of him with a bat and chomping on a cigar.

Just a home run every 13 at-bats. You got a problem with that?

No comments: