Karma just hit Detroit Tigers fans with a Babe Ruth-sized bat.
The morning after the most unfairly jeered athlete in recent Motown memory was released by the team, outfielder Delmon Young was arrested for a possible hate crime in New York City.
Young did something Inge would never have done – embarrass the city he played in for so long. Instead, certain people in and around the city embarrassed themselves by lustily booing a 12-year Tiger because – gasp – he is no longer a good hitter.
And it wasn't just a smattering of boos. It was a torrent – as if Inge was Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators, Claude Lemieux of the Colorado Avalanche or the ghost of Juan Gonzalez's contract. Some fans actually laughed at Inge when he appeared at the plate last weekend. It got so bad that manager Jim Leyland devoted a soliloquy to defending Inge in a post-loss interview session Monday, assuring fans that it wasn't all Inge's fault the team was losing.
Mind you, Detroit Lions defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh was cheered by home fans after stomping on a Green Bay Packers player last November, failing to admit it and risking his team's playoff appearance in the process. And, really, there's not much wrong with that reaction: Suh is a hometown guy who has played well and given a lot to charity.
As for Inge? Well, he was drafted by the Tigers in 1998 as a catcher even though he had little experience at the position. He played his entire career with the team, all but wrecking his knees trying to backstop the worst team in baseball through a 119-loss season in 2003.
He was a stand-up Tiger even when the very fans that ended up despising him were too good to show up and cheer. He was active in the community, and photos of him with sick kids are still visible on gas station pumps throughout the area. He was happy to be in Detroit when it was widely thought big-name players would never again sign with the Tigers. (Remember how the acquisitions of Pudge Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez were major coups because at least somebody good wanted to spend a summer in the D?)
He willingly played unfamiliar positions as the team requested, and hit 27 home runs in the dream 2006 season, when the team came out of nowhere to make the World Series for the first and only time since 1984. He even made ESPN's defensive play of the year at third base. Inge hit 27 home runs again as recently as 2009, and made the All-Star team that year. Last season, he was sent to the minors and vowed to rebuild his swing. He did. Inge returned to the big club and played solidly during its playoff run.
Yes, he's a few weeks shy of his 35th birthday and his production has fallen off markedly. Last season he had almost as many strikeouts as total bases. But is that any reason to rattle Comerica Park with boos as if the man set a kitten on fire? And the venom wasn't just when Inge came to bat. In an off-season when the Tigers had news in the form of a Cy Young and MVP award for Justin Verlander, along with a key acquisition in Prince Fielder, the sports radio airwaves still belonged to the Inge haters, who were out for blood because he didn't seem to realize he was a terrible hitter. There were certainly those who loved Inge unconditionally, but eventually those people were drowned out.
Detractors may say it wasn't really Inge that was booed, but rather those who supported Inge. It was a bit like Tim Tebow (another No. 15), where haters don't really dislike the player personally, but rather the blind devotion to the player even when it's clear he doesn't have the talent to remain at the top level.
Yet the boos rained down on Inge himself. Those were the last sounds he heard after more than a decade in a Tigers uniform.
Inge was classy to the end – and past the end. Here's what he said upon hearing of his release Thursday: "The chance to go play maybe somewhere else might be good for me personally. But my heart will always be in Detroit, 100 percent forever. I appreciate everything that's happened here and every opportunity that I've been given. This is an emotional city. This is a city that will back you. They want their teams to do well. If they're not, they'll let you know, and there's nothing wrong with that. That shows they are fans. A fan that dislikes someone or that likes someone is still a fan. I respect them all, I really do."
Now, as has happened so many times during Inge's career, the Tigers have an unexpected hole in the lineup. That's because an allegedly inebriated Young is accused of shouting anti-Semitic remarks at a panhandler and getting into a tussle with New York City tourists at 4 a.m. on the morning before Friday night's game against the Yankees. Now that's worthy of public ridicule, and maybe an outright release, but this time Inge won't be around to fill the gap.
Brandon Inge isn't going down in Detroit history as Steve Yzerman or Barry Sanders. He simply wasn't that good. But you know what? There have been years when Detroit itself wasn't that good. During the bad times, though, the city always showed up and worked hard. That's something to commend, not something to revile. And still a sizeable part of Detroit turned on the man anyway. It's sad how Brandon Inge always saw himself in the Motor City, and yet in the end, the Motor City failed to see itself in him.
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