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The Ingexplicable career of Brandon IngePosted Friday, April 27, 2012, at 6:10 PM
But Brandon Inge was my favorite Tiger.
Despite his (at best) mediocre ability to play baseball, Inge is a symbol of success.
On the Tigers, as he wallowed away for the last few seasons, struggling to get on the field and, when he got there, to get on base, he represented how far the team has come.
He stood out because of how bad he is. And that is the greatest compliment anyone on the Tigers can have, because it means fans expect more.
If this were the same Tigers team I grew up watching, Inge would have been another player on the team. Indeed, from 2001-2003, he was probably the best part of the team.
Watching this young, athletic catcher stalk behind the plate and gun down anyone who dared challenge him was, most days, the only watchable part of the game.
The Bad Times
Inge had no business being a Major Leaguer, and no business sticking around.
He was an undersized shortstop (and part-time closer) at Virginia Commonwealth University. The Tigers (somehow) decided this qualified him to make a good catcher, and drafted him in the second round in 1998.
In his first three seasons in the minors, he hit .242. He had no clue how to call a game. But he still kept climbing through the system.
In 2001, the year before the year before the badness, Inge was called up. He started on Opening Day, a loss to the Twins, and went 0-2 at the plate. He played 79 games that year and hit .180.
He deferred to the dugout to call each pitch. His OPS was .453. But whoa, what a canon. He threw out 45 percent of the sorry base runners that challenged him (league average that year was 29 percent). He stuck around.
The Tigers were an embarrassing, atrocious, depressing 164-322 in his first three seasons. No one on the team offered even a glimmer of hope for future success.
The minor league cupboard was barren, and the major league roster was a mishmash of overpaid bench players forced into starting roles and young "prospects" who were (at minimum) several years from becoming legitimate big leaguers.
But Inge developed, as best he could. He was in many ways the face of the franchise. Or maybe just the face of the future. He hit .198 those first three years.
Fans (myself included) wondered what the Tigers saw in this slight kid who couldn't hit. They made excuses, some probably a little valid.
Catching a big league game is physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting. Since Inge had never caught a game in his life until he played professional baseball, the challenges were multiplied. He was learning on the fly how to receive a pitch, how to crouch, how to move his feet. And he was doing this in the same games he was being asked to hit Major League pitching.
The guy could barely hit in the minors. How could he be expected to hit now with all the other stuff going on? He carried his defense to the plate in every at bat. But each time he struck out, he used it to call a better game.
Besides, the team said, he's just the catcher. He's not expected to hit. He will help the team with defense and gumption.
Tales of his athletic feats trickled out. He could drive a golf ball 400 yards! He could kick a 50-yard field goal! The team is pathetic, but look at Inge! Ignore the numbers; just watch him throw the ball!
No one, at any time, could doubt his effort. With his dismal average on those dismal teams, he moped a bit. He wanted to succeed so badly he carried each failure with him through his life. It's hard to smile when you only think about everything that's gone wrong.
Inge, by any measure, was bad. He hadn't shown any signs that would make any reasonable person think there was a bright future ahead of him. But nobody seemed to notice. His defense was the bright spot of the whole team.
The Tigers were pathetic. There was no pitcher who could make bats miss, and no hitter who made fans think a home run was possible in each at bat.
The transcendence of Pudge
Brandon Inge (and the 2004 Tigers) had nowhere to go but up. The front office ponied up and brought in free agents Rondell White and Fernando Vina. This (and about $50 million) was all it took to convince former-MVP Ivan Rodriguez, one of the greatest catchers in history, coming off a World Series Championship, that the team was trying to win.
Pudge turned Inge into a utility player -- he had a legitimate chance to play all nine positions in a game (though he never did). He was the teams backup catcher, but he also started games at third, center, left and right.
More importantly, suspicions that he couldn't hit because he was focused too much on catching seemed to be confirmed. He hit .238 as a catcher (still a career high) and a remarkable .308 otherwise.
When he was freed up to fly around the field instead of being stuck behind the plate, Inge was able to flash the remarkable athleticism he possessed. He made diving stops at third, home run-robbing grabs in the outfield, and unleashed his arm with reckless abandon.
He moved to third full time the next year (2005) and a year later hit 27 home runs. The Tigers made the World Series. For the first few years of his career, Inge seemed destined to be a bad player on a bad team for the rest of his (probably short) baseball life.
By the World Series year (seven seasons ago) Inge was already the longest-tenured member of the Tigers. He (unfairly, unreasonably) symbolized hope in his first few years. In 2006, he was, for the first time in professional baseball, a success.
The Good Times
You can look at Inge and see, in just one player, how far the team had come. The Tigers were the most pathetic, hopeless team in baseball from 1996-2003. With Inge leading them, they became a success.
From then on, fans expected success. They looked at the team and, 1-9, believed a key hit would drop in, a rally would be mounted, and a diving stop in the field would be snared.
Part of this hope come from success, and most of it is owner Mike Ilitch spending money. But a small piece was Brandon Inge. He was with the team at their lowest point in history, and he has been with them at their highest peak in decades.
The players and fans thrived off his enthusiasm and competitiveness. His refusal to stop playing, despite injuries, despite mounting evidence that he was in no way qualified to stand in the batters box against major league pitching, was a model example for both hard work and stubbornness.
Inge was an All Star in 2009. He finished the year batting .230. In the 2+ seasons since, he has hit 17 home runs with .227 avg. But when watching Inge, a failure at the plate, I only see success.
It seems foolish to say, but his weaknesses are only noticeable because of the team's successes. I know this is true, because when the team was bad, Inge was even worse than he is now, and he was the bright spot.
Inge is a living, breathing, swinging-and-missing symbol of the Tigers' success, and even though he hurt the team at the plate, I'm sad he's gone.
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