Why Jose Iglesias may be the happiest Tiger of all

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LAKELAND, Fla. – When he wasn’t dancing with Omar Vizquel to a song on a buddy’s cell phone, when he wasn’t goofing with the slightly macabre-looking Jack White about the singer’s batting skills (“You got some pop or what?”), when he wasn’t leading his 4-year-old son by the hand through the Detroit Tigers’ clubhouse, Jose Iglesias was belting out a tune himself.

The Tigers need Jose Iglesias' youth and steady glove. (AP)
The Tigers need Jose Iglesias' youth and steady glove. (AP)

“Every little thing,” he smoothed, “is gonna be alrrrright,” trilling the second R like he wanted to hold it forever.

Then he smiled and winked at Jim Leyland, the former Tigers manager who was sitting in golf shorts on a nearby bench and – because why not, it’s spring training – turquoise canvas shoes. Leyland was the last manager around here who’d actually seen Iglesias play.

By now you may have ascertained Jose Iglesias is happy and eager to get on with his baseball career, which may not sound like much for a 25-year-old, unless there’d been serious question about such things for a 24-year-old.

The Tigers had identified roster-wide aging (along with skill decline and Jhonny Peralta’s Biogenesis suspension) as a coming issue two years ago, when they already were regularly winning the AL Central. They’d traded in the summer of 2013 for the young and agile Iglesias and made him their shortstop. And then he did not play in 2014, not a game, because he’d developed stress fractures in both shins and, truth is, had been miserable for years before that.

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“I could go 4-for-4 and go back to the clubhouse sad,” he said.

He sat Thursday at his locker here, Jose Jr. not far and dragging a shoulder-height bat behind him. His son wore a tiny Tigers jersey, No. 1 like Jose, “IGLESIAS” across the back. They’d spent the better part of the past year together in Miami, a blessing in itself, along with Jose’s father, Candelario, who as a younger man had played some shortstop in Cuba as well. Jose defected in 2008 to chase the game, and then the pain came, as did the murmuring that maybe the kid just wasn’t tough enough, when it had been impossible just to go nine innings “and not be in the trainer’s room the next morning.”

So, yeah, every little thing …

He’d waited. He’d felt better, gradually. A few months ago he’d learned he would play again, that he’d healed and that after a year of Andrew Romine, Eugenio Suarez, Danny Worth and, briefly, Alex Gonzalez, the Tigers would have their shortstop back.

He’ll occasionally be sore. He’ll have to tend to a modified diet and his specialized training. But when the doctor told him, “The fractures are gone,” Iglesias would no longer be frightened. He’d wondered if all this – his career, his life the way he’d planned it since before he’d crept away from a Cuban team during a tournament in Edmonton, Alberta – had changed forever.

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This is what the smile was about. The plucky pregame conversation with White, whose anthem, “Seven Nation Army”, will be his walk-up music. The day at the park with his boy, “My little one,” he called him. The song about happiness. That too. So he sang and he danced, because once he was a regular shortstop in this league – with the Boston Red Sox and the Tigers – and once he hit better than .300 for most of a season, and now he has a chance to be that player again. That’s important here, where the Tigers appear to be teetering after the loss of Max Scherzer and the trade of Rick Porcello, the mediocrity of Justin Verlander, the offseason surgeries of Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, and a bullpen that looks less than sturdy.

Iglesias hit .303 in 109 games in 2013. (AP)
Iglesias hit .303 in 109 games in 2013. (AP)

Part of the Tigers’ offseason plan was a recovered Iglesias. They’d batted a league-low .223 at shortstop last season, and they didn’t defend like Iglesias can. Now, after his year away, Iglesias has a month to mind his shins and rediscover his game. He had what manager Brad Ausmus called “a light day” Thursday. There’ll be more of those, too. But, so far, it looks good, looks natural.

“He doesn’t look like he’s missed a year of baseball,” Ausmus said. “I really don’t think missing a year is going to be an issue.”

Iglesias’ last at-bat of 2013, the last time he held a bat in a competitive moment, he struck out. It was in Boston. The strikeout ended Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, ended the entire series. The Red Sox raced around Iglesias, onto the field and then to the World Series. They won that, too. And Iglesias was done for the better part of 18 months, though he didn’t know it at the time. He only knew he had to get to the trainer’s room.

Not anymore. It’s gonna be alrrrright. He’s sure of it.

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