I have, over the course of moving from baseball deprived Indiana to baseball batshitcrazyinsane Boston, become a fan of the game. I, like the vast majority of American boys, played little league growing up and always followed baseball, but more from a "disinterested party" viewpoint than a true fan. I could eloquently argue - and often did - which shortstop I would want to build a team around in 2002, and I could probably name you the division leaders at any given time during the season, but it never really occurred to me that some people live, breath, and die with a team. Until Boston.
It was easy to be a Red Sox fan in 2005. And I know, I should - as Brian put it - just go ahead and get Duke shorts, and a Laker's jersey and just get it over with, but I feel like I didn't really have a team other than the Pirates (who I grew up loving. Also: unwatchable), and in Boston you're either with the Red Sox, or you're miserable for a good portion of the summer which is really the only time one can be "happy" in New England. I jumped on that bandwagon and haven't let go. And oh - rooting for a contender is fun! Who knew?
In a fantastic book by David Halberstam entitled "Summer of '49" the author recounts the players that always fascinated him as a youth. They weren't the superstars: DiMaggio, Williams, Yogi. Those guys already had the genetic kiss from God (or whoever, really). They didn't need his help. The guys he pulled for were the still very good, but journeymen players who scraped every day. Pitchers like Ellis Kinder and 2nd basemen Bobby Doeer. I feel a certain kinship with that line of thinking in the players I root for. Guys like Mike Lowell, Jon Lester, Tim Wakefield and Jason Bay (even pre-Red Sox, remember, Pirates fan...). I know my audience here, and I'm not pandering, but guys like Miguel Cabrera (who is about to crack into super-stardom and lose some appeal) and Dontrelle Willis (I will root like hell for that kid, even though it looks like he may be done...) are two other guys I like. And my favorite Tiger - one who is getting a chance to be honored this All Star Break - Brandon Inge.
Inge broke in with Detroit in 2001, which I'm sure you'll remember was not the best time to be a Tiger, but his first real season with more than 100 games played was 2003, where the Tigers proceeded to lose 119 games. Inge was the catcher. In 2004, the Tigers acquired Pudge Rodriguez who supplanted Inge as the every day catcher. Inge was moved to a utility player who spent time 3rd base, catcher, and all three outfield positions. In 2005, he continued to play musical positions, but didn't catch a game. That season he managed his career high 160 games. He would go to the ballpark and conceivably not know what position he was going to play, and still managed to play in nearly every Tigers game. Do you think Manny would do that?
In 2006, the year the Tigers went to the World Series, Inge settled into the starting 3rd baseman role hitting .253 and earning a career high 83 RBI's. Solid numbers. Not All-Star numbers. In 2007, he continued to be the starting 3rd baseman. In 2008, however, he found himself out of a job. Over the past 2 seasons he had the stability of being the starting third baseman, and now? Back to being that utility player. He caught games for the first time in 2 years. He played outfield. He sat on the bench. But when he was in, man, the kid was trying. I don't recall him ever making a sour comment to the media, or loafing in right field. I never remember his sitting in the box and taking 3 piped fastballs (ahem, Manny, again) in protest. I do remember him being willing to do what it took for the team to be the best team they could be - and if that meant riding the bench and being available for a pinch hit, so be it. Inge has faced adversity, maybe not in a physically limiting way, but in a mental way for sure. He lost his starting job, and instead of moping his way out of the Big Leagues, he hustled his way back in.
And now, 12 months removed from losing his starting job, he is the final man in on the All-Star roster for the 2009 season. Back at third, he is batting .264 and is on pace to shatter his career high RBI's with 54 so far. And instead of shrugging off the accomplishment as something that was expected, or feeling slighted that he wasn't chosen sooner, he had this to say:
"Probably, the best thing that would ever happen to me in baseball. I’ve been thinking about this since I was a little kid."
It's always fun when a player you've rooted for for a long time succeeds. I know I felt that way when Lester threw his no-hitter last year after I had been following his career through the minors, cancer, and the bumps along the road in the Big Leagues. I feel the same way now. No player deserves recognition, and is more cognizant of the fact that this is indeed an honor and not an expected achievement, than Brandon Inge. Brandon, good for you.