Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Everyday Andrew: Why Romine is the Key to the Tigers in 2015

Danville, Kentucky – I consider my time working the assembly line at the GM Plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky, to be some of the best years of my life. It’s natural to get romantic about throwing a no-hitter or your third honeymoon, but I hold nothing but profound nostalgia for my days assembling the cars that folks would make treasured memories in. The best part about the GM plant is that there were no superstars. Every man in that factory put their head down and turned in a hard day’s work, laboring on behalf of their families with no fanfare or recognition. 
The Bowling Green GM Plant, Pre-NAFTA
At that industrial hell-pit in Bowling Green, a man worked, and provided, regardless of whether or not their efforts were celebrated or rewarded with love and affection. For my co-workers and I, the grim pleasure of wiping dirt and sweat off your face once you got home brought all the satisfaction a man needed.

Baseball is nothing like that GM plant. Baseball has always been a game of heroes – like Pete Rose, Jimmy Maloney, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Cabrera, and Omar Infante. In the cat-and-mouse game that unfolds at least three times per half-inning between a pitcher and batter, baseball is a game of individual accomplishment or individual failure. When a man strikes out or hits a dinger, the shame or glory belongs to him alone, despite the best efforts of nerds who want their statistics to control for external variables like team defense and park factors. 

Nonetheless, baseball is a game where the contributions of every-man utility players like Mike Aviles or Eric Sogard can make a difference come October. Fans of the Detroit Tigers (a team I have admired since my Uncle Bert from Flint taught me about the ’68 champions) know this fact all too well. Fans of the Tigers remember the times when everyday unsung heroes like Don Kelly played whatever position they were ordered to without asking questions and without trying to be flashy. Like my companions at the GM plant, guys like Don Kelly come to work and do their jobs with competence and grace. Sometimes, these men play hero; like when Mr. Kelly hit a dinger in game 5 of the 2011 ALCS, or his walk-off sac-fly in the 2012 ALDS. But at the end of the day, blue-collar guys like Don Kelly go home, kiss their wives and tuck their kids into bed without the expectation that they will ever be immortalized with bronze statues or Hall of Fame plaques. They play for something bigger: the team.

If the 2015 Detroit Tigers are going to have a season that ends in Autumnal glory and not a bitter Winter of discontent, they’ll need contributions from the guys who don’t have multi-billion dollar contracts or super-model girlfriends. For proof of this, the Tigers need only look up in the standings at the small-market Kansas City Royals, a team of guys allergic to flashy rally-killing extra-base hits, but who are All-Stars in their own right because of their quiet excellence with the glove and their ability to advance the runner. Lots of commentators and nerds look at the Tigers and proclaim them doomed now that the larger-than-life slugger Miguel Cabrera is injured. Old-timers like myself know that a team like the Tigers can weather the storm if the rest of the team holds true to each other.

You can gauge the intelligence of a baseball fan by asking them how they feel about their team’s 25th man. The sports-talk radio listeners and angry twitter types will rave and curse the GM for allowing the 25th man to be on the team’s roster in the first place.

The flip-side of the irate twitter ranter is the know-it-all fangraphs-following fan. These ignorant spreadsheet-gazers will look at the lack of plate appearances, pedestrian bWAR scores, and unexciting ISO numbers and dismiss guys like Andrew as “replacement-level” players. Those of us who actually watch the games can see that Andrew is already building a resume of Donnie-like selfless deeds. Back in April, he got on base to set up Jose Iglesias’s walk-off hit vs. the Chicago White Sox.

He’s quickly endeared himself to the true fans by reliably playing a variety of infield positions, with the occasional sneaky-dinger.

Yet, the value of guys like Andrew doesn’t show up in the box-score or on a fangraphs chart. When bench players like Romine or Josh Wilson pitch in a blow-out game, they quietly save the bullpen and keep their team in a position to win for the long-term. When they selflessly lay down sac bunts, they’re not fretting about their OPS+ or WRC, they’re thinking only about helping their team in whatever way they can. They don’t always swing for the fences and know when to shorten their swing, and when to work the count and take some pitches. They humbly take their base and give bigger bats the opportunity to drive them in. In the clubhouse, they help ensure that the team is focused, but loose.
Championship teams are often loaded with big-name players, but for every superstar there’s an unassuming role-player behind him. It’s easy to forget this, but MVPs like Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera need guys like Don Kelly in the same way that Frodo needed Sam. Frodo wouldn’t have gotten very far without Sam. Without Donnie Deeds and his clutch sacrifice flies, Justin and Miguel wouldn't have gotten very far either.

It’s easy to be pessimistic about a team like the Tigers at a time like this – when 2011 Justin Verlander seems like a distant memory and Miggy’s sole contribution to the team is his endearing live-tweets. These are times that would drive uneducated fans to despair or panic. But those of us who watch the games and not ZIPs projections know that baseball is a marathon, not a race. Baseball is a game that rewards the patience of fans who stick by their team in times of trouble and in times of triumph, calmly sipping Kentucky Deluxe and stroking the bristly fur of their loyal Basset Hounds on their favorite chair on their favorite patio in their favorite city. These days, I find that patience increasingly tested as my Cincinnati Reds wallow in mediocrity, but I still make my daily pilgrimage to the Lexington Chili's to drink margaritas and watch their games all the same.

Gene Lamont knows the virtue of patience all too well. In spite of the hot-headed basement-dwellers on twitter calling for Brad Ausmus to be fired and for the roster to be blown up and rebuilt, Gene will look out pensively from the Tigers dugout as Andrew Romine takes the field to dutifully play whatever position Mr. Ausmus asks him to. As he gives Andrew a friendly pat on his behind, Gene will smile wryly in spite of himself, secure in his faith that these boys will play to their potential come Autumn.

Jim & Gene, dugout guardians.