Most athletes say they would rather get out while at the top of their game. But the getting out is often hard. Just ask Brett Favre and Roger Clemens. Muhammad Ali fought one too many fights. They refuse to let go of their past glory and embrace the reality that their best playing days are behind them.
And then there is Brandon Inge. Twelve years a Detroit Tiger. An unremarkable career: .234 lifetime batting average, 140 home runs and 589 RBI; one All-Star appearance.
Perhaps one of the more gifted athletes on the team, Inge is not blessed with great baseball skills, despite the fact he looks more athletic than Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.
The longest-tenured Tiger, Inge hit .287 in 2004, his highest average for a season, and he hit 27 home runs twice—in 2006 and 2009.
He played catcher, third base, outfield and, this season, second base. It is as a third basemen that he excelled, making spectacular plays and showing off an arm that few others at the hot corner possess.
Yet he never won a Gold Glove, probably because he attempted to make plays others preferred to watch go by.
Detroit is a blue-collar town; the fans love and root for the underdog. And so the town embraced Inge, a genuinely nice guy who gave to the community his time and his money. A ballplayer with average skills who worked hard, but would never achieve superstar status or accumulate the numbers to make it to Cooperstown.
I tip my hat to Tigers owner Mike Ilitch for being so loyal to Inge. In a business that focuses so much on winning, Mr. Ilitch was very patient.
Inge began his career when the team perennially lost 100 games, and he was part of the club that made it to the Fall Classic in 2006.
But the last two years have been particularly brutal to Inge. He batted .197 in 2011, was sent down to the minors, where no other major-league club showed interest, and this year, before being released, he hit merely .100.
The Detroit fans were only slightly less loyal than Mr. Ilitch. They, too, wanted to see Inge succeed; yet the boos came near the end of last season, and more loudly this season.
It must be difficult for an athlete to endure such abuse at the hands of the fans, even as I defend their right, as paying customers, to voice their displeasure of an athlete’s performance.
I never booed Inge, even at the end, even as I questioned his belief in himself—that he could still play the game he obviously loved so much, and still contribute to his team. If anything, I felt bad for him. Each at-bat, he seemed to let the choicest pitches go by for a called strike, and then, when he was behind in the count, he waved at those in the dirt or at the bill of his helmet.
It’s difficult to say what happened to Inge. I’m no batting coach; but then, it seems Lloyd McClendon wasn’t able to solve Brandon’s problem with a bat, either.
I thought maybe it had to do with his eyes, but he hit well last season at the minor-league level and reasonably well during spring training. So one can only surmise it was mental.
Inge seemed upbeat in the aftermath of his release from the Tigers, and I wish him well. Although I can’t imagine another major-league club offering him a contract, I hope he lands on his feet, no matter what he decides to do.
There are, or course, more important matters in the world than baseball, batting average, home runs, wins, losses, etc., but I truly wish Inge had had a better career with Detroit, and that he could’ve gone out a winner, ending his career with his best numbers, giving the fans something more pleasant by which to remember him.
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