Greg Eno

Eleven years after being drafted, Maybin finally paying dividends for Tigers

In Baseball on May 23, 2016 at 3:20 pm

As a young, wide-eyed baseball player, making your big league debut in Yankee Stadium is about as heady as it gets.

The House That Ruth Built. Baseball’s Valhalla. In the greatest city in the world (just ask it).

It’s like a rookie pro golfer playing his first tour event in Augusta; a jockey coming out of the gate for the first time at Churchill Downs.

Cameron Maybin was 20 years old, gangly and as green as a freshly-picked banana, when the Tigers rang him and said, “When can you be in the Bronx?”

Nine days prior to that debut—which came on August 17, 2007—Maybin, the fleet-footed outfielder who was supposed to be one of those “five tool” guys when he was drafted 10th overall by the Tigers in 2005, was playing Single-A ball for the Lakeland Flying Tigers. On August 9, the big league Tigers bumped him up to Double-A Erie (PA).

Eight days later, he was in the big leagues, facing the big, bad Yankees. On their hallowed turf.

Geographically, it’s not terribly far between Erie and New York City. You probably wouldn’t even have to stop for gas, if you started with a full tank.

Erie is on a lake, and Yankee Stadium is on a river. So there’s that similarity.

But when it comes to emotional differences, the gap is the Grand Canyon for a ballplayer.

The Tigers, as a rule, have traditionally been one of baseball’s most buttoned down organizations. The owner loves star power, but when it comes to throwing kids to the wolves, the Tigers haven’t really been a team to do that.

Sure, Ricky Porcello made the team out of spring training as a 20 year-old and was immediately penciled into the starting rotation in 2009, but that’s not the same thing as what Maybin experienced two years prior.

Not even close.

The Tigers typically haven’t rushed players to the big leagues. Although it worked out pretty well for Al Kaline.

Maybin was 20, and was riding buses to towns such as Viera, Dunedin and Jupiter in the Florida State League, and ten days later he was in Yankee Stadium. And it was far from a meaningless game.

The 2007 Tigers were battling for a division title, and failing that, a wild card spot that they would eventually lose—to the Yankees. The Cleveland Indians eventually captured the AL Central.

The four-game weekend series in the Bronx (August 16-19) was as big as they come in mid-August. The Tigers won on Thursday, 8-5 and that kept them in first place by a half-game. The Yankees, from the AL East, had the same won/lost record but were in second place behind Boston.

On Friday, Maybin got the call that every young baseball player dreams of receiving: you’re going to The Show.

Maybin arrived at Yankee Stadium Friday afternoon, pulled on the road greys with number 4 on the back (the ghost of Bobby Higginson was still fresh) and was penciled into Jim Leyland’s batting order in left field, batting second behind Curtis Granderson. The Yankees hurler that evening was Andy Pettitte. No less.

Lord knows the name of the kid pitcher that Maybin faced the night before, in Double-A action.

Maybin’s “welcome to the big leagues” moment came early, in his first at-bat. Pettitte struck him out.

Maybin came up next in the third inning. Pettitte struck him out.

This wasn’t Double-A!

Things got serio-comic in Maybin’s next at-bat, leading off the sixth inning.

He tapped the ball in front of home plate, and umpire Chris Guccione called Maybin out for interfering with catcher Jorge Posada.

In three plate appearances in the bigs, Maybin had two punch outs and was called out for interference.

May as well get all the bad stuff out of the way, eh?

Maybin flied to right in the eighth inning. The Tigers lost, 6-1.

The next day, Maybin started again. On national television. Against Roger Clemens. It brought to mind images of frying pans and fire.

Leyland took some pity on the kid left fielder; he moved Maybin to ninth in the order.

Ah, but under sunny skies in the Bronx, Maybin managed a single off Clemens to right field, in the third inning.

Leading off the fifth, Maybin took the great Clemens deep to give the Tigers a precarious 2-1 lead. The next time up, in the sixth inning, Clemens plunked Maybin.

I’m sure it wasn’t intentional. Can typed words smirk?

The 2-1 Tigers lead didn’t last long; the Yankees went on to win, 5-2. And the Yanks won on Sunday, too—starting a freefall for the Tigers that wouldn’t end until they were practically mathematically eliminated from playoff contention in late-September.

In 2007, Maybin was 7-for-49 with 21 strikeouts. It was pretty clear that he wasn’t ready for the big leagues, despite his homer off Roger Clemens.

That December, Maybin was packaged in a trade with Florida that netted the Tigers one Miguel Cabrera.

maybin2

Maybin swings in Yankee Stadium in 2007.

It’s 2016 and Maybin is 29 years old and back with the Tigers. He has played in virtual anonymity in the big leagues for the Marlins, the Padres and the Braves since being traded from Detroit. Only the baseball nerds in Detroit have followed his career over the past nine years, since the teams Maybin has played for have never been relevant.

Right now, Maybin is red hot (12-for-20) since making his season debut last week, which followed a ridiculous string of weird injuries that began early in spring training.

The outburst earned him co-American League Player of the Week honors with teammate Cabrera, ironically.

This isn’t Maybin’s first sizzling stretch in the majors.

In 2008, as a September call-up by the Marlins, Maybin went 16-for-32 (.500), displaying some of the potential that the Tigers envisioned.

But in nearly 2,400 at-bats in the big leagues (entering this season), Maybin is a .251 hitter with 42 home runs and 116 stolen bases, playing for some stinker teams.

So what Maybin is bringing the Tigers now—a constant presence on the base paths, some sneaky power and an infectious, bubbling personality—is the team’s comeuppance, some 11 years after the 2005 draft. The Tigers went 5-1 last week, and Maybin was a huge part of that.

You can’t talk to a Tigers player right now without hearing Maybin’s name coming from that player’s lips.

They speak of his energy. They rave about his outgoing personality. And mostly, they love what he’s doing on the field.

Maybin is providing sorely needed offense from the lower third of the order (manager Brad Ausmus is batting him seventh), which too often has been a graveyard for Tigers rallies in recent years.

“Maybin has added length to our lineup, no question,” Ausmus said over the weekend. “That’s the thing — if you can get the bottom of your lineup hot and swinging that bat well and getting on base, now you are flipping your lineup over and you’re getting your best hitters coming up. That’s how you score runs.

“When teams go on offensive streaks is when the bottom of the lineup is hitting,” Ausmus added.

The Tigers are scoring runs. They’re winning. And right smack in the middle of things is Cameron Maybin, who still wears number 4 for the Tigers but, some nine years after that heady debut in Yankee Stadium, that’s pretty much where the similarity ends between the 2007 Maybin and the 2016 version.

He may not ever be that five tool guy that was projected for him in 2005, but with this Tigers team, and at his age, he doesn’t need to be.

It may have been a long way from Erie to New York City, but it’s no less of a distance between Atlanta—where Maybin ended up in 2015—and Detroit. The Braves might be the worst team in MLB.

Finally, Cam Maybin doesn’t play in anonymity.

 

 

Jackson’s Pistons start their championship path much like Isiah’s did

In Basketball on April 26, 2016 at 8:47 pm

The two basketball heavyweights went toe to toe in the choking heat and humidity of Detroit’s aptly-named Joe Louis Arena.

They traded punches all night in this, the deciding game of a first round, best-of-five series, played in a hockey arena because the makeshift basketball gym in Pontiac was booked—probably for a tractor pull or some such monstrosity.

Slug! A post up move, a dribble and a dunk.

Slug! A pull-up jumper from 20 feet—swish!

Back and forth they went.

The heavyweights weren’t the teams involved—the New York Knicks and the Detroit Pistons.

They were the two stars—Bernard King of the Knickerbockers and Isiah Thomas of the Pistons.

The year was 1984 and the Pistons were making their first foray into the NBA playoffs in seven years.

A well-coiffed coach named Chuck Daly was in his first season at the Pistons’ helm. Isiah was three years into what would be a Hall of Fame career. Daly was destined for Springfield, too.

Bernard King was a wily NBA veteran small forward who was absolutely killing the Pistons in the series, averaging over 40 points per game.

In the deciding Game 5, Isiah and the Pistons tried like mad to quell King, who was again making mincemeat of Kelly Tripucka, Earl Cureton and whomever else Daly put in there to defend Bernard.

But Isiah wasn’t going to let King eliminate his team without a fight.

In the final 90 seconds of regulation, Isiah shimmied, shook and shot his way into NBA immortality. Possessed, Thomas scored 16 points in those 90 seconds, literally forcing overtime single-handedly.

King, of course, went ballistic, scoring 44 points on the night.

But in the end, the Pistons’ first post-season action since 1977 went awry, as Isiah fouled out (35 points) and King and the Knicks triumphed in overtime, 127-123, ousting the Pistons for the summer.

It was a bitter, angry defeat, but all it did was steel Isiah and the Pistons for playoffs to come.

More playoff heartbreak would follow, but five years after that epic battle inside Joe Louis Arena in 1984, Isiah hoisted the NBA Championship Trophy in the locker room at the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood, CA.

Last Sunday, another Pistons point guard found himself in quite a bout, though this one was perhaps more lightweight versus heavyweight—for now.

Reggie Jackson, the sweat gushing from his pores, had the basketball and a chance for some mini-immortality around these parts.

He jacked up a three-point shot that, had it gone down, would have defeated LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love—three heavyweights—in a playoff game, giving the Pistons their first post-season win since 2008.

And it would have snapped the Pistons’ 11-game playoff losing streak against the Cleveland Cavaliers, to boot.

But Jackson’s shot wouldn’t drop, and Cleveland escaped with a 100-98 victory, completing a four-game sweep of the first-round series.

In the aftermath of the loss, Jackson, speaking to the media, seemed at times inconsolable.

The Pistons had fought gamely and as far as sweeps go, this one was highly competitive. The Pistons weren’t outclassed—they were out-experienced.

Jackson was especially irritated at the notion that his young team must wait for its time, which wasn’t this spring.

“It pisses you off,” Jackson said. “To hear it’s not your time and not your moment … it kind of seems like it’s not made for you necessarily to win, so you have to find a way to run through the wall, find a way to get over the hump.”

A day later, as the Pistons cleaned out their lockers, Jackson sounded more like Isiah, circa the mid-1980s. He was asked about the next step for his basketball team.

“Finals. That’s what I set each year. I want to win the title, so I’m sure the team does, as well.”

OK then!

They were much the same words that Isiah Thomas would speak in his soft but laser-focused voice, when the Pistons were making a steady, gradual rise through the NBA.

In Isiah’s world, the Pistons were simply destined to win a world championship. The only question was when.

It wasn’t in 1987, when a horribly ill-timed bad pass—ironically by Thomas himself—helped torpedo the Pistons against the Boston Celtics in Game 5 of the Final Four.

It wasn’t in 1988, when a ticky-tack, ghost foul called against Bill Laimbeer on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar helped crush the Pistons’ dream in the waning seconds of Game 6 of the Finals.

But in 1989 and 1990, Thomas and the Pistons made up for the playoff heartbreak of years past with back-to-back world championships.

Playoff heartbreak that began on a hot April night inside Joe Louis Arena.

You can dare to draw some comparisons between the Reggie Jackson Pistons of 2016 and the Isiah Thomas Pistons of the mid-1980s because both teams wandered back into the playoffs after an extended absence.

Both rosters contained a young core that figure to be together for several years to come.

And both teams had their heart ripped out in the final game of the year.

With any luck, we’ll look back at last Sunday as the baptism of Jackson’s Pistons and the April where the foundation of a championship-caliber team was built, albeit on the slab of discontent.

Maybe Jackson should give Isiah a call this summer. It can’t hurt.

Sometimes maddening Pistons can exorcise some demons against Wizards

In Basketball on April 8, 2016 at 6:54 pm

While that other winter sports team in town tries to keep a certain streak alive, the Pistons are trying to kill one.

It’s not too much to say that the Pistons, tonight, are playing their most anticipated game in nearly a decade.

The big games for this basketball franchise used to be played in May and June, with regularity. Memorial Days around here were filled with outdoor barbecues, beer and a Pistons (or Red Wings) playoff game on the tube. That was a long time ago.

But these days, the Red Wings play their biggest games in February and March, which has been their wont in recent years as they make their annual, frantic push to keep their “we made the playoffs again!” streak going.

And the Pistons?

Tonight, they’ll host the Washington Wizards at the Palace and the Pistons will be in the playoffs—no ifs, and or buts—if they can defeat the Wiz.

No getting in through the back door. No needing help from other teams.

Win, and they’re in—for the first time since 2009.

But that 2008-09 Pistons team—coached by neophyte Michael Curry and reeling all season from the November trade of Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson—was one of those token playoff teams that the NBA needs to merely fill out the opening round schedule. The Pistons were drummed out in four straight games by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Palace hasn’t hosted this big of a night since the 2008 NBA playoffs, which was the last time the Pistons were truly relevant in the league.

And it’s the 80th game of the regular season tonight, which shows you how far this franchise has fallen since the glory days of six straight Eastern Conference finals appearances (2003-08).

But this season has seen two numbers from those days being raised to the rafters (Billups and Ben Wallace) and a playoff team in the making as president/coach Stan Van Gundy finishes Year Two of his deconstruction and rebuilding job.

Under Van Gundy’s direction, the Pistons are on the verge of being a playoff team for the first time since 2009

 

It’s been an interesting though sometimes maddening season, if you follow the Pistons.

They have shown a confounding tendency to beat the good teams—sometimes on the road—while losing to the dregs of the league. They play stellar defense one night and look like pylons the next. The coach can’t heap enough praise on them one moment, then is tearing into his team’s effort in another few blinks of the eye.

It’s a team that beat the Golden State Warriors on the night Wallace’s no. 3 was retired, and just a few nights later was being lit up by its coach for dogging it.

The Pistons, at 42-37, possess the appropriate won/lost record for a your garden variety Jekyll and Hyde group of cagers.

Tonight, a win over the Wizards puts this sometimes perplexing, Dirty Dozen into the playoffs for the first time in seven years.

The Pistons have already clinched their first winning record since 2007-08. It wasn’t all that long ago when the Pistons were a 5-23 laughing stock, in Van Gundy’s first year as the boss.

So the Palace ought to be rocking tonight, and with good reason. I’m not here to throw cold water on the Pistons making the playoffs, which they are actually on the verge of doing in a year where, for a change, every Eastern Conference team in the tournament might have a .500 or better record.

And, frankly, this year’s Pistons might also be a token playoff team, likely no better than the no. 7 seed in a league that sees first round upsets more infrequently than we see leap years.

But they probably will win a game or two in the first round, whether they play Cleveland or Toronto, the two probable opponents that await them.

It will be a big night tonight. Maybe even the owner will show up.

The Pistons’ magic number to make the playoffs is one with three games to play. But who wants to qualify because another team lost?

Beat the Wizards and punch your post-season ticket.

It will be loud and festive at the Palace tonight, but it will only be a sampling of what the crowds will be like in Games 3 and 4 of the first round.

The fans in this town have never been much for NBA basketball if their team isn’t relevant, but give them a winner and they’ll show up—and be noisy.

Detroit is a front-runners basketball town, but it is what it is. Someone has to be fourth in a four sports burg. There really is no shame in that if you’re the Pistons.

The playoffs beckon for the Pistons. Van Gundy has had to overplay his starters in order to qualify, and that won’t help in the post-season, but you do what you have to do if you want to give your young team a taste of spring basketball.

The Pistons will likely be out of the tourney in about 10 days or so, but making the playoffs for the first time in seven years is a big deal—especially when in just about every one of those playoff-less seasons, the Pistons were essentially mathematically eliminated by Christmas.

It will be fascinating to see how the Pistons go about their business tonight against the Wizards. For so many of the players on the roster, this is the biggest game they’ve played in their NBA careers. Heck, Van Gundy said that about last week’s game in Chicago, which the Pistons scrapped and won with the Bulls breathing down their necks in the playoff chase.

It hasn’t been this big in the regular season for the Pistons in a long, long time.

Spring basketball is just around the corner—and the Pistons can go out there and grab a playoff spot, without any help, if they beat Washington.

It’s a start.

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