The catcher’s gear dangled and hung on him like dad’s suit on a kid playing make believe. Thanks to the ill-fitting chest protector and shin guards, he looked like the loser of a bet as he traipsed from the dugout.
He took his position behind home plate as the Tiger Stadium crowd murmured. He was the answer to the question from the half-inning before: Who’s going to catch NOW?
Tommy Brookens was the funny-looking guy wearing those tools of ignorance that day, when injuries and the game’s personnel jockeying left manager Sparky Anderson with no one to function as catcher.
In a 15-inning marathon on July 20, 1985, Brookens, the Pennsylvania Poker third baseman, had to don the gear and catch the final five innings against the Texas Rangers. He did so flawlessly. Retrosheet.org tells us that Tommy caught five innings, made seven putouts (all strikeouts), and committed no errors. The Rangers stole two bases against him, but neither hurt the Tigers, who won 6-5 in walk-off fashion.
The Pennsylvania Poker moniker was given to him by Ernie Harwell, a nod to Brookens’ being born in Chambersburg, PA.
Brookens looked like a PA Poker. He was a stub of a man who choked up and had a short, compact swing. He poked the ball, alright. If he hit a home run, it was by the accident of physics, not due to any great power.
Brookens never played in a clean uniform. I swear he’d run out to his position at third base at the start of the game, and by the time he took his spot, his threads were dirty.
Brookens was the primary third sacker for the Tigers from 1980-88, although he was mainly a defensive replacement during the storied 1984 season. He was a career .246 hitter who never hit more than 13 home runs in a season.
Yet he was behind the plate that July day in 1985, because no one else wanted to do it, basically. Sparky asked around, and Brookens raised his hand. So he switched from his comfort zone at the hot corner and moved behind the plate. From the frying pan into the fire.
It was that kind of attitude and team-first approach that ingratiated Tommy Brookens with the baseball fans in Detroit. The PA Poker became a favorite, because the people around town could relate to him: not the most talented guy in the world, but someone with a heart as big as Belle Isle.
Tommy could play some third base, too. He wasn’t Brooks Robinson, or even Aurelio Rodriguez, but he wasn’t an iron glove, either. He had some range, and could throw guys out more often than not.
Tommy would hit his .250 and accidentally hit his eight homers and knock in his 50 runs and not hurt you in the field too much. He came to play everyday, and didn’t bitch.
Brookens played 12 years in the big leagues because of that last sentence.
Now he’s back with the Tigers, as first base coach and tutor of the outfielders, and it’s about damn time.
The spot was created when Andy Van Slyke chose not to return, and manager Jim Leyland didn’t wait too long before naming Brookens as AVS’s replacement. Tommy had been managing several years in the Tigers’ organization, and he made no secret of his desire to do so at the big league level.
Leyland, no stranger to minor league managing himself, has known Brookens for over 30 years, and he was more than happy to add Tommy to his staff.
“I’ve known Tom for 30 years,” Leyland said when he hired Brookens last November. “He’s been around in spring training and has been a great manager for us in the minor leagues. Tom is a tremendous baseball person with tremendous people skills.”
Brookens, 56, said he began thinking about getting back to the big leagues in 2003, and took a job at the lowest level of the minor leagues, managing at Oneonta, in order to pursue that goal.
“I’ve been a player who went through the good and the bad. I started and sat the bench,” Brookens told Steve Kornacki after being hired by Leyland to coach first base. “I’ve run the whole gamut. Teaching the fundamentals will take care of itself, but I’m capable of relating to players better from my experiences. Coaching is about relationships and trust.”
I’m not the first to play this hunch, but don’t be surprised if the next manager of the Tigers is the Pennsylvania Poker. And something tells me that that would be just fine.