Two Detroit sports underdogs peeled off their uniforms for the last time as members of their respective teams, and they both did it on Thursday.
While that’s not where the similarities end, the endings couldn’t have been more different. The only thing the cessations of their careers have in common is that they happened within hours of each other.
At approximately 4:30 p.m. Thursday afternoon, Brandon Inge was called into the manager’s office, and he certainly must have known what was cooking. When Inge stepped into Jim Leyland’s lair and saw that GM Dave Dombrowski and assistant GM Al Avila were also there, the trio likely didn’t even need to say a word.
Inge was out, given the ziggy by his patient-to-a-fault bosses.
This wasn’t so much a release as it was a mercy killing.
Inge’s baseball career in Detroit had become that rabid dog in To Kill a Mockingbird and the trio of Dombrowski, Avila and Leyland had no choice but to shoot it dead.
Detroit doesn’t have the reputation of Philadelphia or other tough sports burgs when it comes to booing its athletes out of town. The Motor City sports fan has a lot of forgiveness in his blood, sometimes to a fault.
But when it comes to Inge, the much-maligned utility man, there’s no question that the people had spoken. The Tigers organization, like any responsible customer service-based business, had no choice but to listen.
Inge, along with his .100 batting average, was jettisoned after Thursday’s game against Seattle. He was the butt of a wry and mean-spirited joke.
“Who bats after Brandon Inge?”
Answer: the other team.
In the end, there were one too many pop-outs, one too many strikeouts and one too many mistakes in the field. And each was followed by the cascades of booing in Comerica Park usually reserved for the superstar Tiger-killers from other teams.
I believe that last weekend’s unmerciful booing of Inge is what sealed his fate with the Tigers.
As the Tigers dropped three of four to the vaunted Texas Rangers, and as the entire team struggled to match forces with the two-time defending American League champions, Inge was hardly the Lone Ranger—as Leyland would say—when he struggled to to scratch out a hit.
But no Tiger was booed as savagely as Inge was as one at-bat after the other of his ended badly. He was the dead man walking—or in his case, striking out.
There was a stirring and murmuring in the crowd every time Inge strode to the plate against the Rangers, kind of like there is in those courtroom scenes in the movies.
A weekend of this and the organization that shuns drama decided to put an end to it on Thursday.
In the end, watching an Inge at-bat was—as the late, great sportswriter Jim Murray would say—like watching a guy walk into a noose.
About three hours after Inge was cashiered, Ben Wallace slipped on his Pistons jersey and his blue headband, and took the floor for what is likely the last time in his 16-year NBA career.
Nine of those seasons were spent in Detroit.
Boos didn’t rain from the Palace, however; far from it.
Wallace, who started the game at the insistence of coach Lawrence Frank, was greeted with a standing ovation by the sparse but grateful crowd. A video testimony of his brilliance as an undrafted player from Virginia Union played during a timeout. His Pistons teammates all donned blue headbands in honor of the man they call Big Ben.
The Pistons won, blasting the Philadelphia 76ers out of the gym, 108-86.
After the game, the 37-year-old Wallace appeared noncommittal about his future. After vehemently declaring that retirement was imminent earlier in the year (via ESPN), who among us will be surprised when he hangs up his sneakers and headband for good?
Inge and Wallace both arrived in town around the same time—Inge in 2001, Wallace the year prior.
Both were blue-collar players in their respective sports with less talent than most of their brethren, but with work ethics that dwarfed most.
Both were, at times, the face of their franchise.
You have now reached the end of the Similarity Zone.
Inge never left Detroit to play elsewhere, even when his bosses tried to show him the door. Wallace, on the other hand, grew mystified by coach Flip Saunders and took his act to Chicago in 2006 via free agency.
Ben Wallace and Chicago weren’t a good match. Just two years after inking a deal with the Bulls, Wallace was shipped to Cleveland. It didn’t work out very well with the Cavaliers, either.
By 2009 Wallace was back in Detroit, yet another prodigal son welcomed back by the sports faithful here.
Meanwhile, Inge was a loyal Tiger. Even when the team replaced his star with the likes of Ivan Rodriguez, Miguel Cabrera and, by proxy, Prince Fielder, Inge was like a warped Dickens character.
“Please, sir, I want some more.”
Both Inge and Wallace made All-Star teams playing in Detroit, but while that may appear to be a similarity, it really isn’t. Inge’s All-Star year (2009) was an aberration, while Wallace was a multiple-time All-Star who was Defensive Player of the Year four times.
Then there is the end of their respective careers in Detroit.
Inge was driven out of town, done in by poor performance and customer dissatisfaction. Wallace was lauded and cheered, all the way until he disappeared into the tunnel leading to the Pistons locker room.
But there is one more similarity.
Both Brandon Inge and Ben Wallace wore their team logos as if branded onto their heart. Even though Wallace fled via free agency, it wasn’t anything personal against the city or its basketball fans. It was hardly a surprise when Big Ben returned in 2009.
Inge, for his part, could have done a money grab last summer when the Tigers designated him for assignment. Yet he chose to stick it out, serve his time in the minors and hope for a call-up, which he got.
It’s ironic that this final similarity did nothing to diminish the extreme disparity of how Inge’s and Wallace’s commitment to their team and their city influenced their exits.
Detroit vilified Inge, but portrayed Wallace as a hero.