The world is looking rosier to the Detroit Tigers. With an effort, the frustration of last year's fourth-place finish can almost be forgotten—a finish, incidentally, which from a certain point of view might have been something to cherish. After all, it was the first time in six dismal years that the Tigers had lifted themselves out of the second division. But when your club boasts four .300 hitters and two 20-game winners, as Detroit did in 1956, you feel you can expect richer rewards from life. The Tigers certainly did. When the long season ended, though, their fourth-place spot was only a game and a half better than sixth place, and 20 full games behind the champion Yankees. Instead of four .300 hitters there were none; and there was only one 20-game winner around.
Now Manager Jack Tighe claims with disarming unsophistication that lessons have been absorbed: "I think we'll be a better club for it this season. I know I've learned a lot in the past year. Last year at this time in spring training, I couldn't see anything wrong with the club. You might say I was lulled to sleep by all that proven talent out there. And I was feeling pretty good about managing in the big leagues for the first time.
"I've learned a little more about handling the men. How to keep them in the right frame of mind. I've learned that when a big leaguer does something wrong, he feels worse than I do. Some react differently, that's all."
More alarmingly, Jack Tighe also discovered that .300 hitters are not automatically and permanently attached to that dizzy eminence; they can sometimes hit .270. And that two 20-game pitchers can wind up another season winning only that many between them. That's what happened when the Tigers, the widely touted dark horses of the spring, limped into the fall as a mediocre .500 ball club.
March 31, 1958
"We thought we'd do better last year after analyzing the potential of some of our guys," continued Tighe frankly. "We didn't look for any of the eventualities that did happen to us. We didn't concentrate enough on defense. When you get right down to it, it was the defense that hurt us the most. When our hitting and pitching didn't live up to their advance notice, we didn't have anything else to fall back on. [The Tigers ranked last in the league in double plays, seventh in assists and total chances.] This year I know where this club can be weak. Last season I fooled myself on that. All our thinking has been to make moves so that if those guys don't hit again, we won't be so badly off. We didn't do that last year."
The Tigers have done just that. They picked up Jim Hegan, a 37-year-old veteran who is rated one of the best defensive catchers in the majors. They picked up reserve outfield and pinch-hitting strength with Gus Zernial, Bill Taylor, Jim Greengrass and Lou Skizas (now trying to make the team at third). They got Gail Harris from the Giants to give Ray Boone a rest at first base. But most of all, the Tigers outmaneuvered veteran player-grabber Frank Lane and came up with Billy Martin in the off season's biggest player trade.
"We got Martin to play shortstop, and Harvey Kuenn is moving to center field," the Detroit front office announced calmly—and the protests flared. How could the Tigers move the American League's All-Star shortstop to a position he's never played before, to accommodate a second baseman who has only played a handful of games at short? Martin can't play shortstop! Kuenn can't play center field!
It sounded like a bold experiment and it is—probably one of the boldest ever made in a spring training camp. And it's certainly the biggest baseball news to come out of Florida or Arizona this year.
"We didn't move Kuenn because we think he's a lousy shortstop," explains Tighe generously. "Granted he was never a cat out there, but he was adequate. We simply think Martin will be better. Kuenn started to lose his quickness after he broke a small bone in his foot late in the 1956 season. Another thing that has hurt him is his size. He's a big man and his bending isn't quick. He lost some of his agility around the bag and going to his right. He's always had fast hands, but his size, more than anything, has been against him at short."
Coach Billy Hitchcock, a former infielder by trade, says, "I have a feeling Harvey always wanted to play in the outfield. In past years he was always going out there to shag flies. You don't see infielders doing that. He's always had good hands. You should see him out there scooping grounders one-handed—like Willie Mays—and whipping the ball in. He likes it in center field."
"One thing you've got to remember," emphasizes Tighe. "Kuenn wants to make the move. It's not a case of the management forcing him against his wishes. He told me he wanted to play center field."
So far, Harvey Kuenn has shown that he can play the outfield. Tighe concludes: "Kuenn is a highly intelligent man and knows a lot about baseball. You won't see an infielder's throw out there. He knows how to throw overhand with a snap. Harvey Kuenn's arm right now is better than Jim Piersall's. From what Kuenn is doing down here he looks like he'll make it. But I want to reserve final judgment until he gets around the various parks in the league. Then we'll know for sure whether he can play center field."
Even more baseball people scoffed at the idea of Martin at shortstop. "That's all right with me," reacts Martin. "I'm glad they say I can't make it at short. It just makes me want to do it that much more."
ALREADY AT HOME
In his own not-so-quiet way, Martin has been showing the Tigers that he will be able to play shortstop. "I'm confident. It just takes time. You have to get the feel of it. Already I'm starting to feel at home there."
This spring Martin came into the Tiger camp five days early and started right in. Johnny Pesky, the former Red Sox shortstop and now a Detroit minor league manager, worked with him for two weeks. While Martin was on the field, Pesky kept a notebook on everything he did. Then the two would go over it. "He's going to be a good shortstop," says Pesky enthusiastically. "He learns fast. He's quick-moving, both with his hands and with his feet. Don't worry about his arm. He can make the deep throws. He's got it up here."
"Martin's first big trouble," says Tighe, "was daring the runner with his arm. You can't do that at short. So he's working to get rid of the ball fast. I didn't want him to feel that he had to make this team at shortstop and thus put too much pressure on him. So I told him that if he ever feels he can't play short, to tell me. Martin looked at me as if I was crazy and said, 'I'll never be in to see you. I'm going to be your shortstop.' That guy wants to play short so bad he can taste it."
Martin has already given Detroit a lift defensively—and morally. "There is something different about this club this year," Tighe finds. "There's spirit here. And it's due to one guy—Billy Martin. There's even been singing on the bus, and we never had that before. On our last bus trip to Sarasota Billy carried song sheets aboard, started everyone off.
"But that's only one of many small things. Martin keeps talking about winning, and the players think they can win. The way they're playing here convinces me. They want to play and they're playing harder. It's something you can see when you're close to a team. I looked for it last year and thought it was there. But it wasn't true. This year it seems these guys really believe themselves.
"You can pin a lot of it on Martin. If a guy makes a good play, he's right over there to tell him. Every action of his is to win. He tells the others it doesn't matter how good you hit if your effort doesn't help the ball club. It's bound to be contagious. The big thing he's going to do for us is make those players realize how good they are. He can get a guy to play better baseball. He's a natural leader, and he'll be in the spot on our club where it will show. He's right in the middle of all the activity where he can radiate that spirit. His own physical performance may not always help you to win, but what he does for the others is what may do it. That applies to Jim Hegan, too, in a different way. What he can get that pitcher to do is the most important thing, not his batting average."
NO FUN ON TV
Martin himself sees it this way: "The difference is wanting to win and wanting to play. The way they're acting, they want to win this year. We've got the men. It's just a matter of playing together as a team. I've got to get into another Series. It's no fun watching it on TV."
Some observers of the Tigers don't think they've helped themselves. The management thinks they have. Yet there is no infield or pitching depth on the club. Despite the success of the bold experiment to date, the fact remains that the spine of the team—shortstop and center field—is in strange hands. Some Detroit sports-writers have adopted a show-me attitude. They've seen too many Tiger spring wonders droop in the heat of the season.
Nonetheless, this is an intriguing team. It ought to be able to shake up the overfamiliar pattern of the American League pennant race. And—if all the question marks get the right answers—this just might be a big year for Detroit.