ANAHEIM, Calif. – Mid-afternoon Memorial Day, Brandon Inge came to work.
From the parking lot, through the Angel Stadium stands, along the dugout, up the stairs, down the hallway, into the visitors' clubhouse and straight to the lineup card, printed in looping black marker.
Given four possibilities – catcher, third base, center field, left field – Inge was listed, instead, with the reserves. The right-handed-hitting reserves.
"This," he said, "is probably going to be the worst year of my career in terms of being happy."
He sighed, rolled his shoulders helplessly, nodded toward the lineup with RODRIGUEZ at catcher, GUILLEN at third, GRANDERSON in center, JOYCE in left.
"It's frustrating," Inge said, "every time I see it."
Maybe he'd sit on the bench for Monday night's game, get a look at Los Angeles Angels right-hander Jon Garland. Maybe he'd go out to the bullpen, warm up some relievers. Two hours before the game, Inge wasn't sure.
The job requirements, like the Detroit Tigers' season itself, are a moving target to Inge. Against the Seattle Mariners last Wednesday, he started in center field, moved to left field for the sixth inning, then to center field for the eighth inning. The next day, he started at catcher. In six innings over two days, he'd played four positions.
He'd played third base nearly every day for the Tigers for three years. As their third baseman, he struck out to end the 2006 World Series. As their third baseman, he choked on enough dirt, chewed on enough railings, wore enough top-spin hops and hit – just enough – to warrant a $24 million contract over four years, following the 2006 season.
Now he stands with the reserves. The right-handed-hitting reserves.
Miguel Cabrera, one of the great bats in the game, came free in Florida. He played third base. Not very well, it turned out. He wouldn't last a quarter of a season at third for the Tigers, who, among their many maladies, are one of the worst defensive teams in the league and slid Cabrera to first base. But, Inge, a gamer at a time of too many posers and coasters, was all but done as a regular in Detroit, yet was trapped there by a contract that paid him for his many invisible contributions.
Fifty games in, months after he respectfully asked to be traded, weeks after he put his head down and took whatever glove manager Jim Leyland handed to him, Inge has played 10 games at catcher, 20 at third base, 11 in center field. He has played six innings in left, and nearly 300 innings in all. You want to know Brandon Inge? You want to know why it's not enough for him to show up and warm up pitchers in the bullpen and spell teammates and not feel enough a part of what's going on here? He's committed no errors. Two gloves, one mitt, four positions and zero errors.
"He's done very well, done OK," Leyland said. "And I've been tough on him, changing positions and all. That's tough. Some guys do it, some guys don't. But, he's a team player, a good teammate. He wants to play every day, no question about that. I wouldn't give you a nickel for him if he didn't want to play every day. … He's handled that whole situation very well, as well as can be expected."
For all their superstars, their payroll, their expectations, the Tigers aren't very athletic. It wouldn't be as important if their pitchers got around to being more effective. Or if Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney would get healthy. Or if a few of their big guys would hit with runners in scoring position. Now Gary Sheffield had to leave Monday night's game because of an "oblique spasm," they said, and it could only help the Tigers' lineup.
But, right about now, when it takes an eight-game losing streak by the Kansas City Royals for them to move out of last place for a few hours, the Tigers maybe could use another athlete on the field. They could use a grinder. They wouldn't want to lose Carlos Guillen's bat, but perhaps they over-thought their offseason by a trade, the one that brought Edgar Renteria for Jair Jurrjens (and outfielder Gorkys Hernandez). Without that deal, they'd have Guillen at shortstop (he misplayed three balls there Monday night alone), Cabrera at first, Inge at third and Jurrjens getting hitters out.
But, little by little, the offseason conspired against Inge, whose batting average and on-base percentage had fallen three consecutive years. He hates the choppy playing time, absolutely hates it, and then grabs a glove and plays as hard and smart as he can.
"It hasn't been easy at all," he said. "I was assuming I'd get traded, that they'd let me go. When they didn't, at that point I assumed it would be a pretty bad year, hanging back, taking what's given to me. When I'm in the game, though, it doesn't matter. I enjoy the game. So, just show up, keep the same good attitude, try to have fun."
Getting close by then to batting practice, Inge gathered his things, fixed his cap, started toward the door. It wouldn't be an easy trip. He would have to pass the lineup card again. The worst part of most days.