Brandon Inge was with the Tigers in 2003 when the team lost 119 games. He caught 104 of them. Three years later, he manned the hot corner and rode the season all the way to a World Series berth against the St. Louis Cardinals. In a five-game embarrassment, he was the last man at the plate in that series. He carried the deflated Detroit banner back to the dugout.
In 2009, his 21 first-half home runs earned him his sole All-Star appearance in which he was invited to partake in the Home Run Derby. He didn't hit a single home run. In his twelve year tenure as a Tiger, Inge played all outfield positions, catcher, second-base, third-base and occasionally served as a designated hitter.
It's hard to deny his athleticism. It's also hard to deny his humbleness in changing positions whenever Tigers brass decided he should. Like the people of Detroit, Brandon Inge found a way to make it work. He found a way to help his team.
Since Inge's appearance at the 2009 All-Star Game, he has batted .216 in 1066 at-bats, and the power he once flashed is all but gone. His defensive capability was no longer enough to justify his placement on the 25-man roster.
There was no place left for him on the 2012 Tigers team. That much is clear. But aside from all the sense it made to release him, there's no way to go about this severance without emotion. Baseball after all, is a game rife with it.
While it's true, a player with a career .234 batting average doesn't have many bargaining chips in deciding where he wants to play, Brandon Inge seemed to do whatever the Tigers asked of him, with little or no beef involved. He was whatever the Tigers needed him to be. He devoted himself to any position his manager tasked him with.
If he lands a job anywhere, it may be Oakland. The Phillies also had interest in Inge during spring training and the Orioles may also be taking a peek (MLB Trade Rumors). If he lands with an AL team, rest assured Inge fans will return to Comerica Park and cheer when he takes the field.
Many baseball fans were waiting for this move, and secretly dreading it.
For all of his struggles, Inge had a way of weaving himself into the hearts of Tigers fans. Few will forget last year, when he opted for Triple-A instead of being released and how he homered in his first game back.
There was something very "Detroit" about that decision, and the at-bat. Detroit, and America, for that matter, still had the Chrysler Super Bowl ad in their minds from February–the one featuring Eminem, rich with the sentiment: Motown is back on her feet, poised for the comeback.
Inge's return from Triple-A Toledo, his homecoming homer and his 2011 postseason batting average of .348 had Tigers fans remembering the Inge of '09, and it gave Detroit the underdog they could identify with. Perhaps this type of "grind-it-out" behavior is why letting go of Inge is so difficult. He was there for all of it. He was the player between the lines.
As Brandon Inge loved Detroit, Detroit loved him. For each bitter fan bidding him good riddance, there are 10 more tipping their hats with a tear in their eye, because even though baseball is a business, it is a game of emotion, of sacrifice and commitment.
A city doesn't spend eleven years cheering a player without getting to know him. Detroit sports fans have not known a harder working athlete. While it's not fair to put Inge among Detroit legends like Steve Yzerman or Nicklas Lidstrom, those names can be spoken in the same breath when perseverance comes to mind.
Tigers Manager Jim Leyland said in 2006, “I think this guy has a chance, if he continues the progress rate that he's going now, to be a helluva everyday, major league third baseman, for a long time," (Detroit Free Press). Jim Leyland was right, Brandon Inge was a "helluva" major league third basemen, and a helluva Tiger.
Here is the part where the "I" enters. It's hard to write about today's events, without shedding a tear or two. Inge, once a part of the Tigers organization, always will be. For eleven years his determination has been an inspiration to southeast Michigan.
His gregariousness will be missed at Comerica park. The sparkle in his eye, the child-like smile, the diving-stops, the strikeouts–all of the good and all of the bad. Even though the Tigers unceremoniously released him today, Inge's heart “will always be in Detroit.”
Like many ballplayers of my youth, I'll follow Brandon Inge wherever he goes. It takes more than a good batting average to make a good baseball player; it takes guts, occasional glory, and most of all for Detroiters, it takes perseverance. Brandon Inge has all of that. He will be sorely missed, perhaps not for his achievements at the plate, but for the type of man he is.