It’s never predictable when the professional athlete will break down, physically. Chalk it up to genetics, perhaps. Some players are freaks of nature. Who can explain why Brett Favre played one of the most physically punishing positions in sports with Lou Gehrig-like durability?

Why is it that the quarterback Favre played 19 seasons and hardly missed a start, and the basketball player Greg Oden is like a man made of salt who was left out in the rain?

When the break down happens, it can come suddenly, without warning. And it’s often very uncomfortable to look at.

I’ve written it before, how the great Willie Mays made me wince as he stumbled around in the outfield as a 42-year-old in the 1973 World Series, playing for the New York Mets.

I remember watching Steve Carlton turn into a vagabond pitcher, lugging his worn out left arm from city to city in a desperate attempt to stay in the big leagues.

Brandon Inge is a 34-year-old third baseman who appears to be crumbling into pieces before our very eyes.

Inge is the Tigers fan’s piñata. He symbolizes, to some, all by himself, everything that ails the team. Callers to the sports talk radio shows in town take great glee in verbally smacking Inge, passing the stick to the next caller so he can take his whacks. The hosts aren’t any more kind.

Some of the beat downs haven’t been without justification. Inge, at his best, has never been more than a .250 hitter with the pop to slam an occasional home run. He strikes out too much and doesn’t have any plate discipline to speak of. This has been going on for 10 years now.

It’s stunning, in a way, that Inge has managed to stick around in Detroit for a whole decade, given his numbers. But at the same time, it’s not crazy, because of his nifty glove work and lunch pail attitude, which has always endeared athletes to the folks in this burg.

But what’s been happening in 2011 has been indefensible, even by Inge’s staunchest supporters. The numbers don’t lie, and the truth they tell is grisly.

Next to Inge’s name is a .183 batting average, a single home run and 17 RBI. Even the golden glove has been mostly bronze.

Yes, there was the bout with mononucleosis last month. But Inge has recovered from that, yet the production hasn’t been any more prolific since he returned to the lineup.

Before the mono, there were injuries to both knees over the past two years which haven’t helped matters.

When the Tigers break spring training camp every year, when it comes to Brandon Inge, you can expect about a .230 batting average, maybe 20+ home runs, 70 RBI and a boatload of strikeouts. And pop outs. And grounding into double plays. Rallies go to Inge’s bat to die.

I heard a funny joke on sports talk radio last week, from one of the piñata whackers.

Question: “Who bats after Brandon Inge?”

Answer: “The other team.”

It’s garishly funny, and also sadly true.

No one in Detroit expected all that much from Inge, offensively, when the Tigers headed north in advance of their March 31 opener in New York. Few folks ever do.

But this has been off the charts bad.

Inge’s troubles with the bat are so dumbfounding and perplexing that it’s clear no one in the Tigers brain trust, starting with manager Jim Leyland, has a clue what to do about it.

“We’re kind of grasping at straws,” Leyland was quoted by the papers recently, when discussing his third baseman’s nightmarish season.

I didn’t expect much from Inge, either, but I didn’t see .183 coming. I don’t think even Inge’s biggest haters saw .183 coming.

Inge shouldn’t be the target of abuse anymore, because this is beyond a guy in a slump. This is pathetic.

There isn’t a more confused, lost, clue-free hitter in baseball—with the possible exception of the White Sox’s Adam Dunn—than Brandon Inge.

Making fun of Inge now is borderline cruel. It’s like laughing at a guy in a wheelchair.

What no one is suggesting among the Tigers’ hierarchy, at least not publicly, is maybe the simplest explanation of them all for Inge’s struggles.

It could be nothing more than a guy who’s at the end of his career.

Inge is 34, which isn’t ancient but some players wear down sooner than others. All those games that Leyland let Inge play in recent years as a nod to Inge’s reputation as a “gamer”, when in reality the third sacker should have been on the disabled list, are now coming home to roost.

That’s how I see it, anyway.

Everyone is over-analyzing this—both the Inge haters and supporters.

But what if Brandon Inge is just…done?

I’ve complained in the past about the Tigers organization’s inability, for 10 years, to find anyone who can help Inge improve as a hitter. From his big league debut on April 3, 2001, Inge has been mediocre at the plate, and no one has been able to coax even modest improvement.

So who is going to help him now?

But it is probably a moot point; no one can help him because Inge is on a slippery slope to the end of his career. He’s 34 and the light at the end of the tunnel might be a freight train.

His body is likely beginning to come unglued, along with his mind. Inge drags his bat to the plate and he goes up there and flails away. His body language isn’t comforting.

Valiantly, Inge says positive, optimistic things to the media about his tiny numbers. He’s going down swinging—pun intended.

Soon a decision may be made about Inge’s future. The Tigers know they can’t call themselves a contender with a third baseman hitting .183. It would pain them, but the Tigers might be forced to release Inge and eat his contract, which pays him about $6 million a year.

It would be hard to imagine another team taking a flyer on him, should the Tigers cut him.

Brandon Inge might be done, and there’s no shame in that. But there can be plenty of humiliation, which is what he’s going through right now.

It’s not funny. The end of a career never is.

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