Nate Robertson the Last of a Dying Breed: The Year-Round Detroiter

Greg Eno@@GregEnoSenior Analyst IApril 3, 2010

DUNEDIN, FL - MARCH 22: Pitcher Nate Robertson #29 of the Detroit Tigers starts against the Toronto Blue Jays March 22, 2010 at Dunedin Stadium in Dunedin, Florida. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

They used to be scattered all over the state, particularly in the tri-county area.

The tony suburbs of Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills were popular for them, but towns like Washington and Livonia were home to some of them as well.

Theirs was a time when you not only played baseball for the Detroit Tigers, you stuck around to experience our winter months, too.

They weren’t commuters. The Tigers’ roster, when it contained names like Horton and Stanley and Lolich and Kaline, was liberally spread with guys who called Michigan home year-round.

Mickey Lolich lived in Washington, Michigan for most of the time that he pitched for the Tigers, and it took me until my grown-up years to finally learn that Washington was in northern Macomb County.

Al Kaline, though a Baltimore kid, made the Detroit area his 24/7 home. He wasn’t a commuter, either.

Every winter, they traded their bats and gloves for ice scrapers and mittens, those stay-at-home Tigers players did.

Granted, they were in essence indentured slaves, thanks to the eventually illegal but always improper reserve clause—that archaic mandate that said a player was the property of the major league team that owned his rights ad infinitum. Free agency was still a glimmer in someone’s eye.

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So it made sense, in a way, to keep a home in metro Detroit in those days (pre-1975) year-round, because if you were a Tiger, you’d remain one, until the team traded or cut you.

It was a time when players came up through the minor leagues together, became big leaguers together, and so formed a bond due to familiarity, if nothing else.

And they lived here. All year—not just during baseball season.

The Tigers player who was a year-round Detroiter wasn’t such an anomaly back then.

Nate Robertson has been traded. He’s a Florida Marlin now, thanks to last week’s deal that sent the lefty pitcher Robertson to the Marlins for a minor league pitching prospect.

It is the irony that is woven into the fabric of sports; Robertson has returned home, in a baseball sense, in a trade that has ripped him from his home, in a real-life sense.

Robertson was drafted by the Marlins, and was part of the Florida organization for several years before being acquired by the Tigers in January 2003.

Now he’s back with the Marlins, but during his tour of duty with the Tigers, Robertson liked our town so much he decided to plant roots here.

And he moved not to the fancy-shmancy suburbs of northern Oakland County, but to west side Canton, which could be described by a cynic as nothing more than a bunch of strip malls and some churches. When Ford Road is your main drag, you could make some jokes.

But Robertson fell in love with the area, and started his family there.

The Tigers fan base didn’t go into mourning and weep when Robertson was dealt, like it did when the Kewpie Doll Curtis Granderson was traded to the Yankees over the winter.

Curtis is a great guy, alright, but he was a commuter, too. For all of his kind deeds, Granderson is a Chicago homey and he didn’t move himself to Detroit year-round.

Some rogue elements of Tigers fans said they would no longer support the team—not even watch them on television—because Granderson was traded.

Granderson, the commuting Tiger from Chicago.

Robertson got traded last week and you could hear a pin drop in the Tigers community of supporters. The silence was deafening.

Nate Robertson, the year-round Detroiter, didn’t get much love from Tigers fans in the wake of his rather surprising trade to Florida. Robertson had pitched well in spring training, but got caught up in a logjam in the pitching rotation.

So off he went, and the eyes were noticeably dry among Tigers fans.

No one swore they’d never cheer the Tigers on again, as multitudes did when Granderson was moved.

Since when do we embrace the commuter more than the year-rounder?

“We made our life in Detroit,” Robertson said after the trade. “This is harder than normally getting traded, because beyond leaving a team, we are leaving home. This is really tough.”

Indeed, Robertson was the only Tiger in recent years to make his home in the Detroit area for 52 weeks every year.

Free agency, clearly, has been maybe the biggest culprit in this downward trend of year-round ballplayers. No one sticks with a team long enough, it seems, to make it worth it to sell a home and buy one, just for the sake of living year-round where you play.

But even the big shot guys, the ones with the long-term contracts and who are often the “face” of their respective franchises, they commute, too.

Carpetbaggers, the lot of them.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for Miguel Cabrera to have snowball fights with his kids in Michigan.

Nate Robertson was the last of a dying breed in this respect.

“We have so many friends there,” he said of Canton and the surrounding area. “There are people we know at church and in the community.”

These aren’t baseball cards that are being traded. These are people and families. Sometimes we lose sight of that.

Imagine being called into your boss’s office to be told that you will report to work tomorrow in Seattle, or Houston, or Kansas City. Tomorrow.

Not long before the Robertson trade was made, Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge announced that he plans on making the Ann Arbor area the year-round home for him and his family. Like the Robertsons with Canton, the Inges became enamored with Ann Arbor and want their kids to finish high school there.

Thanks to the Robertson trade, Inge will be the only one of the 25 Tigers to call the Detroit area home both in winter and summer.

It may not matter to a lot of fans where their Tigers heroes lay their hats in the offseason. But doesn’t hearing that Inge plans on entrenching himself in our community make you feel good?

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