LAKELAND, Fla. – Less than a year ago, Chris Shelton, a little-known first baseman, went on one of the greatest hitting jags baseball has ever seen. In the Detroit Tigers' first nine games, he smacked seven home runs. He added a pair over the next four. For two weeks, he made Babe Ruth meager, red hair cool and the Tigers into a team that believed in itself.
And today, in all likelihood, he's going to be sent to the minor leagues – again.
"I never forgot how to hit," Shelton said Sunday afternoon, and he said it with such confidence it was easy to miss the hidden lament.
What should be the greatest accomplishment of Shelton's professional career has turned, rather cruelly, into his greatest pox.
Over the first 13 games, he hit .471 with nine home runs, 17 RBIs and a slugging percentage that looked more like a currency exchange rate (1.216). In his final 102 games – during which he slumped through June, lost his starting job when the Tigers acquired Sean Casey in July and endured a month-long pit stop at Triple-A in August – he hit .242 with seven home runs, 30 RBIs and slugged .348.
Success backfired, and with the Tigers re-signing Casey, it cost Shelton his job. Even though Shelton has looked in spring training more his April incarnation than June's, hitting close to .400 and leading the Tigers in extra-base hits, he might be the odd man out when manager Jim Leyland decides whether he prefers a strong bat like Shelton's or versatile fielder like Neifi Perez or Ramon Santiago.
"It's a double-edged sword," Shelton said. "When you get off to a start like that and hit normally again, it's not good enough.
"But I wouldn't change it. I'd go through it again in a heartbeat."
All of Shelton's career he had been doubted. Rare is the ballplayer from Utah, rarer the one who could hit like Shelton. Still, no one seemed to pay him too much mind. His 6-foot, 200-pound body didn't pass scouts' subjective eye test. He didn't have a true position, vacillating between catcher and first base. Even after he hit .340 and .359 in back-to-back A-ball stops, the Pittsburgh Pirates exposed him in the Rule 5 draft.
Here he was, finally the center of attention. Not just in Detroit. The baseball world started looking at the Tigers' box scores to see what the No. 6 hitter had done the previous night. Each time, the tale grew: two home runs on opening day, followed by two more, then a two-triple night, a five-RBI series against Chicago and another two home runs against Cleveland.
"I knew at some point it wasn't going to continue," Shelton said. "It couldn't. In my heart, I wanted it to. It would be exciting to stay on that pace. But I knew better."
Never did Shelton anticipate such a precipitous fall.
As Detroit streaked toward a large lead in the American League Central, Shelton's focus lapsed. The first two weeks had drained him. He set an unreachable standard for himself, and all of it was fodder for national consumption.
The Tigers, meanwhile, had turned into the game's feel-good team. Jim Leyland had rescued them, and Magglio Ordoñez had played like a $75 million man, and Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya had matched 100-mph fastballs. And, bigger than all of them, some no-name, a 25-year-old who looked like one of Peter Pan's lost boys in his team picture had done his best to imitate the all-time greats.
"We wouldn't have made the World Series without Chris," Tigers shortstop Carlos Guillen said. "Who knows how many games we would have won in April?"
Surely not 15.
And still, this spring Shelton seems dispensable. Leyland pulled one of his mad-scientist tricks, tried outfielder Marcus Thames at first base and loved the results. With Thames available to back up Casey, Leyland's predilection toward keeping an extra utility man, Perez's $2.5 million contract and Shelton's remaining option to be sent to the minor leagues without losing him to another team, all the forces are conspiring to send Shelton back to Toledo.
"We just have to figure out how does our club make out the best with that last spot," Leyland said. "We've got to figure out, are we better with Shelton, Perez, Santiago? Which way are we better?"
Tough to answer. Because no one can say which Shelton would show up during the regular season.
"I'm just hitting like I hit," he said. "Nothing's changed."
Sometimes, Shelton tries to convince himself that's true. He knows better. He feels more honest with himself now, more willing to say no when people ask for something. And at the same time, he feels less secure, his job teetering the wrong way, his options limited, his April days of '06 recounted and rued.
"It's definitely been a year to remember," Shelton said, and he was right. Good, bad and indifferent, he grew into himself.
"And hopefully," he said, "we can have another one this year."
This time, one that ends as well as it began.