Published June 8, 2019
Once upon a time, big league baseball teams signed kids off the “sandlots.” It’s almost an antiquated term now, reserved for old fogies like yours truly.
The sandlot ballplayers were treated as diamonds in the rough. They played the game for their local Little League organizations or teams that were sponsored by small businesses in the area. For every 100 such kids, big league scouts might find one who they’d drool over.
The sandlots were so named because the fields on which these kids played were crude versions of a baseball diamond. No plush, green grass in the outfield–more like glorified weeds instead. Rocks in the infield, which was nothing but dirt.
The sandlots gave us Albert William Kaline, who was on a big league field at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park as a Detroit Tiger at age 18 years.
The sandlots also gave us William Wattison Horton. In the 1960 City Championship game at Tiger Stadium, Horton, of Northwestern High School, blasted an opposite field home run into the upper deck in right field.
The rocket earned Horton the nickname “Willie the Wonder.”
Tigers personnel weren’t quite waiting for Willie at home plate with a contract for him to sign, but it was close. They were giddy with thoughts of what the powerful, muscular Horton could do, hitting in the cozy confines of Tiger Stadium.
They don’t really use the term sandlots anymore, but another high school phenom has Tigers personnel giddy.
Riley Greene is 6’2″, Hollywood handsome and swings lefty. He’ll be a hit with the ladies, for sure. But Greene could look like Quasimodo for all the guys care, as long as he uses his smooth stroke to deposit baseballs into the stands with regularity.
Greene, 18 years young, was drafted sixth overall by the Tigers in last week’s MLB Draft. He’s fresh out of high school, and that’s a literal phrase. There’s probably still some graduation cake left in his family’s fridge.
The young stud was at Comerica Park on Friday, chomping at the bit to take some batting practice. “Batting practice is like my favorite thing to do, ever,” Greene said, sounding like an 18-year-old.
But he hits like a big leaguer. CoPa turned into a fish bowl on Friday, and Greene was the exotic fish that everyone wanted to study. Kaline was there. So was Jack Morris. Several current Tigers. Owner Chris Ilitch. The media.
Greene put on a show, including battering a baseball off the Pepsi sign, deep into the right field stands.
Then a poetic moment occurred.
Miguel Cabrera was a young stud once. In 2003, at 20 years of age, wearing no. 20 for the Florida Marlins, Cabrera’s first big league home run was a walk-off in extra innings. The video shows a much slimmer but no less powerful Cabrera.
After Greene’s BP, the poetic moment took place. Cabrera, 36 years old now, much less slim and his body breaking down, couldn’t even negotiate the dugout steps, due to a heavy wrap around his lame right leg. But he wanted to greet the 18-year-old.
The meeting was a symbolic changing of the guard. The old, banged up warrior and the young, fresh-looking slugger who’s destined to replace him.
Greene, starstruck, could only utter “Thank you” to the several compliments that Cabrera gave him about his swing. When Miggy asked Greene if he was indeed only 18, Greene said simply, “Yes.”
It’s amazing how meeting an idol reduces your vocabulary to nearly nothing.
Greene said that he was looking forward to meeting Cabrera, and when he did, the kid could hardly speak.
But the Tigers didn’t give Green a $6 million signing bonus to be verbose.
Oh, how the Tigers need someone of Riley Greene’s ilk. After drafting power pitchers to death, the Tigers realized that they are woefully lacking in big bats in their minor league system. Literally no one is coming through the pike that can be realistically envisioned as that big bopper in the middle of the order for the Tigers. No one who can get the fans’ juices going.
Big time pitching is great, but that’s not what’s going to put fans back into the seats, or what’s going to, by itself, turn the Tigers into contenders again. What did all that big pitching do for the current and recent New York Mets, who didn’t have the offense to quite back it up?
The fans aren’t going to pay top dollar to see a pitcher take the mound every fifth day. Even a rotation filled with big arms isn’t going to do that. Fans want to see offensive fireworks. They look around MLB and see electrifying offense and wonder where it is for their team. Some of those big bats used to wear the Old English D, which doesn’t help.
Fans want to see dudes who play every day, who strike fear into opposing pitchers. Guys who’ll make them put their hot dog and beer down to watch.
Miggy Cabrera used to be that kind of player. So was Willie Horton.
Greene’s ascent through the farm system will be closely monitored—by fans and team personnel alike. His big league debut will be the most anticipated by a Tigers player in years. Decades, even.
The Tigers have been awful, frankly, at drafting offense over the years. But they’ve had their eyes on Greene throughout his high school career. Other so-called draft experts agree that the kid from Florida is the real deal. Maybe the Tigers have gotten one right this time. Maybe.
Greene won’t be slipping on a big league uniform at age 18, as Kaline did. He won’t win a big league batting title at age 20, as Kaline did. But at least he’s a position player—an outfielder who wants to gobble up the expansive center field in Comerica Park as soon as possible—who the fans can get excited about. Finally.
Set the clock and hit start.