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.
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.