It’s not Quintin Berry’s fault that he’s not Austin Jackson, just as it’s not saccharin’s fault that it’s not sugar, not Dan Quayle’s fault that he’s not Jack Kennedy and not analog’s fault that it’s not digital.
Berry played the role of Jackson, the Tigers’ dynamic center fielder, for a couple weeks and the reviews were rather kind. Too kind, in fact.
Jackson, in the third year of a career that has more upside than a room full of first-round draft picks, was being bothered by an abdominal strain. And if you’ve ever strained your abdomen, you know how painful that can be. And you’re not a starting center fielder who bats leadoff.
The Tigers, bereft of position players in their farm system that can actually play in the majors right now, sent for Berry, who was minding his business playing for the Toledo Mud Hens.
That’s how so many Tigers have started this season—as Mud Hens.
Berry wasn’t even Jackson’s understudy, per se. He was grabbed off the bargain rack by the Tigers over the winter, a body to assign to Toledo. His was a minor league contract.
It was like going to a Broadway play and not only is the star ailing, the replacement hadn’t even seen the script.
Berry was put in center field and penciled in to bat leadoff for the Tigers on May 23 in Cleveland. He didn’t even look like Austin Jackson: Berry is a beanpole who bats left-handed. Jackson is a buff, compact player who bats right.
The Tigers, though, were desperate and thus brazenly tried to pass Berry off as a suitable replacement for the bourgeoning star Jackson.
Berry then went out and did his best impersonation of Jackson over the next week or so. He slapped some hits around the park, made some fine catches in the field and didn’t embarrass himself, which was probably the best thing he did of all.
The reviews of Berry were kind because the expectations weren’t exactly high. It would have been difficult for Berry to disappoint, but quite easy for him to impress.
He was following Jackson, but not in the way that a rookie singer follows Sinatra on stage at the Sands in Las Vegas. In this case, Sinatra had laryngitis and the rookie crooner needed to only carry a tune for a few songs, trying not to have the audience members throw tomatoes at him.
The longer Berry stayed in the lineup, the more the mystified Tigers fan base, looking at the rest of the scuffling team with a sour puss, wanted Quintin to stay there—even after Jackson’s scheduled return.
Bench Brennan Boesch! Put Berry in right field!
Bench Delmon Young! Put Berry in left field!
The fans were beside themselves with ideas for what the Tigers could possibly do with Berry once Jackson returned to the lineup.
Then Jackson came off the disabled list last Saturday in Cincinnati, reclaimed center field and leadoff in one fell swoop, and in the five games since that’s happened, the Tigers were 4-1 in no small part because of Jackson’s bat, glove and mere presence.
Berry didn’t get returned to Toledo, but he didn’t return to playing, either. Not as a starter, anyway. And that, my friends, is exactly how it should be.
Berry moved Tigers fans for about 10 days, but let’s peel back a layer or two of skin away from his onion.
Berry bailed the Tigers out for a few games, no question, helping the team to tread water while their All-Star-caliber center fielder recuperated.
But Berry is no Austin Jackson. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and nor has a crime been committed.
The highlight reel catches Berry made in center field looked pretty, but—and I don’t mean to tell tales out of school here—they were necessitated by his poor reads and circuitous routes to the baseball.
But he did make those catches, and for that we all should be grateful. Still, if you put Jackson and Berry in center field for separate teams for 150 games each, it will be very plain who the better outfielder is—and it won’t be Berry.
I haven’t come to bury Berry, but I haven’t come to overly praise him, either. He is a very fast player who is also very marginal. His speed mesmerizes the folks around town because the Tigers have been so bereft of it for decades.
Even the mainstream media—folks who should know better—are being sucked in by Berry Mania.
Just yesterday I heard my friend Jamie Samuelsen and partner Bob Wojnowski on 97.1 The Ticket bemoaning the lack of Berry in the Tigers lineup against the Colorado Rockies, even though a left-handed pitcher was on the mound.
Before Boesch’s bat heated up last week, there were calls for Berry to replace him. Young, also, was being run out of town by Berry maniacs.
Jackson is the straw that stirs the Tigers drink. I’ve said it before and, after the team’s resurgence after his return to the lineup, I’m saying it again. When Jackson is doing his thing at the top of the batting order, the Tigers offense is a different animal, plain and simple.
The Tigers’ fall to as many as six games below .500 ran concurrent to Jackson’s absence. This is no coincidence.
But in Detroit, we get enthralled by the scrappy, by the fast, by the underdog. I can still remember the cries for quarterback Mike McMahon when he played for the Lions as a backup—mainly because McMahon was mobile and ran around the backfield like a chicken with his head cut off. Certainly not for his passing skills.
Jackson, one of the premier center fielders in baseball, went down, and here came Berry, riding in from Toledo on what some people thought was a white horse.
Berry did his best at being Jackson’s stand-in. For a few games the Tigers got a lift from the journeyman. It didn’t hurt his standing that, at the time of his promotion, Boesch and Young were terrible.
But let’s not get carried away. Berry may not even be with the team come September. He might be long forgotten by then, as the Tigers, it is hoped, scramble for a playoff spot. Or, his speed alone may keep him on the roster. We’ll see.
Who will not be forgotten, who will not be a footnote to this season, is Jackson. And, I submit, Boesch and Young, when all is said and done.
Jackson has the potential to be the best all-around center fielder the Tigers have had since Al Kaline roamed there in the late-1950s.
No, I haven’t forgotten about Curtis Granderson.
Berry played his rear end off trying to give the Tigers Austin Jackson when they didn’t have Austin Jackson. For that he should be commended.
But not only is Berry no Jackson, he’s not even Boesch or Young.
Berry is who he is, and that’s OK.
Trouble is, too many fans believe him to be something that he’s not, and that kind of thinking never leads to anything good.